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Radicalization: America’s virtual war against ISIS

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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A photo posted on internet shows ISIS or Daesh (Daech) or Islamic State group militants posing in Yarmouk (Yarmuk) Palestinian camp, located in a suburb of Damascus, Syria, that is partially now under their control, April 7, 2015 (Credit: AP Images/Balkis Press)

In a recent CNN article, Elizabeth Cohen and Debra Goldschmidt examine the efforts taken by the U.S. government to combat the growing recruitment efforts of Islamic extremists. They spoke with a number of experts from varying backgrounds who all came to roughly the same conclusion; namely that while our government’s efforts are admirable they are ultimately lacking.

The anti-terrorist campaign waged by the U.S. is called “Think Again, Turn Away.” As Nadia Oweidat, a senior fellow in the international security program at New America, described, the problem is largely a misunderstanding of the target audience. She noted that most who are sympathetic to ISIS won’t take orders from the U.S. government so mandates to turn away from ISIS are more likely to make them continue exploring it.

Daniel Cohen, coordinator of the military and strategic affairs program as well as the cyberwarfare program at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, noted that the problem is not simply limited to content but to audience as well. In his view, the anti-terrorism campaign is simply “not reaching the right population. It’s not reaching the potential jihadists.”

However, the most enlightening aspect of CNN‘s report was their interview with a man dubbed “Abu Hurriya” whose identity was concealed for his protection. Hurriya was recently released from a U.S. prison where he was sentenced for “propagandizing on behalf of a terrorist organization.” Prior to his arrest, he was one of Al Qaeda’s chief recruiters in the United States, having himself been recruited by Islamic extremists at a younger age.

Hurriya likened recruiting jihadists to recruiting gang members, saying that both focus their attention on the young, impressionable, and hurting members of their society as they are the most vulnerable. He fit that description quite well in his younger years and described the online community in which he was recruited as “very warm and welcoming.” When he eventually met those who could couple that welcoming approach with religious authority, his conversion to radical Islam was soon to follow. He would go on to use a similar approach when recruiting others.

As Hurriya described, the anti-jihadist videos produced to combat the recruitment videos of ISIS and other Muslim extremists are lacking in some very important ways. For example, the ISIS videos were “far superior to what’s being done” by the U.S. government and were specifically targeted towards “the gaming generation” through their use of high quality graphics and symbols.

Moreover, ISIS’s message reinforces the idea that “the entire world community, the United Nations, the U.S. government, its primary leaders, and even the soldiers on the ground are in one grand conspiracy.” As a result, many of our efforts to counter that message come across as government propaganda even when the depiction of ISIS given in the videos is accurate. Hurriya went so far as to say that they could do more harm than good by furthering the misunderstanding that the U.S. is at war with Islam rather than ISIS.

Fortunately, the war against jihadist recruitment has not been lost yet. Despite the dire assessment given by the above experts, they all agreed that the government needed to shift their strategies rather than give up altogether. Their suggestions largely centered on gaining a better understanding of the target audience and of the ways that ISIS was reaching those groups. And by producing higher quality videos that rely more on non-extremist Muslims that are respected within the larger Islamic community, the government’s message would likely be better received.

As the article describes, it would appear that the U.S. government agrees given that they have recently placed greater emphasis on building relationships with groups like the Sawab Center, a “joint operations center for online engagement” located in the United Arab Emirates. Similar ventures are ongoing in places like Malaysia as well. The hope is that eventually the tide of extremist conversions can eventually be turned and fewer young people will be radicalized.

Knowing your audience and tailoring your message to fit their needs is a fundamental aspect of any successful campaign. That is true for governments and it is true for Christians as well. Paul exhibited an understanding of this approach in 1 Corinthians 9 when he summed up his evangelistic efforts by writing “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:22-23). Jesus did the same throughout his ministry, talking about living water with the woman at the well and about the bread of life to those that came searching for a meal (John 4:7-15 and John 6:25-27 respectively).

While that approach can be taken too far when it leads us to compromise the fundamental truths of the gospel, it is a mistake to expect other people to conform to our perspective when we try to share God’s good news with them. However, being able to relate in this manner requires an understanding of the other person and their needs. It requires spending the necessary time to gain more than just a surface level knowledge of who they are. That is not always a commitment that is easy for us but it is one that can pay eternal dividends for those willing to make it. That said, it’s also why God’s word makes clear that our primary calling is to share the gospel with those we meet as we simply go through our lives. We will always have a better understanding of those that are like us or with whom we share similar experiences.

So today, whether it is conversations with those you see every day or with the new person God brings into your life, be mindful of the ways that he might want to use you to share his good news. After all, becoming all things to all people is essentially just the willingness to be led by the Lord. Are you willing today?

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