Lessons from London: You can’t fix jihad

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The latest terrorist attacks in England illustrate the inadequacy of conventional law enforcement and criminology for dealing with ideologically-driven violence. Rehabilitation programs and criminal justice approaches that might work with thieves, muggers or even some murderers have proven spectacular failures when it comes to Islamists. In spite of many attempts, no one has figured out how to rehabilitate jihadis such as Sudesh Amman, the Streatham stabber, or Usman Khan, the London Bridge stabber, or the three London Bridge stabbers before that. With apologies to comedian Ron White, you can’t fix jihad.

To be precise, I’m referring not to what Islamic tradition calls the “greater jihad,” meaning the inner, psychological struggle to be a better Muslim, but to the “lesser jihad,” meaning the outer, physical struggle against the enemies of Islam, or as Daniel Pipes defines it, “the legal, compulsory, communal effort to expand the territories ruled by Muslims at the expense of territories ruled by non-Muslims.” This is the jihad that Islamist terrorist organizations promote and some even choose for their names (Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Islamic Jihad Union, Harakat ul-Jihad-i-Islami). Coupled with the desire to die as a martyr, this potent ideology is the driving force behind ISIS, al Qaeda and all their affiliates.      

Unlike other categories of criminals, determined devotees of offensive jihad cannot be dissuaded to end the fight. Rather, that determination can only come from within, as demonstrated by Walid Shoebat, Jesse Morton and other former jihadis testifying about their abandonment of the ideology. In criminological jargon, “pull factors,” such as financial incentives, amnesty and employment opportunities, are far less likely to influence jihadis than “push factors,” such as disillusionment and loss of faith in an ideology. Shoebat describes the “self-detoxification program” he undertook after trying unsuccessfully to convince his wife of the inherent evil of Judaism. The problem is that no one has figured out how to engineer the right “push factor” to compel a jihadi to begin a “self-detoxification.” 

Money doesn’t work, as the United Kingdom learned when it made one a millionaire, and he still continued his jihad. In 1992, Jamal al-Harith (born Ronald Fiddler) joined the nascent al Qaeda organization, then based in Sudan, and was captured on the Afghan battlefield in March 2002. Sent to Guantanamo Bay, his British citizenship eventually got him repatriated to the U.K., where he was promptly freed. His lawsuit against the U.S. government was dismissed, but the British government compensated him with 1 million pounds. A regular criminal might have retired on his newfound fortune, but al-Haraith fled to Turkey in 2014 and then to Syria to join ISIS. He called himself Abu Zakariya al-Britani and became a suicide bomber at an Iraqi army base near Mosul in 2017. The last photograph of him, released by ISIS, shows an elated, smiling man sitting behind the wheel of his car-bomb. 

Psychological attempts to “de-radicalize” captured jihadis don’t work either. Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Nayef Center for Counseling and Care tries to turn them into productive members of society through different kinds of therapy and “structured debate.” But purging people of the ideology to which they have dedicated their lives has proven less than effective. In September 2014, CBS reported that there were 59 graduates of the bin Nayef Center among 88 al Qaeda operatives arrested in Saudi Arabia. Later that year, 44 bin Nayef alumni were among another large arrest of 77 for an attack on a Saudi Shiite mosque. Robert Spencer has documented similar failures in Malaysia and Indonesia.  

Saudi Arabia’s experience here is similar to Britain’s, where paroled jihadi, Sudesh Amman, attacked civilians in the streets of London on Feb. 2 before he was shot and killed by armed counterterrorism surveillance police who had been following him. Why he was released early has become a debate in the U.K.

Last November, another convicted terrorist, Usman Khan, took advantage of the liberties offered him through the “Desistance and Disengagement Programme” — the U.K.’s version of the Saudi jihad detox plan — to kill three people. Worse yet, Usman was out on a day pass from prison, participating in a Cambridge University Institute of Criminology conference on rehabilitation. He attacked and killed two young criminology students at the Fishmongers’ Hall and then ran outside with a fake suicide bomb strapped to his chest and knives taped to his hands, shouting “Allahu Akbar” while slashing his way towards London Bridge. Unfortunately he wasn’t being followed by armed police, and the bystanders inside Fishmongers’ Hall had nothing but narwhal tusks to defend themselves

Other spectacular failures in the rehabilitation, transformation or “de-radicalization” of jihadis will continue to occur as long as jihadis are treated like those whose crimes stem from greed, anger or lack of opportunities. As British jihadi (and former Guantanamo Bay detainee) Moazzam Begg put it several weeks ago: “Jihad specifically refers to military conflict and will remain a sacred and pristine Islamic belief until judgment day.” A former al Qaeda operative, now working for Britain’s MI6, told The Telegraph that “there is no such thing as a rehabilitated jihadist.” Only when “they show remorse and co-operation … [and] have sung like a canary and provided damaging intelligence on the networks that recruited them,” can they be trusted and released from prison. 

Jihad is not a bacterium that can be cleansed away but an ideology, and ideas are difficult to kill. It might die out on its own, which at present seems very unlikely, or perhaps it can be killed off through a solution not yet known. But that solution will come through defeating the ideology. 

You can’t fix jihad. You can’t reason with it, refute its arguments, psychologize it, transform it, or de-radicalize it. History shows that jihadis may voluntarily end their struggle, but they cannot be persuaded or even forced to do so. Unfortunately, the credulous “de-radicalization” industry sees it differently.

A.J. Caschetta is a Ginsburg-Ingerman fellow at the Middle East Forum and a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Tags Al-Qaeda Islamic terrorism Islamist groups Jihad Terrorism

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