Op-Ed: Terrorism as Virus

By Paul Stares and Mona Yacoubian

The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 23, 2005; Page A15

The recent flap over whether to reframe the "global war on terror" as a "global struggle against violent extremism" reflects a much deeper problem than a passing dispute over wording. Without clarity or consensus on whom or what we are up against, we are unlikely to develop a coherent long-term strategy to overcome it.

Our preference is "Islamist militancy" -- a politico-religious movement that incorporates not only those who commit acts of terrorism but also those who espouse violence and intolerance in the name of Islam.

The recent bombings in London remind us that this is not a conventional terrorist threat with a clear identity, organizational structure and limited geographical reach. Islamist militancy is a transnational phenomenon propelled by a diverse collection of groups and individuals with different grievances and agendas.

Standard counterterrorism responses, such as improving intelligence sharing and law enforcement cooperation, are indispensable but insufficient. Likewise, military force is sometimes required, but it cannot be the primary response. So what to do?

One promising new approach builds on the parallels often drawn between terrorism and a mutating virus or metastasizing cancer. Although Islamist militancy is clearly not a disease in the clinical sense, it does exhibit qualities of a social contagion; there is something undeniably appealing or "infectious" to many about the ideas and beliefs that motivate terrorists and their many supporters. Analyzing the terrorist threat with an epidemiological framework would give focus and direction to our effort in three areas:

First, it would encourage us to ask the right questions. What is the nature of the infectious agent, in this case the ideology? Which transmission vectors -- for example, mosques, madrassas, prisons, the Internet, satellite TV -- spread the ideology most effectively? Who seems to be most vulnerable to its appeal? Why are most Muslims immune? Nearly four years after Sept. 11, we still have only rudimentary answers.

Second, an epidemiological approach would help us view Islamist militancy as a dynamic, multifaceted phenomenon. Just as diseases do not emerge in a vacuum but evolve as a result of complex interactions between pathogens, people and their environment, so it is with Islamist militancy. Too often, however, we focus on the individual parts of the problem and miss the evolving big picture.

Third, it would encourage us to devise a comprehensive, long-term strategic approach to countering the threat. Public health officials long ago recognized that epidemics can be rolled back only with a systematically planned, multi-pronged international effort. The same applies to Islamist militancy; no silver bullet exists and no country can meet the challenge alone.

A global counterterrorism campaign inspired by classic counter-epidemic measures would simultaneously seek to contain the spread of Islamist militancy, protect those who are most susceptible and remedy the key environmental factors that foster it.

Containment initiatives would include controlling the movement of individuals to and from countries of concern, cleansing the most hate-filled vectors, and devising an ideological antidote to neutralize the most infectious tenets of Islamist militancy. Mobilizing religious and community leaders to delegitimize and reject jihadist propaganda and practices would be key. Exploiting the ideological contradictions or schisms within the militant Islamist movement to foment internal dissension and defection should also be explored.

Protective measures would focus on the high-risk countries and communities of the Muslim world and seek to immunize vulnerable populations by promoting a moderate counter-ideology that offers a positive, more compelling view of the future. Such critical arenas as religious and educational institutions, community centers and mass media outlets would play a pivotal role.

Likewise it would be crucial to undertake remedial initiatives that address the key environmental conditions underlying the spread of Islamist militancy. Chief among these are the numerous conflicts involving Muslims and non-Muslims -- notably Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya and Afghanistan -- that serve to validate jihadist ideology and act as recruiting magnets and training grounds. Social marginalization within the European diaspora communities, political repression and economic stagnation in many states of the Muslim world are additional problems to be tackled.

If we are clear in our understanding of the challenge -- and the epidemiological approach seems to help -- then our efforts are likely to be more effective. Ultimately, a successful long-term strategy must account for the complex dynamics driving Islamist militancy. Only then can the worrisome trends be reversed.

Paul Stares is vice president for research and studies at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Mona Yacoubian is a special adviser to the institute's Muslim World Initiative. The views expressed here are their own.

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