Opportunities to Combat Violent Religious Extremism
The shocking gains by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the ongoing attacks of Boko Haram in Nigeria, and the Pakistani Taliban’s grinding insurgency are among the most vexing examples of violent religious extremism and terrorism in the world today. These and other groups, motivated by a twisted religious ideology as well as factors unique to their circumstances, often use faith to justify their heinous attacks on innocents. The violence is spreading, resulting in acute violations of human rights that jeopardize the stability of fragile states.
In looking for a strategic response to these troubling trends, the State Department’s 10th Country Reports on Terrorism provides an inflection point for discussion.[i] Mandated by Congress to provide “a full and complete annual report on terrorism,” the report covers over 90 countries and identifies numerous terrorist organizations around the world. Its reporting and overarching Strategic Assessment provide a useful resource for policymakers interested in the role of religion in foreign policy and religion-based terrorism.
The report’s Strategic Assessment again finds that Al-Qaida, its affiliates, and its fellow travelers “continue to present a serious threat to the United States” and its allies. At the same time, it notes that international efforts have drastically degraded Al-Qaida’s ability to launch attacks. The report also identifies a new “worrisome trend” of terrorist violence fueled by “sectarian motivations,” singling out Pakistan, Syria and Lebanon. For instance, it highlights how both sides of the Syrian conflict have attracted extremist fighters by citing the need to protect their communities and religious sites from attacks by the other. It correctly notes that civilians often suffer the most from sectarian attacks. It also recognizes the increasing concern of American and European security agencies that foreign fighters will return home with a violent worldview and fighting experience.
So while AQ structures have been degraded, these successes have not addressed rising sectarianism. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), where I work, has similarly identified violent non-state actors as one of the new challenges facing U.S. human rights diplomacy in the 21st century.[ii] No longer are states the sole repressor of religious minorities and dissenters, as they are increasingly targeted by extremist groups and terrorist organizations.
Much like the “Netwar” concept advanced by John Arguilla and David Ronfeldt,[iii] these non-state organizations seek to gain advantages by centering themselves around a particular faith tradition, using both licit and dark networks to advance their goals. These groups seek to exacerbate societal cleavages or prejudices to advance their religio-political agenda. Wrapping themselves in the flag of piety allows them to justify their heinous acts as divinely inspired, while trying to ingratiate themselves within a larger faith community. The wider world views them as terrorists, but they see themselves as faith-based organizations. Reading the statements of Mullah Omar in Afghanistan or ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi shows that, much like the Blues Brothers, they believe they are on a “mission from God.”
Unlike that fictional cinematic duo, these groups, networked through faith and criminality, use religion and politics to advance a deadly theocratic agenda. Such dark faith-based organizations employ sectarian violence to advance their agenda, finding space to operate in failed or failing states. They are beyond the reach of traditional diplomatic engagements, so new approaches are needed, ones that both counteract their ideology and prevent further violence. Understanding what makes them tick and what messages are successful in recruitment are key.
Returning to the Country Reports on Terrorism, the report could do more to equip policymakers to understand and address these developments. For instance, the report is inconsistent in pinpointing these groups’ motivations in the various country contexts. The Strategic Overview never describes terrorists with a religious modifier, such as violent religious extremism or Islamist extremism. Later on, the report uses the term “Islamist” repeatedly to describe extremist groups in many country chapters, yet not all of them. The uneven use leaves the reader wondering what ultimately inspires individuals or groups to commit acts of terror. The report is also inconsistent in identifying effective governmental responses to religious-based terrorism. Several country chapters, particularly in Africa but also the MENA region, highlight interfaith work. Only the Central Asian country sections cite religious freedom violations as creating possible grievances for terrorist attacks. The linkage between instability and rights violations is on point and should be made across the board.
Having edited similar reports at the State Department and other government entities, I understand the challenges of ensuring consistency across large documents with multiple authors and stakeholders. It is not easy. Yet more evenly attributing motivations and highlighting solutions would help policymakers better understand the challenges and possible responses.
Why? The events of 9/11 and the Arab Awakening revealed an urgent need for the United States to better understand the importance of religion, religious actors, and religious freedom in the conduct of its foreign policy. Today both democratic forces and dark networks of transnational organizations are vying against each other and old authoritarian rulers for influence and power. Complicated issues intertwining religion and society, law and governance, and rights and responsibilities are being debated, sometimes for the first time, in the context of revolution and confusion.
In addition, the world has witnessed an information and travel revolution. People and cultures are interconnected in ways that were inconceivable just two decades ago. With a click of a button, extremist networks can share videos extolling violent religious ideologies. At the same time, coreligionists can share messages of peace. News about human rights abuses, which once had to be smuggled out, now can be seen the same day in capitals around the world via text messages, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.
Facing a multilayered contest between nations and transnational movements with a religio-political agenda, the United States must move beyond the traditional state-centered approach to address increasing violations by sectarian non-state actors. Change has started in that direction: the terrorism report recognizes that the U.S. response cannot rely upon “military or law enforcement alone.” It requires a “whole-of-government counterterrorism effort” focused on countering violent extremism (CVE), bolstering partner security forces, and building relationships.
That’s a good start, but it should be more, and not limited to counter-terrorism. The State Department’s new Faith-Based and Community Initiatives office could help coordinate U.S. government efforts across multiple offices, bureaus, and agencies, as laid out in the U.S. Strategy on Religious Leader and Faith Community Engagement.[iv] In addition, increasing the focus on freedom of religion and belief would help societies create the open civic space needed to debate and debunk violent religious themes. For instance, rights could be integrated into the agenda of the Global Counter Terrorism Forum (GCTF), while the poor domestic record of many GCTF members likely makes that unlikely.
Still, imbedding a rights agenda into USG efforts to amplify CVE activities would strengthen local actors while also countering arguments that the U.S. government wishes to instrumentalize religion, using faith-based groups as a means to a counter-terrorism end. What makes the United States different from other nations who manipulate faith, is the U.S. government’s commitment to protecting freedom of belief and related human rights. It is an important distinctive, yet one not emphasized enough or brought into the highest levels of diplomacy. Tied to rights work should be messaging about the benefits of religious pluralism -- both interfaith and intrafaith. The religious diversity of the United States, and our history of grappling with discrimination, provides another unique strength. Integrating rights and tolerance work into CVE efforts would enhance engagement across the board. All of these efforts together would reduce the lure of violent extremism, as well as build durable community resilience to violent messages.
The United States and its partners face immense challenges to combat terrorism and counter the rising tide of violent religious extremism. Can the U.S. government pivot to a broader approach, a “both/and” strategy where the various offices and agencies that engage on religious themes tie into a larger effort? A kinetic or law enforcement approach alone will not suffice; one that also promotes rights and tolerance has a better chance at success.
[i] State Department, “2013 Country Reports on Terrorism,” 2014. http://www.state.gov/j/ct/rls/crt/2013/index.htm
[ii] U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, “Annual Report,” 2014. http://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/USCIRF%202014%20Annual%20Report%20PDF.pdf
[iii] J. Arquilla et al., “Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy,” RAND Corporation, 2001. http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monograph_reports/MR1382/MR1382.ch1.pdf