American Univesity of Beirut

What Makes Violent Extremists Tick -- Full Transcript
  • On February 16, 2021, Mr. Rami Khouri and Security and Terrorism expert Mr. Ali Soufan discussed why violent extremism and terrorism continue to expand in the United States and the Middle East-Asia region. The shocking attack on the US Capitol in early February highlighted the scope and methods of violent extremists in the US.  The discussion explored similarities and distinctions among such extremist groups in the West and in the ME-Asia region, such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS. The full tape of the one-hour event, “From Al Qaeda to the US Capitol Insurrection: What Makes Violent Extremists Tick?” can be found here.


    Below is the full transcript, slightly edited for style and clarity.


    Khouri: based on your experience in the field, have you found similarities and/or differences among groups doing this kind of violent work in the West and those in the Middle East and Asia?


    Soufan: Absolutely! There are significant similarities between what we call the “global jihadis” movement and what we have seen today with the white supremacist ideology. We have been monitoring this for a while. Those main similarities include the transnational nature of these groups and movements. Similar to the jihadis, white supremacists justify the use of violence and the tool of extremism as a means to create a world view of “them” vs. “us”. They create this mentality through propaganda, the narrative they discuss, and social media. Moreover, they both employ metaphors to reflect their firm belief that their societies are under siege, and that only violence can hold off the so-called invaders. Now for the jihadis and the militant Islamist groups, the invaders represent the US, Israel, and the West more generally. For the white supremacists, it’s the immigrants and more generally people who are coming into Europe and the US and are perceived as attempting to change the nature of those societies. So both sides claim that their way of life is under imminent threat of extinction. One group believes in racial purity, the other in religious purity. In both cases, violence is always viewed as utilitarian and a theoretical propaganda message to inspire, recruit, terrorize and ultimately create the social and political change they seek. So yes, among far-right extremists we find most of the ingredients commonly used as criteria to define terrorism. Countless white radical groups play a similar role preaching violence and hate to their followers, behind the shield of constitutional protections, behind the shield of the First Amendment, even behind charismatic personalities and religious social narratives. However, unlike the jihadis, the US is basically the haven or mecca of these right-wing extremist groups. It plays basically the role that countries like Saudi Arabia played for the jihadis. In fact, most of these groups are connected directly to the US and to groups and personalities that have taken advantage of the first two amendments to spread hate. Finally, both groups are alike in the ways they use communication tools, especially social media platforms to promote their narrative and to recruit vulnerable populations. Social media and other communication media have been a very useful tool.


    Khouri: From your studies, do you see a single pattern of how an average non-violent, maybe even non-political, young man or woman ends up becoming a supporter or even a member of these groups, especially in the Middle East? When ISIS emerged in the region some polls showed that in certain places or time periods up to eight or ten percent of the population said that ISIS was engaged in legitimate activity. So what explains the transformation of ordinary people to become supporters of these extremist and violent movements?


    Soufan: Well this is a great question but there is no single approach or answer to this. There is, however, what we call the radicalization cycle. There are five different steps or stages that lead an individual to terrorism in the Middle East-Asia region. First, personal political and cultural grievances in the Arab and Muslim world. For example, we have grievances around the Arab-Israeli conflict; then we have grievances regarding democracy, freedoms, and dictatorships; we have economic and cultural grievances. Then, we have individuals saying, “I have a solution and that solution is religion.” The reason Israelis won, they would tell you, is because they are true to their religion and you are not, and that is how this political movement comes together in places like Egypt and Afghanistan.  Moreover, the geopolitical struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia  promoted these groups and created a context of permanent personal grievances that change from one culture to another and one country to another. In the United States the big lie about the election being stolen, the deep state, and a Jewish cabal controlling the world represent a big part of these issues that affect people differently. And as they start to believe this, they end up going online and find sympathizers that also believe in their grievances and their causes, and then you communicate with people that legitimize your grievances and give you a simple solution to this complicated problem. These groups enable you to do something with what you feel by making you part of their group, and thus make you feel like you are changing from being a passive listener to becoming involved, and broadcasting your intent of change and hope, of creating a society and environment where your grievances don’t exist -- and eventually some of these individuals will go further, and that can be what happened on January 6 at the Capitol or the event in Charlottesville or in Arab capitals where people get killed and create rage. And after this cycle you will have individuals who will think that the only way to move and achieve effective change in our society is through violence and terrorism. Today we monitor those white supremacist groups and we see them preaching violence to impact and accelerate change in society. Bottom line: this cycle needs to be tackled at every level, or otherwise what we have seen in the Middle East we will likely see down the road in western societies

    Khouri: We have seen new adherents to these groups in the Middle East take on new names, Like Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi or Abu Musaab Al Zarqawi; we see this idea of an individual being “reborn” and feeling like a changed person who is powerful and actually doing something about their life grievances. Do we also see this concept of taking on a new name and of rebirth in the western world?


    Soufan: The reason people take a new name in Muslim-majority societies is because this idea comes from the black banner hadith (the sayings of the Prophet Mohammad). In this hadith the prophet says that the armies have black banners and their names are aliases that reflect the cities or regions they come from,  so they will have a new name, a kunia, based on a city such as Al Shami, Al Baghdadi, or Al Semaani. Thus there is a religious justification for that. Since you are told that you are part of this movement, changing your name per the “request of the prophet” enables you to feel part of the group and to belong to this movement that is beyond you; a movement that the prophet created and in which you now represent a central part. In the US we see something similar but not the exact same. They operate in a framework that makes them see society differently than the way we see it, and they want to create conditions that will make society collapse; that is why they do those training camps and they take advantage of the Second Amendment and the system in order to destroy the system that exists. Anyone who voted for Trump is part of that movement or believes that society hasn’t been fair to them. So ultimately, we see a very similar narrative in the West with the white supremacist groups and neo-Nazi groups that take advantage of the anger and grievances of people. Moreover, it is important to note that some countries around the world have taken advantage of the existing grievances to create further divisions, especially in western countries. States such as Russia, Iran, and China have helped make these groups more mainstream. In the Middle East we see these groups being manipulated by foreign governments.


    Khouri: One of the things we notice is that Al Qaeda and ISIS are born in situations of national catastrophe, like ISIS in Syria and Iraq partially, because of the US war and post-war involvement; chaos allowed these groups to take root and emerge, after they started as very small groups. So what is the role, in your view, of the political management of these countries? If countries were well managed without foreign interference, would such violent groups be a main priority, and would we still need to fight them?


    Soufan: Of course! the cycle we spoke about and the grievances we mentioned are the result of weak states and states that are being manipulated by foreign governments. This is the root cause and we have seen this many times, for instance in the August 23, 1996 declaration of jihad of Oussama Bin Laden. There are a lot of individuals who feel that the system is not good to them and is not treating them correctly, like regions in the US that are devastated economically. Those same people believe that Mexicans, brown people, and black people are taking their jobs and thus are the reason they are so miserable economically. Then we have people from the mainstream casting doubt on the trust in our institutions, and that is when the social contract weakens. A notable example of this is Lebanon. In the US we have seen it with the elections and people not believing in the results because they were not what they wanted them to be. This all adds to the conspiracy they see. Sectarianism also adds to that. In the Middle East, after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, we had a shift, as sectarianism became the geopolitical currency in the region. States started scoring geopolitical points against each other by using these jihadi groups as weapons. Then come these exceptions that say yes to fighting terrorism in general, but also say that they will allow terror groups in Yemen and in Syria, and this is where we are right now in the Middle East.


    Questions from the audience:


    Q: How much do psychopathy and antisocial personalities account for men joining or leading these movements?


    Soufan: This is a very good question and there are some studies in the US about this, at least with the jihadis. I think identities represent a big part of it and I would say identity more than psychopathy. But there are so many people who feel they are alone and that they are rejects of their own society. Those people are the target of the violent extremists. Someone comes up to them and tells them: “be part of my group”. It starts with “come play soccer with me” or “come to the mosque with me,” and ends up being, “come to Afghanistan with us”. This actually happens, as I heard from many security people. We see it in the fighters that came from Europe. For instance, 80 percent of the people who joined from Belgium had been in jail, and they saw in ISIS a way to start a clean slate. It was also a place where they felt they aren’t second class citizens, but rather they are the rulers.


    Q: How do we best respond to these movements that threaten all of us in different parts of the world? Do you zoom in on the individuals and try to address activities and initiate social support, and ask them to talk to their local religious leader to help these kids not go down this road, which is the trend in Europe? Or do you look at the macro level and try to get governments more involved and make sure everyone has a good life and job?


    Soufan: We have a lot of experiences from the past in the US. At one point the Ku Klux Klan had a dominant role in Congress and had the ability and power to freely do things such as parade in Washington, D.C.. But eventually, throughout the years, the civil rights movement and other things moved it and weakened it. But of course, there are many things we can do. What is currently happening is that the leaders of these groups are taking advantage of the system, and more specifically they are taking advantage of the hyper-partisan nature of political life. This hyper-partisan nature has resulted in us no longer having a mutual understanding of the truth. So, the first thing we need to do is to calm down the partisan rhetoric in order to move forward and tackle these issues. We have a lot of different programs around the world, such as counter-violent extremism prevention programs. In order for a program to be effective it should include sociologists and religious leaders, and few countries have the resources to allocate to such institutions. Moreover, some countries in the West might have legal constraints in creating off-ramps to deal with these problems. However, there are situations where we have different programs that actually worked and that are beneficial, and where fewer individuals are at phase 5 of radicalization and going through that cycle. Ultimately, if you focus more on the reasons for these groups’ survival and expansion, you see that the problem can’t be solved with a therapist. For example, if you look at the situation in Syria and Yemen and see how countries and international powers are using these radical groups to further their interests in the region, you will realize that this creates these violent environments where such groups can operate freely. This environment they create makes it difficult for a psychologist to just sit down and tell an individual that this is bad, and to suggest they do this instead of that. Imagine doing counter-violent extremism programs in Lebanon or Iran? Where would we even start? We need to create a fertile ground to move forward and then we start separating those groups; especially isolate the people who are in phase 4 of 5 of that radicalization cycle and push them to the fringe, and start to have conversations and talk about the government and its stability, and then we can move forward to deal with them. At this stage to rehabilitate is a waste of effort.


    Khouri: I was in the US when 9/11 happened, and the next day there were special bookshop displays about Islam and the need to learn about Islam, and we witnessed an intense shift of American focus to religion to explain Al Qaeda. Do you feel that the understanding in the western countries of the violence that happens in the Middle East or here in the US is now at a more sophisticated stage? Do people in authority understand better how these things happen and how to deal with them?

    Soufan: My blunt answer is, no. Maybe intelligence programs and academics know and have a good understanding. Media and politicians, on the other hand, cover and talk about this issue with very skin-deep understandings of the problem. They simplify it because their goal is not to educate anymore, especially in journalism. Media only care about ratings and making money, and education doesn’t bring good ratings; shouting and screaming does that. If anything were to happen, they would discuss it in a very silly way. This is why they don’t tackle white supremacy, for example, because they would have to go very deep, which they don’t want to.


    Khouri: One of the question in the United States that is being written about now in some of the more serious media is about the links of violent extremists to some Christian evangelical groups. This raises the question of religious dimensions in the US in some of these groups. Do you feel that Christian evangelical nationalism plays a role in any of these groups?


    Soufan: Absolutely, a lot of evidence exists on the topic. It plays a very similar role to some, the same way the Islamic establishment played in radial extremist groups


    Khouri: In both the West and Middle Eastern-Asian societies, many of these groups are still expanding, despite all the efforts being made to counter them. ISIS is now doing more attacks and growing in parts of western Africa and in the US these groups grow steadily. What is your sense of the reasons these groups continue to grow, and are the reasons similar or different in the West and the Middle East? And what is your sense about what we need to do as societies besides what we are doing now, which doesn’t seem to be very effective? The dominance of military actions as a policy response does not seem to work very effectively.


    Soufan: The incubating factors that enable these groups to exist are still present, so why would things change? For example, in Yemen, Al Qaeda once comprised a couple of hundred people, and now has eight thousand, and it’s not because they believe in Bin Laden.  It’s because they want protection and social services and schools and health clinics that Al Qaeda is providing for them. They are in areas where they are scared. If you end the war in Yemen, Al Qaeda in Yemen will go back to being a couple of hundred strong, which I would want to happen. But as long as that war is raging it means I’m trying to put out a big fire with a small kitchen towel. Same thing for the Sahel region in north-western Africa. Al Qaeda was able to become a multinational and culturally unified entity there because it represented the solution to social and cultural conditions in the area that nobody would resolve. Ultimately, we shouldn’t focus on the symptoms but rather on the conditions that developed into those symptoms.


    Khouri: In the media, there is much talk about government agencies, including security ones like the FBI and the CIA, being politicized under Trump. In addition, we saw the Capitol insurrection showing some links between people in the capital who belong to these agencies. Is there a mechanism to address the fear that some agencies in the US are becoming politicized and compromised, as some federal agencies turned out to be?


    Soufan: Trump tried to politicize them, but it didn’t work. Many resigned. The FBI director went to Congress and said that white supremacy is our number one domestic terrorism concern. Yes. There are reports that people in Congress were involved in the insurrection and this is being investigated, but I won’t be surprised if these allegations are true. There are members of the House that repeat the rhetoric of these people, so I won’t be surprised. Some spoke very passionately and they radicalized people just hours before those people went out to the Capitol. Yes, we have people from law enforcement entities who were involved with the insurrection and this is something we have warned about. The Pentagon had to do a security check for the 25,000 people involved in the presidential inauguration, including the military. This probably propelled the government to have to act on the problem of white supremacy and neo-Nazi existence in the military. If we don’t do anything about it, in a bipartisan manner, we won’t endure the next 8 to 10 years.


    Q: Are intelligence agencies to your knowledge working closely together in an effective way around the world? And does the United Nations have a role to play in this process?


    Soufan: it all depends on the target. For the white supremacy groups, it is very difficult. In the UN they started looking into these extremist groups, which they call something on the lines of ethnically violent motivated individuals, or something like that. So yes, the UN started working on the topic and it played a good role with the jihadist movements. But we know that sometimes the bureaucracy in the UN makes it really hard to achieve effective, meaningful, and swift change. For intelligence agencies, of course if it is jihadis they work very closely with each other to control them. For the US, on the other hand, as long as the white supremacist groups are not called terrorist groups, and the leadership comes from the US and American citizens, the CIA’s and National Security Agency’s hands are tied because there is no legal ground for monitoring them in the US. This is why we are focusing on the transnational nature of these groups, to see what tools are available against this threat. There are a lot of legal constraints that prevent intelligence cooperation in the West to target those white supremacist groups.


    Khouri: Closing question: If you and scholars know so much about these people and groups, why do they continue to grow?


    Soufan: Simple. Incompetence of governments.


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