Understanding the appeal of violent extremism

With the rise and expansion of ISIS, the root causes of violent extremism have been receiving renewed attention

Manuel Almeida

Published: Updated:

In late January, another CIA drone strike in Yemen’s Marib province that sits some eighteen miles to the east of the capital Sanaa killed three members of al-Qaeda, at least according to the official story at the time.

One of the victims of the strike was a thirteen-year-old, Mohammad Tuaiman, who had told the Guardian newspaper just a few months earlier how he feared those “death machines” hovering around constantly and that had already killed his brother and father. “A lot of the kids in this area wake up from sleeping because of nightmares from them and some now have mental problems. They turned our area into hell and continuous horror, day and night, we even dream of them in our sleep,” he told the reporter.

Contrary to what was stated in the press soon after the drone strike, evidence of Mohammad’s ties to al-Qaeda seems extremely shaky. The same goes for his father and teenage brother. The family vehemently denies they belonged to the terrorist group. After the attacks, however, al-Qaeda was there offering its support to the family. This and other similar stories have helped turn Marib, already a restive province, into an area where al-Qaeda coexists with local tribes.

Root causes

With the rise and expansion of ISIS, the root causes of violent extremism have been receiving renewed attention. The White House held a conference last week on the matter with high-level officials, experts and members of civil society.

Countering terrorism in the region should be no substitute for a comprehensive regional strategy

Manuel Almeida

Earlier this month, the White House also released its new National Security Strategy which states that “in the long-term, our efforts to work with other countries to counter the ideology and root causes of violent extremism will be more important than our capacity to remove terrorists from the battlefield.” Revealing of where fighting terrorism sits in the list of U.S. regional priorities, the opening sentence in the Middle East section of the strategy starts off with a commitment to “dismantle terrorist networks that threaten our people.”

Countering terrorism in the region should be no substitute for a comprehensive regional strategy. Especially when considering that the appeal of extremist ideology reflects deeper problems in the region, the fight against al-Qaeda and ISIS seems to have gained disproportionate importance for the U.S. This could be, at least partially, a natural consequence of the massive amounts of money the U.S. continues to spend every year on counter-terrorism and the thousands of counter-terrorism experts it employs. Repeated calls over the years to trim down the beast have fallen on deaf ears.

Counterproductive choices

More problematic is that some of the choices the current U.S. administration and some of its Western allies have made in relation to a few key developments in the region seem to be counterproductive when it comes to countering violent extremism. The ongoing use of drones and all the resentment and anti-Americanism they generate is only one example.

The issue with shifting attention away from the root cause of the Syrian crisis and the brutalities that the forces loyal to the Assad regime continue to commit, to focus on bombing ISIS and especially groups such as Jabat al-Nusra has been pointed out by numerous Syria experts. This is all the more ironic when considering the well-documented history of Assad’s use of jihadists in Lebanon, Iraq and then in what is left of his own country by releasing them from Syrian jails once the uprising against his rule went out of control.

Another flagrant case is the U.S. support in the form of air raids, Special Forces, weapons supplies and training to the Iraqis fighting ISIS. The trouble is the Iraqi army is a shadow of its former self and the U.S. is effectively on the same side as the tens of thousands of the Iranian-backed Shiite militias who are pressing Westwards against ISIS positions. Since 2004, these militias have massacred Sunnis (including those who rose decisively against al-Qaeda since 2005) and continue to execute scores of Sunni civilians. Are they less brutal because they don’t tend to post their brutalities on YouTube?

Using leverage

Coupled with its necessary support for the Arab and Kurdish Iraqis fighting ISIS, the U.S. should use the little leverage it has left there to press Haider al-Abadi’s government to do more to reign in these militias. Some of the leaders of these militias have pledged to punish the many unfortunate Sunni civilians caught middle-way between them and ISIS.

Americans and Europeans seem increasingly tempted to look at the crisis in Iraq and Syria as a large swath of territory dominated by extremists of all kinds, stuck between a brutal but rational pro-Iranian regime in Damascus and a partially renewed Baghdad government with whom business can be done. Most Sunni Arab states and public however, look at it and see millions of Sunnis trapped between the brutality of Iranian-sponsored Assad regime, the radicalism of ISIS and the equally treacherous pro-Iranian Shiite militias.

Western governments have been placing increasing emphasis on fighting a war of ideas to counter the message and ideology of extremists, and a lot of resources are being directed to this mission. Yet it is crucial to understand the very real situations in which the grievances that make extremist ideology appealing are grounded. These are not simply misperceptions or misunderstandings that can be clarified via outreach, social media and PR campaigns.


Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant on the Middle East. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science and was an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.