Clarifying language is important part of fight against terrorism

If policymakers truly desire to inject nuance into the debate over counterterrorism and CVE, they must reform the terminology.
December 17, 2017
A message about security is visible on stairs inside the Times Square subway station, New York City

Every terrorist attack in the United States in­spires speculation over motives and indicators. Policymakers, journal­ists and researchers scramble to string together the suspect’s background, hoping to reveal potential warning signs and identify violent trends in behaviour.

Following the recent bomb detonation on a New York subway train, for instance, the conversation quickly focused on alleged perpe­trator Akayed Ullah’s immigration status, overseas travel and involve­ment with local mosques. The idea is that terrorist attacks carried out in the name of Islam share certain attributes and, by identifying these trends and characteristics, law enforcement can anticipate and thwart future terrorist plots.

A publication from the RAND Corporation tears a hole through that theory. In an immersive and deeply reported study titled “The Origins of America’s Jihadists,” Brian Michael Jenkins takes stock of every terrorist attack in the United States in the name of Islam since 9/11. Across 86 plots, 22 attacks and 178 planners and perpetrators, Jen­kins finds no single explanation or set of trends that can predict what he terms “jihadist” activity.

“The complexity of terrorist mo­tives defies easy diagnosis,” Jenkins said. “Religious beliefs and jihadist ideologies play an important role but are only one component of a constellation of motives.”

The report stated that nationality is a poor predictor of violent ex­tremist activity. Most of the plotters were “home-grown” US citizens or legal permanent residents.

“In many cases, those prone to violence have very little interac­tion with family or community. Many have troubled lives or are in personal crisis. Their decisions are dictated by circumstances,” Jenkins said in an interview. “I am not sure how community-based CVE efforts will intercept them.” These findings undermine theories that attempt to link terrorism to immigration or religion.

Despite the lack of clear indicators, countering violent extremism (CVE) policy and analysis reinforces the link between terrorism and Islam. By repeatedly invoking the Muslim community — and utilising other damaging terminology — analysts undermine their own efforts to inject nuance into the CVE policy debate.

The term “Muslim community” is often used in counterterrorism and CVE discussions as a thread to weave together Muslim Ameri­cans of different racial, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. It allows researchers and analysts to lump together otherwise unrelated people to draw trends and delineate statistics.

Jenkins, for instance, uses the term to explain radicalisation among American Muslims, remark­ing that in 2011 “5% of American Muslims held favourable atti­tudes towards violent jihadists.” He explained that this amounts to 165,000 people, based on an estimated Muslim population of 3.3 million. When discussing US law enforcement efforts to counter ter­rorist plots, Jenkins said the “Mus­lim community has, in fact, been a source of tips to authorities.”

Despite Jenkins’ and others’ efforts to highlight Muslim coopera­tion with law enforcement — and emphasise American Muslims’ obduracy to violent ideology — the community-centric nature of the discussion reinforces the link between terrorism and Islam. It inherently imposes collective responsibility on all American Mus­lims by putting otherwise unrelated individuals together into a single unit of analysis.

The discussion obscures other potential trends or indicators that might prove more salient than religion. The average age of terrorist plotters since 9/11, for instance, has been about 28 years old. For law enforcement, a more effective prevention strategy might entail broad-based youth programming and direct intervention, framing the issue of terrorism with other youth and adolescent crime.

This points to a broader need for terminology reform and clarifica­tion within counterterrorism and CVE policy. Use of the word “jihad” is another salient example. “Jihad” is a word from the Islamic tradi­tion most often defined as efforts “to strive” or “to struggle” but its true meaning varies with the social context in which it manifests. The most common perception of jihad is one of an internal struggle against hardship or sinful inclinations, such as poverty or theft. In that sense, it is quite a positive and aspirational term.

While some terrorists may very well perceive themselves as “jihad­ists,” referring to them as such in policy reports denigrates and ob­scures a complex term that is salient to Muslim individuals the world over. It equates violent extremism with jihad, again lumping violent extremists within a diverse popula­tion of individuals who perceive efforts to “strive” and “struggle” in quite a different way.

If policymakers truly desire to inject nuance into the debate over counterterrorism and CVE, they must reform the terminology. Clari­fying language strengthens efforts to shift away from community-focused prevention programmes by removing perceptions of collective punishment.

Terms such as “jihadist” and “Islamist terrorist” should be replaced with “violent extremist” or “terrorism in the name of Islam.” These changes would create space for more targeted CVE policy built around interventions and rehabili­tation.

It is time to recognise the effects CVE policy has on perceptions and actions. Clarifying language would be a good start.