Fence sitters and peacemakers

Stephen Bates

Is Al Qaeda winning the online battle for hearts and minds? Jihadists promote their cause via YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, message boards, and, since 2010, a Web-based, English-language magazine called Inspire. In 2011, an American drone strike in Yemen killed Inspire’s editor, but a new one took over and the magazine continues to appear. Though articles tend toward the turgid, the graphics are sometimes eye catching, and chillingly so. One issue includes a full-page photo of a man in a dark suit riding an escalator; behind him, a would-be assassin draws his gun.

The photo bears a slogan repurposed from American politics: “YES WE CAN.”

Inspire and its counterparts target “partially radicalized ‘fence sitters’ — those who are sympathetic to the extremist narrative and somewhat engaged in the online radical community, but not yet motivated to act in their own violent jihad,” according to a RAND Corporation report released in February. If the threat of terrorist attacks is to be reduced, the report says, the online advocacy of violence can’t go unanswered.

But in the high-stakes war on terror, RAND stresses, this is one battle American officialdom can’t lead. For one thing, terrorists often justify murder on religious grounds. Under the First Amendment, though, the U.S. government can’t respond in kind. Doing so — say, by funding Muslim organizations to promulgate peaceable interpretations of the Quran — would violate the separation of church and state.

Even outside the realm of theology, RAND researchers Todd C. Helmus, Erin York, and Peter Chalk counsel a hands-off approach. They quote an Islamic scholar: “The American government is simply viewed as the kiss of death.” If a respected imam who preaches against violence is found to be on the U.S. payroll, this scholar said, “then the constituency you want to reach . . . will never, ever listen to that person again.”

The U.S. government may be able to act as “facilitator rather than orchestrator,” the RAND authors say — for instance, by bringing Muslim organizations together with private foundations interested in underwriting online projects. But even such baby steps may prove dicey, they note. Many high-profile Muslim leaders, including those who enjoy credibility with the disaffected fence sitters, oppose not just Islamic American officials will have to tolerate, even welcome, harsh criticism — it’s part of the price of peace.

According to RAND, the bottom line is simple: For counterterrorism by countermessaging to work, Washington can’t write the script.


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