On April 26, a video surfaced depicting Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab training with Al Qaeda in Yemen. The “underwear bomber,” along with other Muslim radicals, is shown firing AK-47s, practicing shooting rocket-propelled grenades and preaching Al Qaeda’s global jihad. The video serves as an uncommon glimpse into the reality of terror indoctrination. Following September 11, the psychology behind indoctrination into terror organizations quickly became its own psychological sub-field, as the world asked, “Why?” and terror experts asked, “How?” This question of how individuals are lured into a life of terror has been extensively written on, lectured about and taught in universities since 9/11. However, as government agencies and academia continue to focus on how individuals become terrorists, a vital portion of terror psychology continues to be neglected: how to undo the radicalizing effects of terrorism and show our enemies a life beyond jihad.
After capturing a terrorist, the goal is to extract as much actionable intelligence as possible. But what happens next is not exactly subject matter that can be Googled. From what is known, the individual is generally either detained indefinitely or released. This begs the question: Once a terrorist is captured, is the goal to lock him away forever or transform him into a peaceful member of society?
The field of terrorist de-radicalization is relatively unknown. It involves a vast knowledge of psychology as well as regional understanding. It requires an individual to say, “Sure, I understand how you were recruited. Now how do I bring you back?” Not exactly the car chases and heart-pounding material that makes for a good episode of “24.”
The Munasaha rehabilitation program in Saudi Arabia is one of the leading organizations that seek to undo the radicalizing effects of terror groups. After an individual is captured, he or she is assessed by two sheikhs and a psychologist to determine the individual’s psychological state, ideology and how one affects the other. The individual is then enrolled in classes with the hope that one day he or she can be reintegrated into society.
The question now becomes why America isn’t implementing such programs in its detention facilities. Sure, every academic who has studied the Middle East has an opinion as to why people become terrorists. But that understanding is worth nothing if we have no intention of trying to fix it. Understanding why an individual becomes a terrorist — be it for psychological, ideological or financial reasons — will not better prepare us to stop radicalization before it starts. It is only valuable information if it is then used to undo the radicalization process.
Of course, nobody wants to watch Jack Bauer sit with an enemy combatant to discuss emotional attachment problems. But this is where real progress can be made in combating extremism. The ideologies that threaten our nation do not disappear with well-aimed Hellfire missiles, nor can any ideology be combated simply with guns and troops. These are intangibles that grow in coffee shops and Koranic schools that will not disappear with those who preach them.
In order to win the war on terror, we must turn the foot soldiers of hatred against the ideologies they so willingly die for. To accomplish this, we must deprogram those who inhabit our detention facilities, as Guantanamo Bay and Bagram cannot simply be warehouses for the world’s most dangerous terrorists. Along with interrogation, these facilities must work to undo the effects of terror indoctrination and show radicals there are alternative means to exacting change. This, certainly, is not easy. It takes a tremendous understanding of what these individuals want, what they stand for and what voids within themselves they are seeking to fill.
With every bomb we drop and every village we raid, we give another otherwise peaceful civilian a reason to take up arms against America. Only when we establish programs that address the real problems within our enemies can we truly claim to be uprooting terror. More than our Predator Drones or our surge of 30,000 troops into Afghanistan, our enemies should fear our understanding. When we understand who they are, we can effectively turn enemies into allies and show every Abdulmutallab that there is life outside of jihad.
Tyler Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.