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Opinion: The Western Jihadist Phenomenon | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A masked Islamic State militant holding a knife speaks next to man purported to be U.S. journalist James Foley at an unknown location in this still file image from an undated video posted on a social media website. (REUTERS/Social Media Website via REUTERS TV/Files)

The arrest of four people a few days ago in Britain on suspicion of planning a terrorist operation, and the raising of the national security alert level, reflect the concern of several Western countries over the thousands of their citizens who have gone to join the fighting in Syria and Iraq—some estimates place the figure as high as 9,000. Large numbers of these jihadists have joined the ranks of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). There are serious fears that these jihadists—loaded with radical ideology and the culture of beheadings—will return and carry out terrorist attacks in their home countries. In an effort to deal with these returning extremists, the authorities in several Western countries have taken measures and enacted laws to hold them to account for fighting abroad and joining terrorist organizations. But laws do not provide answers to the deeper questions surrounding the recruitment of home-grown jihadists. One of the most prominent questions relates to what attracts Western youth to terrorist organizations such as ISIS? How was the radical ideology of terrorist groups able to infiltrate the minds of young people, despite all the precautions taken, laws enacted, and funds spent ever since the War on Terror was declared? Has the War on Terror become a lifeline for extremism and a key weapon in the arsenal of terror ideologues and preachers who employ it in their rhetoric to attract new followers?

The West may find answers to some, but certainly not all, of these questions in the experience of Arab and Muslim countries that have suffered from terrorism and the involvement of their youth in terror groups while under the influence of the discourse of radical preachers. The circumstances of young people who have grown up in the West, attended Western schools, and were exposed to its culture differ in several aspects from those in Arab and Muslim countries lured by extremist ideology and terrorist groups. The overwhelming proportion of the Western youth joining ISIS or Al-Qaeda and its offshoots were born to parents who emigrated from Arab and Muslim countries, but they remain the products of Western culture—born, raised and educated in the West.

It is true that ISIS has developed effective propaganda tools more advanced than those of Al-Qaeda, and it is certainly employing social media networks, such as Facebook and Twitter and YouTube, with extreme efficiency. But these alone do not explain why youths have left their countries and their families behind, risking their lives on the battlefields in Syria and Iraq, or why they were attracted to extremist ideology in the first place.

Indeed, there is a lost generation of youth disillusioned by their circumstances and societies, with many becoming a target and fuel for terror movements. Some of them suffer from identity crises and feel alienated and marginalized, and perhaps also victims of racial discrimination. Others are indignant at their Western societies and angered by the news coming out of the countries of their forefathers. This is not to mention the scenes of destruction and slaughter—whether in Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, or Palestine—which extremist preachers and terror ideologues employ in their speeches and propaganda videos in order to consolidate the idea that the West is oppressing Muslims and destroying their countries. Others may act out of a spirit of adventure and romanticized ideas of warfare, or are attracted by an ISIS propaganda that portrays the group as defying Western hegemony and might.

This is not to deny the presence of young people who choose to embrace extremist ideology out of a sense of “spiritual alienation,” given the declining significance of religion in Western societies in general. Such people look for groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda and find their rhetoric of establishing an “authentic” Islamic state appealing. They believe that by joining these groups they are fulfilling a religious duty.

The biggest challenge facing the West is not to eliminate ISIS, but rather to understand the reasons that make some Muslim youth vulnerable to being entrapped by extremism. There is no way to address this phenomenon without understanding the reasons behind it. The West can learn lessons from other countries in this area, or it risks making the same mistakes. One such mistake includes harboring large numbers of radical Islamists who are now taking advantage of the atmosphere of freedom to promote their extremist discourse. The War on Terror must be of a global character because this epidemic is not limited to one geographic spot, and its ideology, as shown in the past, operates across national borders. This is particularly the case in the age of the Internet and social networking, which pose another set of challenges that require careful study and a considered response.

The importance of two issues should be recognized, a step which requires political courage. First, the reasons behind the political and social grievances should be addressed. Second, the West has to reconsider some aspects of its foreign policy that have led to the formation of hotbeds of terrorism. Otherwise, all efforts to address and understand the phenomenon of thousands of Western youths joining groups like ISIS will fail.