The conversation around counterterrorism has changed with the new administration. A perspective on terrorism that has, until now, remained on the fringes of policy is now at the heart of policy debates: that the West is in an existential conflict with a virulent form of Islamic ideology. This perspective has been espoused by several high-profile Trump administration advisors, from Steve Bannon to Sebastian Gorka, and is regarded as the driver for the executive orders regarding restrictions on immigration from some majority-Muslim countries. Problematically, and well-known among counterterrorism professionals, this approach to terrorism is both counterproductive and dangerous. Approaching counterterrorism as if there was a “clash of civilizations” would both degrade our ability to reduce the threat of terrorism and make the problem worse.
In a famous, and controversial, 1993 essay, political scientist Samuel Huntington argued that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, culture would become the main driver of conflict—rather than class or economics. Huntington, saw this “clash” as a potent driver of opposition to the economically and militarily dominant West.
The original model tried to move away from ideologies as the driver of international conflict, but when applied to counterterrorism, the clash of civilizations argument has been adapted to argue that there is single overarching religious ideology pulling people into radical Islamism. In this approach to counterterrorism, Islam as a whole is naturally incompatible with Western civilization—and this is the driver of terrorism seen across the West today.
Proponents of this Islam versus the West view argue that the United States must protect itself from terrorism by aggressively countering this dangerous ideology. But this idea runs counter to the observed trends in terrorism, however. At a recent event held by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and New York University (NYU) in D.C., the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Nicholas Rasmussen, argued that the factors that lead to radicalization in the United States are “highly individualized.” Rasmussen also said that in the United States, where homegrown violent extremism is the most immediate threat, terrorists are becoming less ideological—even as they become more violent.
Trying to collate specific ideological drivers can run the risk of missing potential terrorists. This reality unfortunately makes the counterterrorism task harder, as the United States must expand the scope of the factors it examines to track radicalization. This is not to say that ideological beliefs are not a factor in radicalization, but that focusing on ideology can lead to tunnel vision.
A study conducted for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point into foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria concluded that religiosity was not the strongest factor in determining radicalization. Less than 15 percent of the jihadists had any formal religious training, and the decision to become a foreign fighter did not correlate with either lifelong religious beliefs or recent conversion. To further complicate matters, while foreign fighters tend to consistently come from the fringes of their social groups, those groups tend to be diverse. Because of the complexity of the contributing factors in a person’s path towards radicalization, Rasmussen argued that community outreach was vital to counter terrorism in the United States. Without community engagement and assistance, counterterrorism efforts would face substantial difficulties.
Community outreach relies on trust, transparency, and cooperation. None of these can exist where identities—Western and Muslim—are pitted in direct conflict with each other, as the clash of civilizations lens assumes. Rasmussen, as well as the other experts at the CNAS/NYU event, also pointed out that in their experience each community they engaged with was different. These different communities inherently required different approaches, something not possible in a one-size-fits-all view of civilizational conflict.
Finally, the clash of civilizations approach can polarize and fuel its own feedback loop. One of the problems highlighted during the CNAS/NYU panel was that the current focus on such civilization-level clashes stirs up extremism in itself. Not only is it used for propaganda by ISIS and al Qaeda extremists to recruit—ISIS hammers home the arguments that the West is at war with Islam, and Muslims should sign up on their side—but it also energizes far-right extremists. The actions taken by these extremists, which have increased over the last year, can help create a vicious internal cycle. In this cyclical process, the “gray zone,” the people between the two warring camps, shrinks. This is one of the reasons why one of the trends we are seeing today is a clash within civilizations. Disaffected Americans are radicalized, both within Muslim and far-right communities in the United States, and then kill other Americans.
The “clash of civilization” rhetoric may be appealing to many inside the administration and around the United States, but it makes the jobs of those protecting America harder. Not only does it risk deepening the suspicions and social rifts that make it hard to catch homegrown extremists, but it also underestimates the effort that will be needed to reduce the risks of terrorism. Dealing with the threat of terrorism is not going to be easy, and America should not buy into simplistic counterterrorism strategies that claim differently.