What is the nature and scale of the threat from radicalisation in particular religious communities and how should we tackle this?

Across the world, the interaction of religion and conflict is making its effect felt. Political ideologies and events are exposed to the pressures of religion. Policy makers can no longer ignore the threat posed by violent religious ideologies, but if they are to be defeated, they must be understood.

Defeating extremism requires new policies and sustained international effort. This is where the Tony Blair Faith Foundation helps, generating new solutions and promoting them to government, and other partners, that can bring them to scale. We think and we do. Our ideas inform our work on the ground, and vice versa.

The Centre on Religion & Geopolitics (CRG), our international affairs think-tank, helps policy makers to understand the ideology behind religious extremist violence. It presents informed analysis on the interaction of religion, geopolitics, and conflict globally; and offers policy responses to meet the scale of the challenge.

Our projects on the ground have reached over 2,000,000 people through education and training in schools, universities, and with faith and community leaders, including in some of the world’s most challenging regions.

The scale of the threat

CRG tracks incidents of violent religious extremism and responses to it worldwide. Our data shows that the threat from violent religious extremism is global: in the first six months of 2016, every inhabited continent was affected. Throughout 2016, the same six countries saw the highest casualty figures, again and again. Over 85 per cent of the fatalities in May occurred in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Nigeria; and in May alone, 22 extremist groups instigated 228 violent incidents in 26 countries. The five worst of these incidents, perpetrated by Islamist extremists, killed at least 424 people.

The wider cost of the global terror threat is seen not only in injury and death, but also in displacement and economic loss.

Nature and process

Ideology is fundamental to radicalisation, and CRG’s research on propaganda and ideology proves that the ideology of Salafi-jihadism is a vital motivating force for extremist violence. There is a distinct difference between the ideology of Salafi-jihadism and the Islam practiced by the majority of the world’s Muslims. The Salafi-jihadi ideology is built upon Islamic religious principles, which it distorts to produce a single-minded focus on violent jihad.

The three groups we studied (ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) share fundamentally similar ideologies, challenging the concept that “ISIS is more extreme than al-Qaeda”.

Ideological values, which form the moral basis of the groups’ actions, are present in 80 per cent of propaganda sources; these include Islamic creedal values in 62 per cent, the values of honour and solidarity with the Muslim community in 68 per cent, and explicit references to the end of days in 42 per cent. It is this ideology that drives groups’ behaviour.

In other recent research, CRG explored how prominent Islamist militants made their journeys to jihad. The findings paint a picture of a global network formed by individuals who are linked across generations. In campuses and prison cells, in training camps and battlefields, future jihadis form friendships – and adopt an ideology – that may one day draw them into the leading ranks of one of the most influential and violent movements of our times.

Key findings:

  • The jihadi elite is globalised. Forty-nine per cent of our sample had most recently been active in a foreign country. Meanwhile, 27 per cent of those operating in their home countries had returned from conflicts abroad, while 24 per cent of the total stayed in their home countries.
  • Personal networks are key to the development of the jihadi movement. Our data links the leaders of Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS today to the forefathers of the movement through people they met in prison, at university, and on the battlefield.
  • Conflict hubs draw jihadis. Seventy-six per cent of prominent jihadis have fought in at least one of four major regional conflict zones. These are the Levant, Sahel, Khorasan, and East Africa
  • Middle Eastern and sub-Saharan jihadis have broadly separate networks, despite groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda claiming to be global. However, a number of prominent militants from both continents spent time training and fighting in Afghanistan.
  • The majority of jihadis move from group to group. Fifty-one per cent of our cross-section joined multiple militant groups over the course of their jihadi career.
  • Prominent jihadis are often well educated. Forty-six per cent of our sample went to university. Of these, 57 per cent graduated with STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) degrees. This was double the number of jihadis taking Islamic studies.
  • Half of jihadis came from non-violent Islamist movements. Fifty-one per cent of the jihadis profiled had non-violent Islamist links before joining violent movements. One in four had links to the Muslim Brotherhood or affiliated organisations.
  • Most jihadi careers include time in prison. Sixty-five per cent of our sample of jihadis spent time in prison during their careers, yet only 25 per cent of those are known to have committed crimes or served sentences before becoming jihadis.
  • Twenty-five per cent of jihadis have links to government. A quarter of our sample had previously worked for the state or security services, or had immediate family members in government service. This demonstrates that it is not just peripheral figures or those ostracised by the state who are vulnerable to extremism.

Possible responses

We must revise urgently our response to Islamist extremism and the Salafi-jihadism which accompanies it. To combat it effectively, we must recognise that this is a struggle against an extremist ideology, driven by a perverted view of Islam. The struggle is not only against the minority who commit acts of violence, but against the wider ideology that supports them; the combination of theology and political objectives needs to be uprooted through a re-examination of Western policy responses, rigorous scrutiny, and sustained intellectual confrontation.

In the short term, violent groups must be countered with sustained and coordinated force. In the long term, we must reform education systems that promote extremism, equip civil society to counter extreme ideologies, and build institutions that can prevent their growth.

1.Understand and target the foundations of the jihadi ideological framework

Counter narratives should:

  • Identify ideology and a warped understanding of theology as a cause of modern terrorism. The King of Jordan and British Prime Minister David Cameron have led the way.
  • Expose the weaknesses and contradictions inherent in their use of Islamic values, for example their erratic use of the concepts of iman and ihsan.
  • Target the point at which jihadi propaganda leans upon Islamic creedal values, in order to undermine the whole ideology.
  • Exploit the rivalries between Salafi-jihadi groups, often the most adept at identifying gaps between ideology and actions

2. Challenge the global Islamist ideological narrative that feeds jihadism

Governments must:

  • Focus on organisations that seek to undermine the state and its values by any means, including subversion and disregard for the rule of law, not only those that advocate violence.
  • Better understand the conditions that breed vulnerability to extremist voices, through increased engagement with civil society actors.
  • Apply organisational social pressure by refusing to work with groups that oppose fundamental values of openness and pluralism.

3. Create a simple alternative framework for the application of Islamic values and principles

Counter-narratives should:

  • Avoid denigrating or ignoring Islamic values, both of which feed jihadi narratives.
  • Simply and robustly base all alternative frameworks in Islamic theology, recognising the powerful desire for honour and solidarity with the oppressed.
  • Quote from scripture freely and simply to oppose the tenets of the ideology, and provide similarly emphatic and robust explanations as those given by jihadi preachers.

Religious leaders should:

  • Work to disrupt the influence of religious literalism, by promoting the application of interpretations such as maqasid al-shariah (principles of Sharia) that allow for alternative forms of government to the caliphate.
  • Work to disrupt the promotion of a utopian Islamic State from political Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami.
  • Support and promote models of government in Muslim majority countries that work against extremism, such as the developing democracy in Tunisia.

4.Reform the role of education systems, role models, and funders in inoculating against extremism

Sixty two per cent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are under 30, and 60 per cent of the population of the Middle East is under 25. Counter-narratives must embrace the power of popular culture as well as the authority of religious voices to succeed.

Meanwhile, many disenfranchised returning fighters have an important role to play in debunking the legitimacy of this ideology.

Civil society needs to:

  • Leverage slogans, grassroots campaigns, and viral media to take away the ‘cool effect’ some jihadi groups work to cultivate.
  • Promote initiatives such as the 2006 Yeh Hum Naheen (‘this is not us’) campaign in Pakistan, which 63 million supported.
  • Highlight the public accounts of those who have returned from fighting with these groups in order to discredit the Salafi-jihadi ideology.
  • Ensure that counter-narrative responses address the growing phenomenon of women and families travelling as ‘migrants’ to jihadi-controlled territory.

Governments should:

  • Make applying pressure to these groups a key plank of their bilateral meetings with countries of concern, encouraging and incentivising changes to syllabi and textbooks.

Universities should:

  • Incentivise students to attend modules that build skills to critically analyse social and political issues. Existing policy can be applied to widen access to structured environments in which sensitive topics, including extremist ideologies, can be safely explored.
  • Place a responsibility on managerial and student bodies to ensure that extremist viewpoints face intellectual challenge, especially during events hosting controversial speakers.
  • Avoid censoring non-violent extremist content, but rather foster a critical culture towards such texts.

5.Equip prisons to obstruct the building of jihadi networks

Governments should:

  • Place senior jihadis into separate units in prisons, isolating leaders and ideologues from more junior members. This will help to prevent ‘mentorship’ structures forming.
  • Provide compulsory religious education programmes for inmates convicted of jihadi-related offences.
  • Create a mentoring programme between those convicted of jihadi offences and Islamic scholars to encourage a more nuanced understanding of their faith. Existing schemes of ‘pen-pals’ for prisoners are a model for how this could be achieved.
  • Ensure that all religious teaching in prisons occurs under the auspices of a trained and regulated Muslim chaplaincy programme.

6.Build regional cooperation to disrupt the spread of conflicts 

Conflicts are rarely contained, and jihadis exploit unstable conditions in neighbouring countries in order to spread their influence across borders. In many cases, military force will be required to prevent emerging areas of jihadi territorial control from incubating new hubs of international conflict.

Governments should:

  • Increase their security, intelligence, and economic co- operation at a regional level to strengthen good governance and resilience across borders against jihadi security threats. The Multinational Joint Task Force, tackling Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Ba-sin, has demonstrated how a regional approach to tack ling a group that operates across borders is more effective than a national one.

7.Identify and target the next generation of jihadi leaders to undermine the movement’s development

Too much focus is paid to the current leadership of the jihadi movement, while the networks that perpetuate it are being built at the next level down.

Govrenments should:

  • Examine the development of the current networks of leading jihadis to generate analytical models by which they can target the nucleus of tomorrow’s jihadi network.
  • Apply a network-driven approach to weakening jihadi groups, targeting the network-builders as well as the leaders of the movement.

You can read detailed policy recommendations in our Milestones to Militancy and Inside the Jihadi Mind reports, both available on the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics’ webpages.