The question of how best to stem the flow of young British Muslims travelling to join Islamic State is often met with a singular answer: establish a counter-narrative. At times, this becomes a call to reaffirm liberalism in its broadest sense. But in fact, everything we know about the process of radicalisation suggests that this response should never be regarded as a ‘silver bullet’.
Allah’s Soldiers, a captivating documentary about the motivations of a group of would-be jihadists, aired in France last Monday. Filmed by an under-cover journalist using the pseudonym Said Ramzi, the programme is based on the six months he spent infiltrating the gang, which finally ends with the arrest of group members and Ramzi’s exposure.
Ramzi set out to understand the mentalities of the young men and women drawn to Islamic State. What he found was not religious idealists driven to violence by their beliefs, but rather, “lost, frustrated, suicidal, easily manipulated youths”.
This description – of young people drawn to Islamic State not because of its ideological strengths or their deep personal conviction, but because of personal vulnerabilities, manipulation and a simple narrative posturing as a solution to all their problems – fits what we know so far about the motivations of many foreign fighters.
Yet many commentators and politicians in the UK and abroad continually propose a singularly ideological response to the Islamic State worldview, and argue for the more active promotion of a muscular, confident liberalism.
This approach only makes sense if we assume that either the reason young people join Islamic State is a lack of inoculation with liberal values, or that Islamic State’s worldview competes with liberalism in symmetrical sense.
Neither of these things are true. The ideological battle between Islamic State and the civilised world isn’t symmetrical, and it certainly isn’t a clash of philosophies in the style of the Cold War. Pitching the conflict against Islamic State as a grand battle of ideas significantly over values their offer, as many column inches as it may fill.
In the Middle East and North Africa, Islamic State has thrived in the vacuum of civil war and conflict in the absence of strong states. It is not winning a war of ideas in its territories, but exploiting a dangerous situation brought about by pre-existing conflict and political instability. Even in that context it is not sustainable. Since mid-2015, Islamic State’s revenues have dropped by a third (to $56m per month), as have the number of people they rule over (to 6 million), while their territory has shrunk by nearly a quarter.
In Europe, where its propaganda and active grooming efforts are most central to its recruiting strategy, it still isn’t winning a battles of ideas. Instead, Islamic State exploits simple narratives, propaganda techniques and sophistry to persuade the disenchanted and the disenfranchised. They seek to win over those with vulnerabilities linked to everything from conflicts over their sense of identity to mental illness to their ranks.
They appeal to common needs, such as the typical desire a young man has for risk, prestige and adventure; an approach Demos has previously recognised as critical to the move from radical opinion to violence. They promise status, emotively showcase regional injustices, and offer dissatisfied young people the chance to fit in where they feels they do not. They actively exploit the points where our efforts to create a multicultural society have met the greatest friction, just as they seek to exploit romantic relationships with young girls.
The average age of a foreign fighter from the UK or Belgium is 23.5 years old, and the most common recruits are essentially teenagers. Even in Afghanistan, foreign fighters were generally between 25 and 35 years old. They aren’t offering better arguments, or even a coherent vision. They are using techniques we recognise in grooming, agent handling and manipulation – “us and them” arguments, moral equivalence, wedge issues, scapegoating – to exploit specifically young people.
When it comes to the foreign fighters issue particularly, the answer isn’t winning a grand intellectual argument, but about better protecting the vulnerable. The word empowered is often badly abused, but if we want to damage the Islamic State’s recruiting efforts, we need to empower the young people they draw in. Education must be a key part of this effort.
Take Islamic State’s online recruitment. We hear a lot about the effectiveness of its social media operations. The Government is putting more and more pressure on social media companies to censor content, on schools to restrict internet access, on the justice system to become more involved in policing social media, in order to counter Jihadi content online. Yet ultimately trying to censor the internet can’t be the principal solution to this problem.
Previous Demos research has shown that young people are woefully ill-equipped to distinguish between truth and lies on the internet. Our current work in this area reveals that there are next to no effective extremism-related efforts to improve young people’s critical thinking ongoing in the UK. The best way to protect the vulnerable is to teach them to look after themselves. We have to teach young people, from an early age, how to spot manipulation, to counter grooming efforts, to challenge extremist views and spot falsehoods, online and offline.
The recruitment of foreign fighters to the Islamic State movement represents a failure of reason and a victory for manipulation. If there is a counter-narrative, this should be the message.
What’s more, the benefits of critical thinking education are transferable and sustainable. Transferable because the manipulative efforts of criminal gangs, of Al Qaeda, of Al-Muhajiroun, of Britain First or of far-right organisations, can all be countered with that same skill set. Greater critical thinking skills don’t just make for safer young people – they make for more critical, concerned citizens. They are sustainable because they lay the ground-work against future threats.
Education alone won’t solve the foreign fighter problem, which is intimately tied to a wide range of issues, from social cohesion to the challenges of a globalised society, and our response will continue to include everything from policing and intelligence efforts to military action. But education must play a much greater role in a sustainable and effective counter-extremism effort.