The ISIS breakers: How moderate Muslims are countering extremism

New voices rise across the Arab world to prevent a lost generation from answering the jihadists' militant call in a message war crucial to the region’s balance of power. 

Mohammed Zorgui, who became a jihadist while serving time in prison, has since turned against Islamic militants and devoted himself to using the power of rap to counter Islamic State recruiting efforts.

Mohammed Zorgui is decked out in sweatpants, a teal Portugal soccer jersey, and a crisp New York Yankees cap. As he works the crowd in a smoked-filled cafe in Kasserine, Tunisia, he looks more American East Coast rapper than the Middle Eastern jihadist he once pledged to be – more Jay Z than Islamic State warrior. 

Yet a jihadist sympathizer he once was. Islamic extremists slowly converted Mr. Zorgui to their cause while he was serving time in prison. He found their daily religious messages soothing and their revolutionary rhetoric beguiling. He became a committed follower, until they gave him an assignment for after he got out of prison: to kill his brother-in-law.

Zorgui quickly jettisoned his extremist comrades. 

Today, two years removed from that jarring experience, the jihadist-turned-rapper has devoted himself to trying to counter militants’ efforts to recruit young Muslims by the only way he knows how – “dropping rhymes.” Which is what he’s doing, in pulsating cadence, in this cafe in Kasserine, itself a battleground between the Tunisian government and jihadist fighters, before an audience that has seen many friends and relatives flee to join Al Qaeda and Islamic State (known both as IS and ISIS). 

I am a Sunni Muslim, and terrorism is not my religion 

Choked up by the situation of my country and politics, it does not matter

Stand up, get up, terrorism is not my religion 

Abu Bakr Baghdadi, we don’t want you, we shout,

You are forbidden to enter my country – get out!

Forget Libya, Iraq, or even Syria. This is the true front line in the ideological war against ISIS. Across the Arab and Muslim world, civil society groups, activists, imams, tribes, and musicians are taking on the Islamic State – challenging its nihilist ideology, undermining its legitimacy, and working to prevent a lost generation from answering the group’s militant call.

As battlefield positions change and alliances shift in the various theaters of conflict across the Middle East, many experts believe it is this longer war that will ultimately bring an end to IS. To them, the clash between the West and Muslim extremists can’t be won by drones and missiles and military might alone. Instead, they see the most effective weapon being the daily countering of IS’s and Al Qaeda’s brand of utopian mythology and misinterpretation of Islamic teachings – particularly among young disenfranchised Muslims willing to take up their call.

It is a fight for the soul of Islam. And nowhere is the grass-roots anti-jihadist movement taking root more than in Tunisia and Jordan – the two largest source countries for IS fighters. 

Muslims attend Friday afternoon prayers at the Zitouna Mosque in Tunis, Tunisia. Many clerics across the Middle East are speaking out from the pulpit against Islamic extremism.

“We can’t kill our way out of this conflict,” says Michael Lumpkin, special envoy for the Global Engagement Center, an interagency department in Washington that responds to IS propaganda. “Fundamentally, any long-term strategy to defeat a violent extremist group like Daesh [IS] must confront the hateful messages and ideology they put out daily. The information space is just as important as the physical battlefield.”

Those waging the nascent counternarrative war across the Muslim world are still learning who makes the best messengers and what the best channels of communication are. Experts agree that governments in the Middle East and the West should think carefully before attempting to put their stamp on existing campaigns or waging their own information war. Being associated with Washington, or its autocratic Arab allies, often “taints” messengers trying to reach out to young men and women who have deep-seated grievances with their governments as well as US policies.

“They are not credible to the intended audience watching the message,” says Zahed Amanullah, head of the counternarrative program at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based think tank. “It just doesn’t work.” 

Instead, families who have members that became fighters and grass-roots advocates who deal directly with young Muslims can often deliver the kind of emotional stories that resonate most with potential sympathizers. Even more effective can be IS defectors and former jihadists. 

“They know the various push factors and pull factors,” says Richard Barrett, former head of counterterrorism at MI6 and senior adviser at The Soufan Group, an international security consulting firm. “They know how to speak to a demographic they understand – people who are seeking identity, purpose, and belonging.” 

People like Mohammed Zorgui.

Rhyme and reason 

After finishing his song, Zorgui sits back in his chair and makes it clear that he won’t be joining the throngs lining up outside for Friday prayers. “I’m done with that,” he says.

Zorgui’s descent into extremism started when he was arrested following a drunken brawl in May 2013. With Tunisia’s crammed jails and overworked courts, it would mean months – perhaps years – before he would appear before a judge.

When Zorgui entered prison in El Kef, 100 miles northwest of Tunis, he quickly learned the hierarchy. A group of 20 men with long beards and Afghan-style thobes ordered the other prisoners around – organizing meal times, cleaning cells, and leading prayers and daily lessons. “The Salafists were running the prison,” he says.

Many of the jihadists were being held on minor charges: destroying police property, firing live rounds in the air. Zorgui believes they were merely a cover allowing the men to enter the prison and recruit from within.

In their conversations, sermons, and classes, the jihadis preached the same message: The Tunisian state was unjust, and therefore un-Islamic. It must be fought. For dozens of young Tunisians struggling in a stagnant economy, let down by the failed promises of the revolution and now incarcerated, the message resonated.

Zorgui found himself gradually drawn into their orbit. He listened intensely to the daily religious lessons. He grew his beard several inches and prayed five times a day.

As the weeks went on, the lessons started to change. Along with Quranic verses, they were teaching prisoners hand-to-hand combat. The jihadists even taught their new followers how to make an improvised explosive device with 20 Tunisian dinars ($10), a mobile phone, and an empty cooking-oil canister. “They were training us to be an army of lone wolves,” he says. “And we were ready pupils.”

When they ordered Zorgui to kill his brother-in-law, who they claimed was an “infidel” because he had previously served in the Tunisian armed forces, the rapper says he “snapped out of it.”

The Tunisian Prison Department transferred Zorgui to a local jail in Kasserine, where jihadists did not have a strong presence. Zorgui was angry and confused. He had so many words in his heart he wanted to release. So he began writing. The words turned into poems. The poems turned into rap.

“Rap is a revolutionary art,” he says. “Any oppression or injustice can be battled with rap.”

Zorgui now has a new purpose: to use lyrics and rhymes highlighting jihadists’ hypocrisy. He mixes Quranic verses with Tunisian slang, calling on Tunisians to protect Islam from IS.

Since being released in August 2014, Zorgui has crisscrossed the country, performing in 17 prisons. He hopes to take part in several cultural festivals this year. For each event, the state gives Zorgui and the three others who perform with him $200, which goes for renting DJ equipment and a sound system. 

In his neighborhood of Hay al Karma, lined with desolate beige and gray concrete homes, Zorgui points out house after house where family members have left to become jihadists. Some have stayed behind in Kasserine to recruit youths, more than 50 percent of whom are unemployed. The jihadist sympathizers threaten Zorgui daily – vowing to cut out his tongue to silence his rap. Two bearded men glare at Zorgui as he walks to his front door. 

“For them I am a threat,” he says, “because I tell their secrets.”

‘ISIS CLAIMED MY SON’S LIFE. BUT THEY WILL NOT CLAIM JORDAN’S FUTURE.’ – Mazen Dalaeen, a member of the Jordanian parliament.

MP on a mission 

Mazen Dalaeen steps out from a room packed with dozens of supporters and briskly walks into his back office, shutting the door behind him. Even in the heat of a campaign season in the southern Jordanian town of Karak, there are certain calls the member of parliament has to take.

“Have you heard any news? Has he contacted you?” he says into the phone.

The urgent subject: the fate of yet another Jordanian caught in the grips of IS.

A veteran businessman and parliamentarian, Mr. Dalaeen was not the most obvious candidate to lead Jordan’s campaign against IS. But everything changed for him in June 2015 when he received a Facebook message from his son, Mohammad, who he believed to be completing his third year of medical school in Ukraine. Instead, he had joined IS.

Efforts to find his son led to dead ends on the Turkish-Syrian border and angry rebuttals from Mohammad. Then in October 2015 came the news Dalaeen feared most: Mohammad had killed himself in a truck bombing in Ramadi, Iraq.

Three weeks later, as Dalaeen struggled to piece together how he could have lost his son to extremism, his new calling arrived in the form of a phone call. A constituent from his hometown, Karak, was panicked. His daughter Amal (not her real name) had abruptly left for Turkey. She had texted her parents that she was leaving to join IS in Syria. “What can we do before we lose her?” they asked.

Dalaeen alerted the Jordanian ambassador in Turkey and Turkish authorities along the border. But knowing from his own experience that police work alone is not enough, he knew he had to reach out to the girl himself.

Amal finally called Dalaeen back on WhatsApp. The MP cited each and every hadith and Quranic verse he could think of. Yet he knew he was making no progress. So he handed the phone to his wife. She appealed to Amal in a way Dalaeen could not. “She spoke from the heart of a mother mourning her son,” Dalaeen says. “That is the most powerful voice there is.”

Amal was moved. She said she wanted to return home. Shortly thereafter, the girl managed to slip out and take a taxi to a hotel where Jordanian embassy staff put her on a flight home. Amal is now an activist who speaks out against IS to youth audiences.

Dalaeen, meanwhile, has become a champion for Jordanians fearing that their loved ones are being recruited by IS. He has returned several young Jordanians on the brink of joining IS in Syria, and has prevented dozens more from being recruited within the kingdom. An estimated 3,000 Jordanians now serve in IS’s ranks, and despite tightened security along the Jordanian-Syrian border, authorities have struggled to prevent others from entering through Turkey.

Dalaeen (who lost his reelection bid in September) regularly speaks out against the false message of IS to university students across the country. Dalaeen places his phone on the desk and shakes his head. 

“ISIS claimed my son’s life,” he says. “But they will not claim Jordan’s future.”

‘WE CAN’T PROMISE TO CHANGE THEIR LIVES. BUT WE CAN GIVE THEM THE TOOLS TO CHANGE THEIR SITUATION.’ – Aslam Souli, who helped start the National Youth Initiative Against Terrorism, which offers grants to young Muslims to start their own businesses.

Start-up Tunisia

Terror struck the heart of Tunisia on June 25, 2015, when a gunman killed 38 tourists on a beach near the resort town of Sousse. In the eyes of the media, the model for liberal democracy in the Middle East had become a terrorist hotbed.

Aslam Souli gathered that day with a dozen friends and fellow youth activists in a Tunis cafe. They were upset. They were angry. They wanted to take Tunisia, which has seen more than 6,000 of its residents join the ranks of IS, back from the narrative of terrorists. So the group launched the National Youth Initiative Against Terrorism.

Rather than calling for heightened security or media awareness, the young activists decided to offer something new to at-risk Tunisians: an alternative. Working in communities beset by extremism, the coalition provides young people with training in a variety of “soft skills”: language proficiency, computer literacy, job searches, and other tasks ranging from administration to communication.

The group then urges participants to float ideas for new ventures. Those with successful proposals are given grants of as much as $300 to start their own businesses.

“We have a simple counternarrative: Justice is something you have to take; it is not given to you – and ISIS will not give it to you,” says Mr. Souli, a fifth-year medical student.

The coalition has produced results. In its first year alone, the initiative claims to have helped dozens of at-risk and formally radicalized Tunisians “return from the path of jihad.” The coalition has grown to include five organizations with a total of more than 100 members that can be found in nearly all of Tunisia’s 24 provinces.

But the group is limited in what it can do. Tunisia’s far-reaching antiterror law prevents it from providing training and support to the hundreds of Tunisians returning from Libya, Syria, and Iraq. The Youth Initiative activists see them as a potential resource in the fight against extremism, but the government is still suspicious of returning fighters. Still, the coalition is helping many others. 

“We can’t promise to change their lives,” says Souli. “But we can give them the tools to change their situation.”

Taking back mosques  

Omar Mighri is an imam at a mosque in the working-class suburb of Ben Arous, south of Tunis. “This,” he says, opening a leather-bound copy of the Quran on his lap, “is my weapon.”

He represents a burgeoning effort across the Middle East to counter IS from the pulpit. Mr. Mighri’s campaign began in the summer of 2013, when the Tunisian government dispatched the imam to check on mosques in his hometown of Kairouan, a center of Islamic learning in North Africa dating back to AD 670. What he saw horrified him.

“Jihadists had taken over...,” he says. “Our mosques had become training camps.”

Several places of worship had fallen under the control of hard-line Salafists and jihadists following the 2011 revolution. Nationwide, an estimated 1,000 of Tunisia’s more than 5,000 mosques had been similarly taken over.

Backed by police, Mighri’s group drove dozens of unlicensed imams from the pulpit. In their place, they installed new clerics who were highly educated and trained to speak out on community needs. The imams organized classes to encourage proper interpretation of Quranic texts.

The moves had an impact. Tunisia’s Ministry of Religious Affairs has copied the model, and has held similar social outreach in communities affected by extremism. 

“Eighty percent of Tunisians only know the basics of the religion – praying and fasting – but do not know the fiqh or theology behind it,” says Mighri. “We must answer ignorance with knowledge. That is the true weapon in the war on extremism.”

Mahfouth Ben Deraa is trying to thwart jihadism through the Quran as well. Dressed in worn jeans and a polo shirt speckled with white paint, he looks more like a drywaller than an imam. But the 20-something cleric, whose mosque lies near territory where Al Qaeda- and IS-aligned jihadists roam, sits at the nexus of the war on extremism.

Mr. Ben Deraa had been delivering sermons in 2012 when he noticed young men in his neighborhood disappearing from the mosque – all joining Al Qaeda. So he decided to visit the homes of each of them. Sometimes the emergency interventions would last until 2 a.m.

Later, Ben Deraa began hosting a weekly radio program, during which he would challenge the jihadist militants who were attempting to overthrow the state.

“When you face extremists with guns and bullets, they fight to their last breath,” he says. “When you face them with the Quran and hadith, they lose their power and are instantly defeated.”

Ben Deraa’s growing visibility has come with dangers. The imam says he receives death threats daily from jihadist supporters.

In late June, Ben Deraa was delivering an evening prayer when a man walked up behind him, pressed a knife to his throat, and threatened to “slaughter him like a sheep.” 

Many other clerics would like to speak out against IS but are either afraid or worried about money. Tunisia pays its clerics an average stipend of $100 per month, barely enough to cover the costs of running a mosque. This has driven many of Tunisia’s 3,000 licensed imams to work part time in various day jobs – construction, farming, baking. Ben Deraa runs a hardware store.

“Being an imam is a full-time job, but we in Tunisia have to treat it as a hobby,” says Ben Deraa, as he retrieves three gallons of blue paint for a customer before heading off to lead afternoon prayers.

The situation room 

From a third-floor office in Amman, a team of social media experts and web designers sits around desks brimming with computers and server stacks. They’re waging a global information war.

Jamil Abu Sara, a Muslim legal expert, directs the unit. Wearing a creaseless robe and tightly wrapped white turban, he monitors the latest chatter from extremist groups on social media.

“Have we responded yet to the question on Al Wala Wal Bara and doing business in non-Muslim countries?” Mr. Abu Sara asks his colleagues. “Issue the statement.”

Here, at Jordan’s Iftaa Department, a network of 32 Muslim legal experts (muftis) with centuries of Islamic education between them run a global fatwa “situation room.” Tasked with clarifying issues related to sharia (Islamic law), the members respond to false religious claims made by groups such as IS and field questions from Muslims across the world.

Established in 1921 to clarify Jordanians’ questions on Islamic affairs, the department was broadened in 2006 to an independent institution tasked with using the latest technology to reach out to the kingdom’s growing population. It now churns out 220,000 fatwas a year. It has become a global reference point for all things Islam – and a first responder to IS.

“There are fatwas that have no basis in Islam, and there are fatwas derived from a selective reading of an obscure historical source,” says Abdul Karim Khasawneh, grand mufti of Jordan. “We counter them all.”

In addition to 25 phone hotlines, the Iftaa Department answers religious questions from around the world through its website, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, and other outlets. While many of the queries are relatively routine, such as regarding rules about Ramadan fasting for students taking exams, it receives a stream of questions from Muslims grappling, and perhaps siding, with IS’s ideology. “These are the questions we take very seriously, and respond to as swiftly as possible,” Abu Sara says.

In February 2015, when IS issued a video of the immolation of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh, the militants cited a 13th-
century scholar who lived through several Mongol invasions of modern Syria as a rationale for the killing. 

The Iftaa Department responded with several sayings by the prophet Muhammad that prisoners must be treated with “mercy,” undermining IS’s claims. The rejoinder went viral – garnering more than 1 million shares and views. 

“We are on the front lines of the ideological and theological war against ISIS, and we have to move fast,” says Abu Sara. 

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