Scott Atran in The Daily Beast:
As U.S. troops and their allies stage commando raids to rescue prisoners slated for slaughter by the so-called Islamic State, and the Russians mount bombing raids to bolster the dictatorship of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, it’s easy amid the kinetics to lose sight of a central and potentially determining fact about the fight against ISIS (or ISIL, or Daesh): This is, fundamentally, a war of ideas that the West has virtually no idea how to wage, and that is a major reason anti-ISIS policies have been such abysmal failures.
It’s not as if the core approach of ISIS is a mystery. Required reading for the emirs of the Islamic State is Abu Bakr Baji’s The Management of Savagery, a detailed manifesto, published a decade ago, looking at the West’s debilities and the potential strengths of a rising, ruthless caliphate. One typical maxim: “Work to expose the weakness of America’s centralized power by pushing it to abandon the media psychological war and the war by proxy until it fights directly.” That is, suck U.S. troops into the fight.
In the meantime ISIS is reaching out, especially in Africa but also in Central Asia and wherever a state of “chaos” or “savagery” (at-tawahoush) exists, to fill the void. It is establishing its caliphate as a global archipelago where “volcanoes of jihad” erupt, so that it may survive even if its current core base between the Euphrates River in Syria (Raqqa) and the Tigris in Iraq (Mosul) is seriously degraded. Libya is a prime target as the gateway to a continent in chaos, where ISIS is investing heavily. Over 700 Saudi fighters have gone there in recent months, according to evidence Saudi leaders presented to me in August.
Current “counter narratives” aren’t in the least appealing or successful, whether in attracting or deterring ISIS supporters and recruits. They are mostly negative and they lecture at young people rather than dialoguing with them. As one former ISIS imam told me and my colleagues: The young who came to us were not to be lectured at like witless children; they are for the most part understanding and compassionate, but misguided.
In contrast with, say, the off-target tweets of the U.S. State Department’s “Think Again Turn Away” campaign, the Islamic State may spend hundreds of hours trying to enlist single individuals, to learn how their personal frustrations and grievances can fit into a universal theme of persecution against all Muslims, and thus translate anger and frustration into moral outrage.
Current counter-radicalization approaches lack the mainly positive, empowering appeal and sweep of the Islamic State’s story of the world, while at the same time lacking the personalized and intimate approach to individuals.