Those in charge of developing and executing strategy in America’s war on terror are beginning a new phase based on a counseling philosophy. The idea is that individuals prone to joining in terrorist attacks on the West might be encouraged through the use of psychology and associated counseling techniques to change their minds.
It’s difficult to fault any attempt to defeat terrorism, but this latest tactic must be well thought out before resources are diverted in its pursuit. And though this seems a highly unique turn in our efforts in the war on terror, lessons may in fact be learned from similar, previous attempts to change the mindset of our enemy. As a matter of fact, Saudi Arabia has, since shortly after 9/11, engaged in a somewhat softer approach in tackling radical ideologies.
Indeed. As Homeland Security Today recently reported, terrorist organizations and criminals, particularly gangs, have become extremely adept at exploiting social media to reach disenfranchised individuals who are receptive to radicalization. Individuals looking for purpose and importance are lured by all the propaganda that promises to make them feel like they matter — or could even become a hero.
According to Professor Michael Fagel, an expert on disaster preparedness and response, social media opens a window to the world in milliseconds. No longer bounded by large oceans, the information age has given terrorists the opportunity to make the entire world their audience.
Religious fanaticism and extremism, although as old as humanity itself, has reached unprecedented levels in Saudi Arabia in recent years, resulting in untold loss of life and damage to property. After the Riyadh compound bombing in May 2003, Saudi Arabia’s fight against Islamist extremism entered a new phase; one not dissimilar to that proposed here in America.
The strategy is to change hearts and minds by tackling radical ideologies that foster violent extremism through the use of individual counseling those on the verge of succumbing to the siren call of radical jihad and terror.
In Saudi Arabia, as well as other Muslim countries, today’s extremists often adopted Al Khawarij theology based on the concept of Al hakimiyyah, which is a narrow interpretation of the Quran and Hadiths. This interpretation led to ideologies such as takfir and a version of jihad dominated by violence and terrorism. These extremists often take advantage of a jihadist atmosphere to develop close ties with young Islamic men in order to convince them to embrace the terror philosophy.
The Saudi’s strategy is designed to confront thoughts with thoughts and to confront the appeal of extremist ideology by presenting a different interpretation of shariah principles and promoting the true values of the Islamic faith and tolerance. The program adopts a series of measures designed to undermine extremist views and disrupt the activities of those who promote violent extremism through a counseling program and a religious campaign. A media campaign using a national solidarity theme against terrorism and development of a public education program seeks to literally change the minds of youth leaning toward embracing a philosophy of extreme jihad.
Few today — other than Vietnam vets — remember a similar program that was put in place during the Vietnam War that was designed to do the exact same thing. The Chieu Hoi program launched in 1963 was an initiative designed to encourage defection by the Viet Cong and their supporters to the side of the government during the war. The name Chieu Hoi is difficult to translate literally into English, but a rough translation means “open arms” or “welcome back.” The Chieu Hoi symbol was the white dove. The Vietnamese believe the dove always returns home to its nest. The theme song of Chieu Hoi, (yes, it had a theme song) translated, “Bird Fly Home to Your Warm Nest.”
The objective of Chieu Hoi campaign was simple; to entice Vietcong members to surrender. Their reward was a warm bed, hot food, tobacco, a little beer and, in many cases, the opportunity to enjoy the opposite sex (prostitutes were later included in the reward package to increase the numbers). Chieu Hoi compounds were open facilities with few guards and no fences, keeping with the theme of trust and a welcoming atmosphere.
Unlike the South Vietnamese soldier, the VC (Vietcong) and NVA (North Vietnamese Regulars) endured extremely harsh living conditions, often living underground and subsiding on a small handful of rice each day while fighting intense battles. The principle of Chieu Hoi was that one simply had to raise his hand and surrender and all the amenities of the program would be made available to them immediately. An analogy would be transcending at the snap of your fingers from living in a dumpster to sleeping at the Waldorf.
Cheiu Hoi met some success initially until the program directors realized participants were staying for a few days or weeks then blending back into the jungles to rejoin their comrades. It seems that the program had been coopted by VC and NVA leaders as a convenient R&R (rest and relaxation) for their beleaguered soldiers. Just like those who conceived the Chieu Hoi program, those who developed the public education program to try and change the minds of youth considering jihad failed to consider one important thing. The basic motivation of the VC in Vietnam and, in this case the Islamic terrorist, is such that simple counseling and logical thought-based therapy will never work.
So, the point is, battles and, ultimately, wars, are never won by politicians and policy makers. They’re never won by the leaders. They’re not even won by the greatest of generals. They are won by the lowest ranking soldier who comes face to face with the enemy. The question is, why that soldier is on the battlefield to begin with. Why does that soldier put himself in a position from which he may not return?
There are really only two reasons impacting enough to bring that soldier to the battle and assure he will stand and deliver, whatever the outcome. They are “God and country.” Nothing else provides the impetus and inspiration the soldier needs to do what must be done.
Convincing a warfighter fighter not to do what he is doing means providing a message strong enough to negate that of God and country. If the soldier fights for both, and has the conviction to step on to the battlefield because of both, the greatest counselor in the world will not disaffirm that conviction.
Virtually all those who commit themselves to violent jihadism, including acts of martyrdom, have just such a conviction. Convincing them to turn their backs on their convictions is tantamount to convincing a Christian to turn his back on Jesus. It is highly unlikely a counseling program, regardless of its merits, can do this.
That said, there are a few young people who are straddling the fence between the types of Islamic conversion that may lead to jihadist acts of terror, and, therefore, there may be hope for them through such a counter-conversion program. But committing valuable resources to doing so, when those resources could produce much better results elsewhere, is simply not realistic.
Islamic jihadists don’t kill us because they hate us. They kill us because they are directed to do so by their God, and that message is a difficult message to overcome.
Contributing Writer Godfrey Garner is a veteran special operations counterintelligence officer who retired from US Special Forces in 2006. He served two military tours and six civilian government related tours in Afghanistan. His work there most recently was as a counter-corruption analyst. Garner previously wrote about jihadi groups’ unification in his Homeland Security Today report, The Potential that Jihadi Groups will Unify … and With it, More Savagery. Garner also is author of, Danny Kane and the Hunt for Mullah Omar, and, The Balance of Exodus.