Ever since 9/11, the struggle against terrorists has focused too much on killing them rather than their message. That may change with a new public-private effort to counter the appeal of jihadists with a grass-roots campaign aimed at young and vulnerable Muslims.
On Friday, Turkey and the United States announced plans to raise more than $200 million for a global fund to counter the “local drivers of radicalization to violence.” Much like campaigns against illiteracy or the child sex trade, this one has dozens of countries behind it. A coalition called the Global Counterterrorism Forum will build on the expertise of countries such as Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and Indonesia that have successfully “deradicalized” captured terrorists.
Lessons from those rehab programs can be applied by civic groups and governments to prevent radicalization of Muslims. At the heart of these efforts will be moderate Muslims, such as Islamic scholars or former terrorists, who can effectively deliver the message that Islam does not justify the purposeful killing of innocents.
The new global fund will also provide vocational training for disenfranchised youth and provide school courses on conflict resolution. Simply offering alternatives to the kind of extremist ideologies that Muslims find on the Internet or hear in mosques may prevent many of them from joining groups like Al Qaeda or the Taliban.
Not all of the rehab programs in Muslim countries have been successful. Saudi Arabia, which has the longest and best-funded one, claims an 80 percent success rate, as many of the graduates return to radical groups. Singapore, on the other hand, has had 100 percent success.
The Pentagon recently gave $4.5 million to researchers at the University of Maryland to better understand how to “inoculate” young people against terrorist recruiters. Often the incentive of a job or money is enough. In Afghanistan, a program pays low-level Taliban fighters to defect. In other cases, a program will rely on pressure from family members. Sometimes a young person tempted to join a jihadist group will be shown examples of how leaders of those groups are incompetent, unfair, or corrupt.
Most of all, the process is a battle for values, one aimed at convincing young people to find worth in their lives without seeking martyrdom or the killing of others. This is a long struggle but a worthy one. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of drones, spy satellites, and airport security checks.