The Cipher Brief’s Executive Producer and Reporter Leone Lakhani, spoke with Haras Rafiq, CEO of Quilliam, to discuss how the organization works to counter the narratives propagated by extremist groups. According to Rafiq, to effectively combat extremist narratives, we have to “use all the tools available to us, especially social media, because that’s one of the biggest ways to get messages out quickly,” and ensure that the messaging is “targeted so that every single person who wants to get involved in this understands what his or her role is.”
The Cipher Brief: One major counterterrorism challenge is combatting the sticky messages disseminated by extremist groups, which appeal and resonate with the disaffected, the disillusioned, and those who are struggling with their identity. How do you create an alternative message to these people and how do you sell it?
Haras Rafiq: The first thing we have to do is to dissect the radicalization process. Every person’s journey is unique. Each individual goes through a different timeline, but there are some commonalities. The first part is that there are some genuine partial or perceived grievances that every individual faces in their day-to-day life. Then there are people – charismatic recruiters – that will create a worldview or world lens, if you like. We call it Islamism, as opposed to Islam, the faith.
Islamism is a political ideology that has two objectives: set up a utopian Islamist state and impose a particular version of sharia law, and then spread it around the world. Islam is a religion practiced by over one billion people worldwide. They create this lens through which solutions to their problems can be found and where there is an actual justification of violence.
Within this lens, there are seven key stages that are part of a progressive thought process. The first five are:
Creation of the other – anybody who is in the group is the same, and everybody who is not in the group is another.
Collectivization – everybody who’s not in the group is the same.
Oppression narrative – everybody outside the of the group, Muslim or non-Muslim, is oppressing those in the group.
Collective guilt – everybody who’s not part of this worldview is complicit in the oppression.
Supremacism narrative – everyone in the group is better than everyone outside of it
Up until this point there is no violence. This is not the kind of recruitment done by al Qaeda or ISIS. What al Qaeda and groups like ISIS and Boko Haram do is tip people over the edge into the last two stages.
The sixth stage, self-defense, is absolutely important and deems that people have to retaliate for the aggression and defend themselves. Finally, there is an internalization of violence, meaning violence is the only way to act.
To combat this narrative, we must break the messages up into the violent and non-violent parts. Then we have to deconstruct them. Then we have to counter them. The bit that’s missing – and has been missing for a while – is to provide alternatives.
TCB: How do you deliver that message? Does it matter who delivers it?
HR: First of all, we have to recognize that this is a problem for civil society, and that you don’t have to be somebody of color to take on racism. You don’t have to be homosexual to struggle against homophobia. Everybody has a role to play.
Second, we have to use all the tools available to us, especially social media, because that’s one of the biggest ways to get messages out quickly. People tend to live in echo chambers, and we need to penetrate those echo chambers.
The messaging needs to be targeted so that every single person who wants to get involved in this understands what his or her role is. For example, in the UK, we have a safeguarding policy where it is statutory law for teachers and people within national health and other such institutions to look for the signs of radicalization and to do something about it. A lot of training has been provided as to what they can do.
Teachers need to make it very clear to youngsters, through critical thinking, that the values that extremists send to children are not messages that we will accept in our society in the same way we wouldn’t accept racism.
TCB: So you are saying that you can live in the West and keep your faith?
HR: Absolutely. And Muslims have done it for centuries. This whole utopian Islamist narrative is contemporary, it’s new. It actually can be quite attractive to people who are struggling with some form of grievance. We need to get back to the point that as youngsters, as individuals, we don’t need to look at that Islamist lens to actually find solutions to our problems, because there are a whole range of other things available. Don’t use faith to say, “God wants you be a part of this lens and the only way you can be a Muslim is if you’re a part of this lens.”
TCB: What are some of the key findings you have learned from monitoring extremist propaganda?
HR: Take ISIS as an example. We monitored their actual propaganda last year for one full month, and we found that less than five percent of the propaganda coming out of the region is barbaric. The rest of it is focused on concepts such as mercy, victimhood, and state building, which shows that the ISIS recruitment propaganda is much more sophisticated and subtle than just the barbaric output that makes the headlines.
The second thing is – something that shocked me – was that there were over 38 unique pieces of official propaganda coming out of Iraq and Syria from ISIS every day for the duration of that month.
In the past, we’ve been a bit like rabbits in headlights. We started looking at the quality of propaganda from ISIS, “It’s Hollywood style et cetera,” rather than actually dissecting it and analyzing it.
TCB: What was in that propaganda? What messages do you send to fight it?
HR: As I mentioned, less than five percent is barbaric. Of course, we have to highlight the barbaric elements and we have to persuade people that they’re not going to achieve anything. Even if you want to be part of the global Muslim ummah (community), you don’t have to be violent.
The other propaganda fits into a number of categories. The first one is the concept of forgiveness. Telling people that, “If you have committed sins in the past, come and join our gang, and you will find redemption. God will forgive you.”
You also have propaganda related to state-building, and here we have things like, “Nobody in the West wants you. Come to the land that really wants you, the land of Muslims. Help us build the state, and we will accept you.”
Then there are concepts such as self-defense. “Come and help us fight the oppressors.” It’s about helping people understand within the West, “You don’t have to, and shouldn’t join this gang, in order to practice Islam.
It’s really about countering these messages, using a whole range of theological, political, social, economic tools. Then moving forward, we have to understand there have been initiatives in the past that haven’t been as effective, because people have responded in a blanket way rather than in a more targeted way. That is changing now.
All we have to do to stop somebody from blowing themselves up is to create that one percent doubt in his or her mind. But that’s not the end point. The real end point is in helping to de-radicalize and rehabilitate them.
TCB: How important are government policies or foreign policies in the battle against radicalization? You have argued that there is too much emphasis on foreign policy or government policy. Why?
HR: I am not saying that foreign policies of any government don’t help recruit others to Islamism or terrorism. Of course, they are part of the grievances. But on its own, it will not persuade somebody go out and become a terrorist.
What do our foreign policies have to do with a Muslim leaving the UK or U.S. and traveling thousands of miles to join ISIS, kill Muslims, and take Yazidi sex slaves? There were a million people that marched against the Iraq War in the UK, including myself, so if it’s strictly policies, why aren’t there a million jihadists?
Islamist recruiters will use aspects of foreign policy to get people to become part of the global Islamist ummaa by helping to build on constructs, such as “The West doesn’t want you. The West is at war with you.” This helps push more people towards the lens and that way of thinking. But on its own, it’s not something that will make people become violent.
TCB: Your research has found that measures like airport profiling or stop and searches are counterproductive when identifying potential terrorist threats. Why is that and what are the alternatives?
HR: First, how do you profile an Islamist terrorist? You can’t do it by the color of their skin. You can’t do it by the length of their beard. You can’t do it by the way they dress. You can’t do it by their name because only a very small percentage of people – in the UK, 0.02 percent of the Muslim population – have gone out and joined ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
So how do you make sure that everybody’s safe, and how do you not discriminate against other Muslims and everybody else? A much more effective way of doing this is using a combination of behavioral profiling, based at the airport itself, so that every single person that a traveler comes in contact with at that given point – it could be a ticket handler, it could be a baggage handler, it could be somebody in security – has been given training on what types of behavior to look out for.
But it needs to start before that as well. For example, people who are going to carry out terrorist attacks on planes probably will not go and buy tickets using a credit card or direct debit card. So even the way tickets are purchased can be a potential flag that somebody can look at.
The other thing is, it’s not just people with Muslim sounding names. There was the attempt by Richard Reid to use his shoe to blow up a plane back in 2001. He used his non-Muslim name. If you profiled people by their faith, he would never ever have been caught.
TCB: There are Muslims with ultra-conservative views, but they don’t necessarily advocate violence. How do you know when to raise the alarm?
HR: There’s a mistake that people often conflate religiosity with extremism and violent extremism. It’s not always the case. When people display values that are at an antithesis to our liberal, secular democracies, those are values that should be challenged.
When we find people propagating direct support for violence, or for jihadism, and either fundraising, recruiting, or making a video – it could be something where direct support for violence is expressed either online or offline – that’s the point that we need to ensure that the authorities are involved. In the UK, a lot of threats have actually been foiled by Muslims sounding the alarm on other Muslims when they have reached that point.