Why is it important to talk about radicalization when we talk about ISIL?

Why is it important to talk about radicalization when we talk about ISIL?

Justina Poskeviciute*
On Feb. 11, after more than six months since the U.S. launched its bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq, U.S. President Barack Obama motioned Congress to authorize U.S. military actions against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). This authorization would enable the president to take measures against potential ISIL-related threats in an undefined geographical space – placing virtually no limits on this campaign that could lead down a military rabbit hole. While mainstream media appears to accept the military solution as the only viable way to fight ISIL, studies on terrorism reveal structural drawbacks of such an approach.

Theories of radicalization

Scholars have identified several dominant factors that motivate members to join terrorist groups. Martha Crenshaw, a political scientist and author, distinguishes areas of vulnerability that may motivate individuals to endorse violence. One of these areas is perceived injustice and humiliation, which also helps terrorist groups to establish the “us vs. them” ideology. Crenshaw categorizes certain conditions into motivational pre-conditions and triggers. Similarly, radicalization researcher Matthew Francis’ article identifies one of the main causes (or triggers) of the 2005 London bombings as U.K. foreign policy, specifically, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sociologist and Islam expert Farhad Khosrokhavar adds that not only is radicalization related to poverty and social exclusion, but it is also fostered by discrimination and social segregation, which can affect individuals from all socioeconomic classes.

Marc Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist and former CIA Operations Officer, analyzed the profiles of over 500 radical Muslims. He concluded that the radicalization process, though not always linear, consists of four stages: (1) moral outrage experienced by an individual due to perceived suffering by Muslims globally, (2) interpretation of suffering caused by powers waging war against Islam, (3) equation of this suffering with his/her own personal, negative experience in the West (e.g., discrimination), and (4) joining a terrorist cell. Sageman’s conclusions both reinforce and exemplify some theories of radicalization and disprove the stereotype that only less educated or psychologically unstable individuals are inclined to join terrorist organizations.

History of US foreign policy as an ISIL recruitment tool

Since the 1980s, the U.S. military has invaded, occupied, and bombed 14 Muslim countries and has bombed seven during Obama’s presidency alone. U.S.-led drone attacks have become textbook examples of political impunity, while its financial and military support to various rebel groups in the Middle East and South Asia has stirred controversy once revealed to the public.

Finally, a former CIA Senior Interrogator, Matthew Alexander, eloquently connects theory and context in his interview for “Democracy Now” (2011). He talks about the interrogations he oversaw and that the majority of interrogated al-Qaeda foreign fighters stated that the main reason why they decided to come to Iraq was due to the images of torture and abuse of detainees of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay. Then, Alexander explains that this pattern is not merely opinion: “The Department of Defense tracked these statistics. … [E]very interrogator who arrived there [was briefed] that torture and abuse was al-Qaeda’s number one recruiting tool.” 

As former al-Qaeda in Iraq, it is difficult to imagine why ISIL would not use the same strategy, blaming U.S. involvement in the region to reinforce the “us vs. them” mentality and to recruit its foreign fighters. The number of which, according to The International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, has been soaring since the U.S. bombing campaign began and has recently reached 20,000 members.

Structural limitations of military solution

“We cannot defeat al-Qaeda. We cannot defeat violent extremism by stopping terrorist attacks,” says Alexander in the same interview. He goes on to conclude, “What we have to do is stop terrorist recruitment. That is the only way to put an end to al-Qaeda, is when they can no longer recruit fresh fighters. That has been the downfall of numerous terrorist organizations.” Regarding present day Iraq and Syria, it is clear that as long as U.S.-led military coalitions serve as a recruitment tool for terrorist groups, they cannot be stopped by more rising military mobilization.

However complex, radicalization is not a phenomenon beyond our comprehension. We simply cannot afford to see it as a rootless occurrence, just like we should not see ISIL as existing in some sociopolitical vacuum. After first clandestinely supporting what decades later became al-Qaeda, the U.S. also contributed to the emergence of ISIL by enabling radicalization through its military and cultural antagonization. To ignore this correlation would mean blindly plunging into a long-term military conflict, which we might witness if Congress votes in favor of Obama’s plan of action.

*Justina Poskeviciute is a freelance political commentator.