The U.S. Needs Deradicalized Militants in Counter-Messaging Strategies

The other week, the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism published its monthly update on Islamic State (IS)-related terrorism in the United States. The statistics are astounding: Since March 2014, 122 individuals have been charged with IS-related offenses, of whom 72 have pleaded or been found guilty.

Of particular notice is this American cohort who has taken to Twitter in order to support IS publicly, and by doing so, they have raised the question: If radicalized individuals conduct their messaging out in the open, shouldn’t the U.S. government also be publicizing its counter-messaging strategies?

In essence, counter-messaging strategies are ways in which the government attempts to feature and promote credible voices that will change the public’s perception of violent extremist groups and their ideology. One way that they could effectively execute these strategies is to specifically feature deradicalized militants who are, in the eyes of the community, credible voices on violence. By using these voices, the government can convey to the public a more convincing image of violent extremist groups as detrimental to their communities.

Taliban insurgents turn themselves in to Afghan National Security Forces at a forward operating base in Puza-i-Eshan in April 2010.

However, America has chosen not to feature deradicalized militants in its messaging against IS, and this choice contrasts sharply from two of our partners in the War on Terror: Pakistan and Afghanistan.

For instance, after Pakistani Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan turned himself in, the Pakistani government went out of its way to film his confession and release the transcript. “These people have misled people in the name of Islam, especially the youth, for their own ends,” Ehsan emphasized, criticizing the Pakistani Taliban. “They themselves do not hold themselves to the same standards they champion for others.” Particularly damning was Ehsan’s revelation that the Pakistani Taliban allegedly took money from India, the arch-nemesis of Pakistan, in order to “kill our own people in our own country.” So, who better than an ultimate insider like Ehsan to discredit the morality and strategy of the Pakistani Taliban, the group that killed over 130 school children in 2014 and attempted to murder Malala Yusufazi, the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize?

A few days later, President Ashraf Ghani welcomed the feared warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to Afghanistan in a highly publicized ceremony before government officials and Hekmatyar’s supporters. Hekmatyar first gained infamy as the “Butcher of Kabul” in the 1990s when he shelled the capital repeatedly with rockets in attempt to establish control over other Afghan warlords, leading to the deaths of 50,000 mostly non-combatant civilians. However, at the ceremony, Hekmatyar called the Afghan Taliban his “brothers” and urged them to resume peace talks. “We want to end the war which only sacrifices Afghans and only destroys Afghans’ homes,” he implored. By then broadcasting that the former “Butcher of Kabul” is now a promoter of peace between the Afghan government and the Taliban, the Afghan government is more likely to win over any of those who see Hekmatyar as a credible leader as well as those who think that if even he promotes peace, then peaceful tactics must really be the right path.

Every Pakistani news channel has covered Ehsan’s confession. Hekmatyar’s name is on every Afghan’s lips. Yet, how many Americans can name a single one of the 72 individuals who have plead or been found guilty of IS-related activities in the U.S.?

Evidently, the U.S. has missed what the Pakistani and Afghan governments have identified as a core aspect of counter-messaging strategies to reduce support for terrorism: the need for believable spokesmen. Researchers have shown that it is necessary but insufficient to only craft customized counter-narratives against violent extremism; these messages also must be relayed through messengers with credibility, so that audiences do not dismiss invocations to non-violence as empty platitudes. No one in Pakistan or Afghanistan would dismiss the militant bona fides of Ehsan and Hekmatyar — their credibility comes precisely from their extensive participation in terrorist acts. By widely disseminating their narratives of conversion to non-violence, the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan are dissuading potential recruits from violence and encouraging those who are radicalized to drop their weapons.

The U.S. government should learn this lesson from its partners in the War on Terror and prominently feature the narratives of people who are found guilty of plotting IS activities. By publicizing rather than concealing the trajectories of people who went from working on behalf of IS to now working with the U.S., the government can send a strong message of deterrence to counter violence extremism. To be sure, this approach has its critics — some have wondered whether the militants have secretly negotiated immunity deals that fulfill the government’s interests but subvert public accountability. This criticism could be valid in countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan where military tribunals, not civilian courts, often oversee terrorism cases.

Yet, as long as American prosecutors continue to use the civilian court system rather than military tribunals at detention sites like Guantanamo, then the government can protect legal due processes and address public accountability. It has been sixteen years since the War on Terror, and it is time to show IS supporters that our democratic institutions are strong enough to simultaneously protect their freedom of expression and counter their violent extremism in the marketplace of ideas.

Cultural psychiatrist Neil K. Aggarwal is a member of Columbia University’s Committee on Global Thought and Fellow with the Truman National Security Project. He is author of Mental Health in the War on Terror (2015) and The Taliban’s Virtual Emirate (2016). Views expressed are his own.