Fighting extremism online is a true uphill battle. New jihadi magazines and videos are a daily occurrence. Blogs are popping up at a rapid pace. The terrorist media has become a genre of its own.
However, in one of its (very) few useful roles, the UN cosponsored a counterterrorism workshop with Saudi Arabia’s Naif Arab University for Security Studies, focused on undermining terrorist narratives. While this was certainly a publicity move on the part of Saudi Arabia, whose billionaires helped develop terror networks and whose clerics provided theological justification for jihad, it was a step in the right direction.
The Netherlands presented a jailhouse recantation of a convicted terrorist, which they circulated online. Pakistani authorities showed scenes from explosions at mosques, suggesting that bombs kill real-life Muslims, not imagined apostates. And Saudi Arabia presented a government-sponsored program that enlists hundreds of Islamic scholars, getting knowledgeable moderates involved directly in debates online.
Will the programs work? Probably not. Hardened jihadists will reject turncoats, Pakistani bad boys will just see the videos as more war porn, and increasingly blogs are locking out non-members from either responding or viewing posts. A Yemeni-government initiative “to use the Koran to persuade others,” has seen mixed results, probably because the regime is largely discredited already.
Any program worth its salt has to use both the carrot and the stick. In Spain, terrorism suspects are treated with kids’ gloves and can only serve a maximum sentence of 40 years no matter what their crime. Imad Eddin Yarkas, a recruiter involved in 9/11, financed and built terror cells from his jail cell while Spanish authorities twiddled their thumbs about legally designating him and his assets. In addition, the prosecutors’ initial request of 74,000 years jail time – 25 years for each of the approximately 3,000 killed on 9/11 – ended bluntly with 27 years. In the wake of Spanish embarrassment about Yarkas’ jail time activities, his sentence was further reduced to 12 years. He will be out on Spanish streets, unrepentant, by 2013.
Punishments should be swift and uncompromising. Deterrence is obvious for us, we’re Americans. But we need to put pressure on our allies abroad.
The other elements of the puzzle, including the hysterical exaggerations of American and Western human rights violations in Muslim countries and at home, need to be answered. In the US, this is especially true with mainstream Muslim organizations that feed a distorted message of worldwide conflicts to their communities, while claiming to work with law enforcement.
Overall, countering terrorism means using all the tricks at our disposal, from changing the online narrative to breaking the backs of those involved.