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Religion is not a Legitimate Target for Countering Violent Extremism

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D.

Among his first acts, our new President is taking steps to limit refugees from predominantly Muslim, conflict-torn countries. He has also instructed his government to start referring to violent extremism as radical Islam. If his actions are meant to protect the homeland, they will have the exact opposite effect. Such policies are shortsighted and miss the real dynamics underpinning violent extremism.

It’s worth repeating that terrorists are less likely to harm an American living on American soil than lightning or a drunk driver. But presuming that argument doesn’t fly for many Americans who genuinely fear “radical Islam”, let’s add that most homegrown violent extremists are not Muslim. They are part of the far right and they target Muslims—and other people they don’t consider to be like themselves—gay, African American, Latino, immigrants and so on.

That said, ISIS is indeed busy 24/7, trying to recruit and equip Americans to attack inside the homeland. Plenty of evidence shows that militant jihadi terrorist recruitment occurs over the Internet. ISIS puts out a blanket of slick propaganda videos and makes powerful promises of justice and prosperity, promising a utopian “Caliphate”. Some disgruntled, mixed up and mentally unhealthy Americans have fallen for it and when they retweet, “like” or endorse this promise of utopia, ISIS recruiters swoop in via the Internet. A lonely teenage Christian Sunday school teacher living in a rural area on the West coast was among the radicalized, as was a mixed up Catholic named Shannon Conley, to whom offered romance and purpose. Both young women converted and started moving toward ISIS until their parents and grandparents found out and put a stop to it. These were not refugees; they were the nice girls next door.

White Christian converts and Muslims already living in the United States are the targets of ISIS’ Internet seduction in the U.S. Refugees have, for the most part, not responded to ISIS seduction recruitment inside the U.S. Or if they have it’s due to a multitude of problems unrelated to their religion. Examples quoted often include Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the Boston bomber, whose parents divorced and moved back to the Russian Republic of Dagestan, leaving him here with his younger siblings. Tamerlan failed in his education, failed as a boxer, and got caught up in criminal enterprise and seduced into terrorism well after entering the country on asylum—not as a refugee. Or the black Somali Americans who came as young kids but failed to integrate and fell prey to calls to come return to Somalia to join al Shabaab and defend Somali women from claims of rape by invading forces.

ISIS is a user and will use anybody. But refugees who have fled their country have done so to escape from ISIS, other terrorists and their oppressive governments. They are fleeing, not to attack anyone, but to not be attacked.

Our refugee vetting procedures and our internal national security works. There has never been a terrorist attack by a refugee seeking entry to our country. Only once have we let in Iraqis who were plotting to attack here, and they were caught in short order and prosecuted. There are also far simpler ways for a terrorist determined to attack Americans to enter the country than to pretend to be a refugee or asylum seeker—visa waiver from Europe for instance.

Concerning Europe, anger festers where second and third generations have found themselves doomed to poverty in Muslim ghettos. It is there where terrorist groups have been able to gain a foothold. The same is not true here. Muslim immigrants in the U.S. have for the most part done extremely well integrating and succeeding in their lives—better here than in parts of Europe—capturing and making the American dream into their own personal parachute from war torn Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria to name a few. America is still a land of opportunities and our people are still kind and welcoming. And let’s remember, we are a country of immigrants. Europe does not come from the same tradition.

Muslims the world over these days find themselves caught between two narratives—one about the greatness of America and the American dream—but they also see drones killing women and children. They watch the invasion and occupation of oil rich countries and they fall prey to rumors that America props up dictators and tyrants in Muslim populated lands to grab the spoils. ISIS and al-Qaeda eagerly fan the flames of such beliefs and recent remarks by President Trump about taking oil doesn’t just violate international law, it fans these flames of hate and endangers our troops overseas.

Terrorists can hijack the few verses in Christian or Islamic scriptures that they believe allow them to attack innocent civilians. It’s not the scriptures that are the problem—it’s the terrorists who hijack and twist and hate enough to convert religious beliefs into acts of violence. Those are who we need to oppose—not anyone’s religion.

But I fear we have a new President who is playing directly into ISIS’s game book—dividing our country along lines of religion and reinforcing prejudices. We must not allow U.S. policy to become an asset to ISIS and al-Qaeda.

Of course we all fear radicalization, including and perhaps especially Muslims who’ve suffered the most under terrorism. But here, America remains a land of opportunity where immigrants, the foundation of our nation, continue to do well. Like the video editor and his parents who fled Assad’s atrocities and now live near me—trying hard to work, integrate and build a new life. The mother is a psychologist and regularly gets on Skype to counsel others still in Syria who are not so lucky to escape. The son who fits perfectly the profile of Syrians we seem to fear most—young, unmarried male, of fighting age—is so grateful to be in the United States and they are a threat to no one. On the contrary, they are already model citizens, maybe giving back more to their new homeland than most of us ever do.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine, Georgetown University, and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). Dr. Speckhard has interviewed over 500 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, Gaza, West Bank, Chechnya, and many countries in Western Europe. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counter-terrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA and FBI and frequently appearing on CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She is the author and co-author of seven books including: Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers and “Martyrs”, , Bride of ISIS, ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate, Undercover Jihadi: Inside the Toronto 18—Al Qaeda Inspired, Homegrown Terrorism in the West and Warrior Princess: A U.S. Navy SEAL’s Journey to Coming out Transgender. Website:

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