The West is losing the war of ideas with radical jihadist and Islamist groups, experts said on Wednesday.
The United States spent $17.25 billion on counterterrorism last year and has devoted more than $500 billion to intelligence since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but critics say the majority of those efforts have been reactive rather than preventive.
Al Qaeda, the terrorist group behind the 9/11 attacks, now has a more dynamic and sprawling organization than before 2001, with affiliates operating in countries like Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.
On the ground, militant groups like al Shabaab in Somalia recruit and indoctrinate youths at schools with a radical Islamist ideology, according to a 2010 report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
The United States and the West, by contrast, lack a clearly defined liberal democratic alternative to offer these vulnerable youth, experts said at a Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) panel discussion.
“We have conceded to to them a theological safe haven in which they are able to preserve the moral legitimacy of their ideas, which we then have no platform with which to attack,” said Robert Reilly, senior fellow for strategic communication at the American Foreign Policy Council and former senior adviser for information strategy in the Bush administration.
Reilly noted former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in January that “we’re abdicating the ideological arena.”
“We are in an information war, and we are losing that war,” he said.
Terrorists prey on disaffected youth in countries like Iraq and Pakistan, which have the highest rates of violent incidents and deaths and also widespread illiteracy. The United States attempts to counter the jihadist narrative with domestic news reports from the Broadcast Board of Governors (BBG), established as an independent agency in 1998 with oversight of media organizations like Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks.
However, experts said the message of freedom, tolerance, and liberal democratic values is not getting through because it is muddled.
Bret Stephens, deputy editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, said the mission of organizations like VOA is unclear.
“Either you’re going to have a propaganda arm or not, but we can’t have this hybrid thing that’s supposed to be a propaganda arm that showcases American virtues by not being propagandistic,” Stephens said.
Stephens said the United States has “voided the ideas of freedom” by focusing on the negative aspects of democracy and the absence of institutions.
He criticized both the Bush and Obama administrations for treating democracy as “merely a process,” pointing to their support for elections in Turkey, the Gaza Strip, and Egypt that ultimately produced illiberal leaders.
The only way to have a real impact on Middle Eastern youth is to bolster domestic civil society groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that have the specific mission of providing a Western alternative, he said.
“In order to do that, you need a profound concept of liberalism—it’s not simply about process or the absence of various things, it has a positive, moral substance to it,” he said.
Reilly said the United States has often failed to back those who have publicly dissented from the vision and mission of al Qaeda.
Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, a cofounder of al Qaeda and leader of the 1990s Islamist insurgency in Egypt who goes by the nom de guerre Dr. Fadl, wrote a book from an Egyptian prison criticizing 9/11 and Muslims who move to the West with the intent of perpetrating attacks. The 200-page work was seen as a rebuttal to the strategy of Ayman al-Zawahiri, his former comrade and current al Qaeda leader. Dr. Fadl is serving a life sentence in a Cairo prison.
Judge Hamoud al-Hitar in Yemen has also had some success in convincing al Qaeda prisoners to recant their ideology in dialogues.
“More than 10 years into this war, we do not support or protect these people,” Reilly said. “It is utterly astonishing.”
While the experts disagreed over whether the United States should resurrect the Information Agency—the government’s principal propaganda arm during the Cold War—or prioritize the growth of private NGOs, all said something must change.
“When you are in a war of ideas, you need an idea,” Reilly said. “Right now the holster is empty.”