Exposing the Extremists

Exposing the Extremists

Traditional weapons can only do so much to defeat the scourge of terrorism


When researchers with the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism interviewed 100 former Daesh members in places such as Iraq and Syria, their findings came as a surprise to many.

Most of these men and women — fighters and volunteers from as far away as Europe — felt betrayed by Daesh. And it wasn’t just a case of weariness in fighting for a losing cause.  

Daesh seduced them with promises of solidarity — the creation of a dignified, ideal Islamic society in which their emotional and physical needs would be met.

None of these things materialized. What they discovered instead was a brutal terrorist regime in which Islam’s principles were mocked and betrayed in an orgy of violence.

Such insights will be critical in preventing the resurgence of violent extremism and rehabilitating would-be terrorists, several speakers reiterated at the Amman Forum on Countering Violent Extremism in October 2018.

“ISIS was peddling a utopian dream,” Dr. Anne Speckhard, director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, told conference attendees, who numbered more than 300.

Hosted for the first time by the Jordan Armed Forces Military Center for Counterterrorism and Counterextremism, the forum allowed international participants to share ideas about combating radical ideologies before they mushroom into terrorist movements.

“This conference took place at a pivotal moment in the fight against violent extremism. With large-scale military operations across the region gradually winding down, much of the focus will shift to handling the inevitable flow of fighters returning to their home countries. This evolving threat served as the impetus for the Amman Forum,” said Zack Bazzi, Middle East regional advisor for the Spirit of America organization, which co-sponsored the conference.

The Jordan Armed Forces is playing a larger role in this ideological warfare. Dr. Mohammed Al-Athmat, former director of the Jordanian counterterrorism center, noted that the Sixth Article of the 2014 National Plan to confront extremism called upon the Royal Jordanian National Defense College to conduct further studies on the phenomena of ideological extremism and its impact on the country’s security.

Prosecuting and imprisoning terrorists is necessary to contain threats, but academics and security professionals realize that jamming like-minded extremists together behind prison walls creates problems of its own.

It’s behind bars that violent ideologues form alliances with ordinary criminals to create terrorist movements professing a right to kill innocent people who don’t agree with them, Dr. Al-Athmat told conference attendees.

“If prisons are the worst places for living, they are surely the best places to exchange ideas and shape dark minds,” Dr. Al-Athmat said.

One alternative discussed by Dr. Al-Athmat is rehabilitation of convicted extremists to reintegrate them into society. He commended a Saudi Arabian program that began in 2003 for targeting the ideological and the psychological needs of would-be terrorists. Indonesia uses a similar program that relies on enlisting former extremists to dissuade new extremists.

Dr. Speckhard’s organization has specialized in counternarrative campaigns using video testimony of disillusioned Daesh members to dissuade radicalized youth from turning to terrorism. The videos aim to make an emotional, and not just intellectual, connection with viewers. 

“These people that have been in ISIS and walked away — that are defectors, returnees and prisoners — if you can get their stories they’re instructive. They can be cautionary tales,” Dr. Speckhard said.

Ideology is an equally important component of counterterrorism, said Samih Al-Maaitah, Jordan’s former minister of state for media affairs and communications. Such a campaign must include refuting religious misinterpretations used by terrorists to rationalize their crimes.

“There is a military war against these extremist organizations, but societies need a long-term war of ideas, a war that promotes values, ethics and a proper understanding of religion and Sharia texts,” Al-Maaitah said.

Participants at the Amman forum included academics, military officers, diplomats, and business and religious leaders from 20 countries. Attendance was twice as large as originally projected, which pleased the Jordanians and Americans who helped organize the event.

“There is a need for policies and strategies to strengthen the principles of moderation and tolerance to protect future generations,” said Brig. Gen. Abdullah Shudeifat, commander of the Royal Jordanian National Defense College.  

The Military Counterextremism and Counterterrorism Center in Jordan was established in response to the vision of His Majesty King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein to respond long term to the ideological and cultural challenges of terrorism. It was inaugurated by Jordan’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mahmoud Freihat in October 2017. The mission of the center is to combat ideological extremism in line with the government and popular efforts of the Jordanian state that are compatible with international efforts. The center falls under the jurisdiction of the Royal Jordanian National Defense College but affiliates academically with Mu’tah University. The center operates with the awareness that military solutions alone are not enough to end terrorism and boost national, regional and international security. As part of its efforts to counter ideological extremism, the center’s curriculum highlights the values and principles of Islam free of distortions by extremists. It offers a master’s degree for those majoring in counterextremism and counterterrorism strategies through a specialized program never seen before in the Arab and Islamic worlds.