Margaret Thatcher famously referred to publicity as the oxygen on which terrorists depend. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who replaced Osama bin Laden as the leader of al-Qaeda, agrees, claiming that his organization and its enemies are “in a race for the hearts and minds of our umma [the Muslim community]” and that more than half the war is taking place on the “battlefield of the media.” Their goal is to spread a false narrative — that the West aims to humiliate Muslims and destroy Islam. We who aim to stop them have been slow to respond with a counternarrative — that jihadists are killing innocents, the vast majority of whom are Muslim; that they are exploiting vulnerable youth as cannon fodder; that jihad is not an adventure; and that our goal is to fight terrorists, not to harm Muslims or disrespect Islam.
So it was long overdue when the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) announced it would be launching a media campaign called “Think Again” aimed at English speakers considering joining jihadist groups. An earlier effort in Arabic, Punjabi, Somali and Urdu appears to be successful. Ambassador Daniel Benjamin, involved in developing the original campaign, says, “We could see that the bad guys were watching and were concerned” that the videos could harm their recruitment drives. The new campaign signals the CSCC’s recognition that they must also target American or European would-be jihadists with Western passports.
The “Think Again” Twitter account shows images of what jihad is really like, including an image of three Americans who “came for jihad but were murdered by al-Shabab,” an al-Qaeda-affiliated group in Somalia that has been recruiting U.S. and Canadian citizens. It’s a tiny pilot program, says Alberto Fernandez, who is in charge of the effort. And indeed, he is right. A quick review of the quality and sophistication of the first English-language video put out by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (formerly known as al-Qaeda in Iraq) makes clear what the State Department is up against, and why they will need to scale up the campaign.
The media arms of al-Qaeda-related groups are escalating their attempts to attract Westerners. Among the most slick of the online magazines is the now infamous Inspire, which encourages recruits to act on their own at home, to “make a bomb in the kitchen of their mom.” Unaffiliated terrorists and “lone wolves” and dyads are harder for law-enforcement personnel to penetrate and stop. Only a few will succumb to al-Qaeda’s murderous ideology, but as we have seen, even small numbers of determined terrorists are a threat to us all.
This became all too apparent in April 2013 when the Tsarnaev brothers followed the recipe that appeared in the first issue of Inspire to produce the pressure-cooker bomb they used to tragic effects at the Boston Marathon. In the most recent issue available online, a person identifying himself as Tamerlan 2 writes:
“I wish I am in America….I used to think the same as you, until I met brothers in the training camps … Surprisingly many of them wish to live in America. They have one gentle project to carry out; detonating even one bomb in any crowded area. They wish to be lone mujahideen like Tamerlan. Many of the brothers who made Hjirah [migration] from the West wish they have a return ticket, returning home heading for mom’s kitchen…. Brother residing in the West, grab your chance and walk steadfastly towards your goal. As for me here in Yemen, whenever I move around with explosives around my waist, I wish I am in America.”
Perhaps most troubling is the extent to which foreign fighters, including from Western countries, are flowing into Syria, where the opposition to President Bashar Assad has been taken over by jihadist groups. Syria has replaced Afghanistan and Iraq as the “destination jihad” du jour, where foreign volunteers are learning how to use increasingly sophisticated weaponry and tactics, ones that they can bring back home. A recent study by Thomas Hegghammer of the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment estimated that at least 1,200 European citizens have gone to Syria to fight. An estimated two dozen Americans and Canadians have also joined the jihad there.
Like all terrorist movements, al-Qaeda too shall pass. But for the moment, it’s on a path to rejuvenation. The kinds of counterterrorism policies America has employed abroad — whatever one may think of their long-term utility — are mostly not applicable to radicals bred in the West. Few Western governments would consider deploying unmanned aerial vehicles in New York City or Paris. The individuals and groups we are fighting are mutable and globally spread, with constantly shifting agendas, locations and alliances. Above all, we are fighting a bad idea, rather than a group with a physical address. It’s time to recognize that such a protean enemy requires multiple and constantly shifting responses, including fighting for people’s hearts and minds with words and images of the reality of jihad. There is nothing glamorous about it.