Back to publications

"Defeating IS Ideology" Sounds Good, But What Does It Really Mean?

06 Jun 2017
Short Read by J.M. Berger

As surely as night follows day, demands to defeat "the ideology" emerge after a terrorist attack, in increasingly urgent tones. After the terrorist attack Saturday night in London, Prime Minister Theresa May offered the latest iteration of that ritual, a refrain heard since the days of George W. Bush:

Defeating this ideology is one of the great challenges of our time, but it cannot be defeated by military intervention alone. … It will only be defeated when we turn people's minds away from this violence and make them understand that our values – pluralistic British values – are superior to anything offered by the preachers and supporters of hate.

After more than a decade, such pronouncements ring hollow. Not only are there more adherents to some form of jihadism than ever before, but many of these adherents subscribe to an even more violent version of jihadist ideology – the toxic, apocalyptic strain of extremism embodied by so-called Islamic State (IS).

The population of jihadist supporters remains tiny by virtually any objective measure, and we are not losing the War of Ideas in any meaningful sense. Violent jihadist extremism remains a marginal activity carried out on the fringes by fractional percentages of Muslim populations. Nevertheless, it should be obvious that the West’s obsessive focus on combatting ideology has produced no quantifiably positive results.

In part, this is because policymakers use the word ideology without knowing what it means. That doesn’t mean they are clueless about what groups like IS believe (although many certainly are). Rather, there is a fundamental lack of curiosity about how extremist ideologies work, in the broadest sense. For politicians and many policy makers, ideology is a magical, formless, mostly-Islamic force that bends vulnerable minds toward violence.

There are three structural elements of an extremist ideology: contents, identity, and distribution. When most people refer to an ideology, they are talking about the contents – the texts extremists cite and the values they purport to represent. This element prompts the most discussion, but it provides the least utility. In fact, my research suggests that attacking the contents of an ideology may escalate extremist views by prompting ideologues to craft new and more pernicious justifications.

The next-most discussed element is distribution, and reasonably so. If an ideology cannot be transmitted, it cannot be adopted. In her speech, Prime Minister May reiterated a view that is increasingly popular among policy makers and pundits – that “the internet, and the big companies that provide internet-based services” are responsible for the spread of radical ideologies and suggesting that online content must be drastically regulated.

But while it is true that social media is uniquely empowering to extremists, what most policymakers and commentators fail to recognise is that efforts to control IS’s activities online have peaked. I was among the first and loudest advocates of kicking terrorists off social media, and I fought long and hard for years to make people realise that suspending terrorists’ social media accounts would reduce their reach.

So believe me when I tell you: there is not much more that can be done.

I wrote last year that IS’s efforts on social media had reached a point of diminishing returns. Since then, its position on open platforms like Twitter and Facebook has remained under heavy pressure and scoring consistently low metrics. As of March, the median Arabic-language account openly supporting IS on Twitter had about 14 followers and could only stay online for about a day before being suspended. (These metrics are based on measurements I took from late 2016 through spring 2017. A colleague independently confirmed the figures using a different methodology).

In other words, our efforts to control IS on open social media platforms have also reached the point of diminishing returns. We need to maintain the pressure, and we have a few tactical plays remaining, but there is not much room left for large-scale improvements.

Placing further demands on Facebook, Twitter and Google will not solve the problem. Would-be killers do not need to follow IS on Twitter in order to learn how to drive a car into a crowd of pedestrians. They can get that from the mainstream news, which faithfully amplifies both the propaganda and attacks of IS. It is neither desirable nor possible to create a total information blackout, and continually escalating regulation of speech will lead our free societies to a dark place.

The final element of ideology is identity. Here, there may be opportunities for new approaches. The concept of identity has been relatively neglected in policy circles, despite its paramount importance to extremist movements.

My research has shown that extremist ideology describe an in-group based on race, religion or nationality, and they provide a parallel description of an opposing out-group. A movement becomes extremist when it believes the in-group can never be successful unless it is engaged in hostile activity against the out-group.

Extremists create a narrative justification for their beliefs by linking the out-group to a crisis afflicting the in-group, and linking the in-group to a violent solution against the out-group. The greater the perceived crisis, the more violent and extreme the solution. These linkages are the substance of an extremist ideology, and as such, they are vulnerable to counter-programming.

The sweeping absolutes preferred by politicians are ill-suited to this task, whether the Bush administration’s efforts at democracy promotion, the Obama administration’s efforts to discredit the religious legitimacy of groups like IS, or May’s assertion of the “superiority of British values”. Democracy promotion, in the form of the Iraq war, created a zone of instability that extremists enthusiastically exploited. Simplistic attacks on legitimacy are, at best, ineffective, and at worst, risk fueling an escalation in extremist views (as argued at length here). And asserting a competing identity may enhance the in-group/out-group dynamic, or worse, create competing extremist movement.

Too often, the concept of “defeating the terrorists’ ideology” is conflated with deradicalisation – an amorphous transformation in which potential extremists adopt nebulously defined pro-social values. In the short term, a more pragmatic approach is to pursue policies that promote disengagement from extremist movements, a task that can be defined concretely and evaluated based on tangible factors.

Deradicalisation is a worthwhile goal for the long-term, after disengagement has been accomplished. Studying the dynamics of identity construction may provide actionable insights into how to approach this problem and how to measure results. To begin this process, policymakers and practitioners must first exchange their romanticised notions of ideology for a more grounded definition.

We should also be clear: there is no silver bullet that will eradicate violent extremism from the world. It may be admirable to strive toward that goal, but our expectations must be tempered with realism.

Extremist movements endure for generations, even in the face of utter defeat. In America, the Ku Klux Klan survived decades of near-total marginalisation and may now be poised for a comeback of sorts. The Nazis suffered an overwhelming military loss and met with sweeping condemnation from nearly the entire world, yet its name and ideas linger on. In both cases, kinetic efforts (law enforcement for the former, and military action against the latter) were arguably far more decisive than ideological combat. But those victories were complemented and supported by social movements that arose to counter their pernicious worldviews.

Similarly, we should not pin our hopes on the idea that we can exterminate the ideology of IS in a decade or two. The battle against terrorism remains necessary and worthwhile, in both social and kinetic realms. We can and must continue to improve our understanding of extremism, and the underlying structure and function of extremist ideologies. But simply reciting “defeat the ideology” as a meaningless mantra serves very little purpose, especially when such discussions become mired in politics. To combat violent ideologies, we must continually work to move the conversation out of the clouds and on to the ground.