Rhetoric and Counterterrorism: What Drives the Jihadists

December 23, 2015

Let’s just call a spade a spade. The “scandal” over whether or not the Islamic State has used Donald Trump’s image in its formal propaganda is stupid. To date, it has not (though some Islamic State supporters have propagandized on social media using his words). Jihadists do, however, aim to generate fear of discrimination among Muslims in the West in order to bolster their recruiting. To focus narrowly on specific references to Trump rather than the larger truth that jihadists do exploit the specter of discrimination to mobilize adherents is ludicrous. Instead of nitpicking about how we talk about the Islamic State, we ought to be focused on how to defeat the Islamic State.

Anwar al-Awlaki was by far the most successful jihadi propagandist attempting to radicalize Muslims living in the West. He had many arguments to advance this mission, but central was the notion that a discriminatory crackdown against Western Muslims was coming. Awlaki hoped that fear of such a crackdown would encourage radicalization and violence.

An American citizen of Yemeni descent, Awlaki worked with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and has been linked to numerous plots in the West. Although Awlaki was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011, the terrorists that committed the San Bernardino, California terrorist attack were allegedly major fans. They were keen consumers of Awlaki’s writings and speeches years before the attack during a period of radicalization and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State’s emir during the attack itself. The Islamic State does not radicalize all of its soldiers itself.

It is hard to know whether the San Bernardino shooters’ radicalization was advanced by Awlaki’s fear-mongering, but Awlaki’s emphasis on such discrimination in his speeches most targeted to Muslim Americans suggests he thought it was. Awlaki was most explicit in a March 2010 audio recording entitled Message to the American People. After deriding a range of United States policy, he argued:

Muslims of the West, take heed and learn from the lessons of history: There are ominous clouds gathering on your horizon. Yesterday America was a land of slavery, segregation, lynching and Ku Klux Klan and tomorrow it will be a land of religious discrimination and concentration camps. Don’t be deceived by the promises of preserving your rights from a government that is right now killing your own brothers and sisters. Today, with the war between Muslims and the West escalating, you cannot count on the message of solidarity you may get from a civic group or a political party, or the word of support you hear from a kind neighbor or a nice co-worker. The West will eventually turn against its Muslim citizens!

Awlaki was not the first jihadi to argue that the United States was its own worst enemy. Most of Washington still imagines that the Islamic State was founded in June 2014, but ask an actual Islamic State leader and he would tell you it was inaugurated in October 2006 with the declaration of the Islamic State of Iraq. Shortly thereafter, the influential jihadi theorist Yaman Mukhaddab authored Al-Qaeda Between the Past Stage and the Next, which anticipated not just a growing Islamic State, but that the United States would increasingly tear itself apart by abandoning cherished principles:

Al-Qaeda has put a complete end to these foundations that hold together this doddering sinful society (the United States), held together as a society only by the values of personal freedom, the freedom to acquire, and the freedom of capital. As soon as these disappear, the bonds of the society, being based only on them, will of necessity dissolve. The collapse will become only a matter of time. It will take place when the citizens lose their patience over the disappearance of these foundations. And this is what has begun to be clearly visible in American society. Everything we read, hear, and see of commiseration about freedoms and unease about the repression and restriction of freedom of opinion and freedom of capital is only the first sign of this unrest over the loss of the foundations of the building of this vulgar, materialistic society.

In the immediate wake of 9/11, President George W. Bush declared that al-Qaeda hated “our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” The rhetoric sidestepped a host of complicated issues, but a simple improvement might have said that al-Qaeda fears those freedoms. Indeed, al-Qaeda does, and so does the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Those freedoms, and the image of millions of Muslim Americans flourishing in a society that protects them, terrifies the jihadists.

There is a lot of handwringing about how to define a so-called “counter-narrative” to combat the Islamic State’s recruitment efforts. No doubt we need to get better at communicating with the fringe of Muslim communities attracted to the Islamic State. But as we commit to that task, American leaders must not lose sight of the larger narrative victory staring them in the face: The overwhelming majority of Muslims globally, and certainly in the United States, reject the Islamic State. In the United States, they are as inspired by “our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other” as other Americans.

The United States is losing the narrow narrative fight against the Islamic State, but we are winning the larger one. That is what Awlaki and his counterparts in the Islamic State want to change by raising the specter of discrimination — and that is the larger truth that anyone who aspires to the presidency should remember.

American values are an antibody against extremism, which is why they frighten the jihadists. Rhetoric that frightens Americans may be good politics, but the next president ought to be the kind of American leader who will focus on defending the values that frighten the jihadists.


Brian Fishman is a Counterterrorism Research Fellow with the International Studies Program at New America.