This morning, terrorist attacks at the Brussels airport and metro killed dozens and injured more than 200 people. Daesh claimed responsibility.

There’s been rosy talk lately about how Daesh is losing. Their funding sources are being devastated by airstrikes while a cobbled-together coalition of fighters is steadily taking territory from the “caliphate.” In January, it was reported that Daesh had lost about 20% of the land they once held. On the face of it, they are losing.

But they’re not. Not just because they pulled off a deadly, high-profile attack in Brussels but because the attack perpetuates a cycle of violence and mistrust that fuels more extremism.

The Cycle of Extremism

One of Daesh’s long-term goals is to advance animosity between Muslims and non-Muslims so as to trigger an apocalyptic war in Syria. Central to Daesh’s ideology (and those of all extremist Muslim groups) is a narrative that there is an inherent conflict between “the West” and “Islam.” That narrative is the basis for extremist messaging and the conceptual vehicle that carries a young, confused individual through the radicalization pathway that leads to violent extremism. The narrative is nowhere near dispelled. In fact, it’s gaining credence.

Every attack in Europe and the United States serves to undermine a sense of security. It engenders fear and mistrust and provides a platform for high-profile figures (e.g., politicians) to thump their chests, soothing fear with steel-fisted solutions that are founded in the very narrative that Daesh espouses. There is a growing consensus in the popular gaze that because some terrorist attacks are conducted by extremist Muslims, Islam is dangerous by design, and therefore there is an untenable and fundamental conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims.

When non-Muslims buy into this narrative and let it guide their outlook and actions, Daesh wins. Anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States and Europe is growing, and it is leading to discrimination, suspicion, and violence against Muslims. Those instances in turn underscore Daesh’s message to its potential adherents and supporters—that the non-Muslim-majority country in which they live is not just anti-Muslim but antagonistic to the point of preventing the unfettered exercise of their faith. And that is the religious foundation for jihad. In the simplest terms, a Muslim is divinely permitted to use force (in a variety of forms) to ensure their free exercise of Islam.

Nearly all Muslims do not employ the Qur’anic provision for jihad because they do not embrace Daesh’s narrative. And yet, anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise, perpetuating a cycle whose implications stretch far beyond the hopefully brief existence of the so-called caliphate. This cycle pre-dates Daesh; indeed, the cycle created Daesh. In brief:

  • An extremist, charismatic individual promotes the notion that “the West” is at war with Islam to a narrow demographic of disenchanted, ignorant and/or otherwise unbalanced Muslims.
  • An individual who embraces and internalizes this message decides to use violence to reciprocate for perceived aggression towards Islam by “the West.”
  • Journalists, politicians, public figures and others comment on the attack (or attempted attack), stoking fear and anger and sometimes straying into anti-Muslim language.
  • Aggressive (sometimes discriminatory) law enforcement activity, coupled with an anti-Muslim sentiment borne of political rhetoric, creates fodder for extremist messaging, offering “evidence” that the narrative is valid. That is then pushed out to the disenchanted demographic, and around and around we go.

The world will not kill and arrest its way out of this cycle. Even when Daesh loses all of its territory, the cycle will continue, picked up by whatever Daesh’s progeny is called and also perpetuated by like-minded groups operating in ungoverned and under-governed spaces around the world. The choices we are making today to counter Daesh will reverberate for decades. Are we making the right choices?

How to Defeat the Narrative

The effort to defeat Daesh focuses primarily on a military solution. Airstrikes, “boots on the ground,” a Sunni-Arab army taking territory—these are all tactics for removing Daesh’s operating spaces, but they do absolutely nothing to defeat the pernicious narrative that existed before Daesh and that will exist when Daesh disbands or is destroyed.

Step into any conference room where Daesh is the topic of discussion and someone is going to mention “counter-messaging.” It’s a buzzword that few people understand. I am always dismayed to hear legitimate professionals talk about counter-messaging as if all that needs to be done is to frame a Daesh message in the negative. Daesh says the West is at war with Islam, and the counter-messengers often say, “nuh-uh.”

That’s not a counter-message, certainly not a cogent one. Instead, what’s needed is to beat back the narrative by using Daesh’s own ideology against them.

I sit on the board of the Average Mohamed Foundation, a nonprofit that targets vulnerable young people with counter-messaging intended to undermine Daesh and other terrorist organizations. These counter-messages are delivered through short cartoons, designed to appeal to young people. And because the founder and Executive Director Mohamed Ahmed is himself Muslim, he is able to lead the organization with great credibility, and more importantly, respond to theological messaging with theological messaging.

For example, in a recent cartoon, we took on Daesh’s message that under Islam, women should be locked up in a house serving only to birth children, effectively enslaving them.

The counter-message draws from religious stories about Islam’s prophet and his wife, Aisha. Aisha is held in high esteem in the faith and is credited as one of Islam’s most important theologians. The counter-message: if a woman’s purpose is only to carry children, then Daesh advocates the enslavement of a central figure in Islam, and by extension, rejects the Prophet Mohammed’s respect and embrace of Aisha. In short, Daesh’s message is anti-Islamic. That is a counter-message. It’s how we can defeat the narrative. It’s how we win and Daesh loses. Not through military might but intellectual outmaneuvering.

But if we do not engage counter-messaging in a thoughtful, workable way, then Daesh will continue to draw adherents, the cycle will continue, and what happened in Brussels today will happen again. And in that case, Muslim extremists will lose the battles but continue to win the war.

Justin Hienz is Editor for Security Debrief. He blogs primarily on radicalization, aviation security, religious and Middle Eastern affairs, and communications. Read More