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Oliver Javanpour


by Oliver Javanpour, posted Aug 29, 2013

For many of us who have lived in the 20th Century secular Middle East, the idea of radical Islam or Sharia Law was unthinkable (with the exception of the Saudis) until 1979. From the 1930s to the 1960s, the Middle East seemed to want to be more like Europe and America. Radicalization, however, had already begun.

Let’s set some context. Political Islam and the Caliphate were pretty much ended by the emergence of key nationalists like Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1924, whose constitutional reform abolished the institution of the Caliphate. With the emergence of other nationalists, such as Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1925, Iran set the stage for a secular path in the Middle East.

The European and American antidote to emerging Middle Eastern nationalism and to the threat of Soviet Union expansion into the Middle East was the same: invest in political Islam and religious fundamentalism. President Eisenhower even funded and hosted the first Islamic conference (Muslim Brotherhood convention, 1953) at Princeton University. The desire to discourage nationalism, socialism and secularism led to major financing and support for fundamentalist Islam in the region. Hence Jimmy Carter’s emphatic support for Iran’s Islamic revolution may have been misguided, but it was aligned with this established US foreign policy approach that seemed to address the issue of the Soviets invading Afghanistan next door.

Now here we are, with an increasingly global and mobile citizenry to carry the seeds, finding that the ideas planted decades ago in one context are bearing fruit in a much different geopolitical environment. Political Islam’s approach to infiltration and radicalization is a tried and true instrument of terror, preparing the masses for submission and being far removed from the foreign policy agendas from which they rose.

Today we have convicted terrorists who planned to do harm here in Canada and the United States, but also some fresh young minds who have travelled to the Middle East and Africa to take up arms and fight on the side of fundamentalist Islam. This has started to become a rite of passage for some young Muslims, but it is also a way to gain some sort of employment and purpose in life. These Western born or raised fighters end up fighting in Iraq, Libya, and now in Syria, Ivory Coast and elsewhere. We have a Canadian convicted terrorist in jail in Mauritania.  Young Canadian terrorists died attacking a gas plant in Algeria and left 37 hostages dead, too. There are no doubt more such stories yet to come to light.

The recruitment and indoctrination starts at home – maybe with family, maybe with key friends, local Mosques, or local handlers. It moves on to training abroad and, ultimately, being put on someone’s payroll to undertake violent acts or to join one of many fighting / resistance groups in the Middle East and North Africa.  While the majority of the these terrorists and terror suspects are of Muslim and Arab origin, there are smaller groups of converts who have found some kind of answer to their questions by falling into the same trap.

What does the future hold? Groups such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Hamas and Hezbollah are using Internet games to target children at an early age. Hundreds of Madrassas and Islamic schools in Europe and North America are using Saudi- and Iranian-based curricula, so will be turning out kids with different values in the next few years. Whether designed to radicalize or not, such values set these young minds apart from mainstream culture and disenfranchise them in mainstream public discourse. It often appeals to young people in need of direction to have such firm direction and to be a little different, to have something to reject and something to fill the resulting gap.

In 2006 the United Nations Counterterrorism Implementation Task Force produced its first report on “Radicalisation and Extremism that Lead to Terrorism”. This is the same UN, whose Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) is promoting a Jihadi curriculum and fomenting terrorism within its own schools.  A recently released video produced by the Center for Near East Policy Research examines Palestinian schools run by UNRWA and shows clear examples of how young children have been prepared to be jihadists and scared for their rest of their lives. Some teachers even advocate for Israel to be wiped off the map.

Who is the target for radicalization? Well, statistically, young converts are at the top of the list followed by those who are having a hard time dealing with normal societal interaction.  Some of the recent cases are clearly young men moving from high school to the university or work worlds and losing their way during the transition.  If you’ve missed the opportunity to instil radical values in the school age crowd, this transition cohort is ripe for the picking.  Knowing this is somewhat helpful, but knowing who is targeting them is more helpful still.

Among many other asymmetric warfare tactics, radicalization is an ancient instrument, much like human shields, use of places of worship and hospitals as weapons depots.  With the advent of mass migration and Internet connectivity it has become easier to move through the stages of radicalization faster and with more precision. Radicalizing individuals and groups who live among the infidel is an asymmetric warfare instrument that is inexpensive, yet effective.

Family and friends may target their own children, but other triggers for radicalization are more organized, such as the relentless promotion of the ideological singularity of Islamic Wahhabism, with its access to funding tied directly to petro-dollars. The net is cast wide, staffed by zealots and well-paid recruiters using a multichannel approach to global recruitment and training. While there is no public study identifying the exact dollar figure spent on recruitment, training and organization, the anecdotal evidence suggests a multi-billion dollar global industry. Those who suggest that the radical actions we have seen by those who have undertaken dozens of horrific mass terror since 2001 are works of a few bad apples are naïve.  This is a loosely organized program of terror.

One can argue that since September 11th, 2001, the radicalized Islamists who plan or commit acts of violence are no longer terrorists and should be regarded as combatants. In fact, the Jihadists are in agreement with this definition.  They continue to indicate that they are engaged in Jihad (war against the non-believers).  It is we who haven’t come to terms with this fact yet. In Asymmetric warfare it is incumbent on all of us to employ an economy of force and response that includes the public.

Trying to predict and monitor thousands of potential disenfranchised (bad-apples) individuals with a predilection to commit acts of terror across Canada, US and Europe would be impossible. Finding and drying up the sources of funding is more doable, but it takes serious brass, which our leadership has not been able to muster yet. 

Oliver Javanpour is the CEO at Cyrus Echo, a public policy and international relations consulting firm in Ottawa. This piece was first published in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.

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