Delegitimizing Terrorism: A better way to counter radicalization and recruitment in the West

Global terrorism trends suggest that Islamist radicalization is a transatlantic and international concern threatening Canada and its G8 and NATO allies. Since 2001, many, if not all, cases of Islamist terrorism in Europe, North American, and Australia have had Westerner perpetrators.

Of the high-profile terrorist attacks since 9/11 – including the two shoe bombers (Richard Reid and Saajid Badat), Theo van Gogh’s 2004 murder in Amsterdam, the twin attacks on London’s Underground in 2005, the foiled 2006 liquid-bomb/airline attacks, the 2007 car bombing of Glasgow’s International Airport and foiled London car bombing, the March 2004 Madrid bombings (and foiled April 2004 train attack), and the 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas – were all carried out with the assistance and participation of naturalized immigrants, residents, and/or citizens of the countries targeted.

In Delegitimizing TerrorismAIMS Fellow Alex Wilner tells us what we must do to help the “boy next door” avoid becoming the next “shoe bomber” and it starts by saying, and proving, that terrorism is not a legitimate tool for ultimate victory.

Turning popular outrage and disgust with terrorism into a coordinated, multilateral foreign policy platform that delegitimizes terrorism is no easy task. Yet Western successes in delegitimizing fascism in the 1930/40s and Communism during the Cold War represent important precedents for combating Islamist violence today. Al Qaeda and its followers are astutely aware that their war is deeply unpopular with a vast majority of those with whom they share religious beliefs and in whose name they purport to act. Broadly communicating the cruelty of terrorism, condemning its use along international norms and principles, and assisting Muslim leaders to issue religious decrees that contradict religious violence will help delegitimize particular forms of modern terrorism. For the G8 and its member-states, the overarching policy goal should be to turn anti-terrorism condemnation into a social movement that compels communities and individuals to reject terrorism. If terrorists perceive their war as just, moral, and defensive, promoting and communicating views and norms that contend otherwise will influence the behavior of would-be supporters.

When Islamist terrorist organizations lose their religious justification and popular patronage, the violence they facilitate resembles mere thuggery, their objectives become suspect, and their support is eliminated. An important outcome of delegitimizing terrorism is the impediment of Western Islamist radicalization. When terrorism and political violence becomes socially and religiously unacceptable, fewer Western citizens will consider it a justifiable and valid from of behavior to address real or perceived socio-political grievances. By combining delegitimization with other multilateral strategies that try to understand why some individuals and communities radicalize and participate in terrorism, Western radicalization can be contained and reversed. When that happens, foreign terrorists will have a harder time locating and recruiting Western citizens. Success in counter-radicalization necessarily leads to other successes in combating terrorism recruitment.

This paper outlines why this is critical work that must be undertaken as well as how to pursue this important objective most effectively.

The full report can be read here.