Push and Pull of Religious Extremism: Who Are the Terrorists, How Are they Recruited, What Can We Do?

Push and Pull of Religious Extremism: Who Are the Terrorists,
How Are they Recruited, What Can We Do?
(David Des Roches August 9, 2017)

Transcript available below

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About the speaker

David Des Roches is Associate Professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Security Studies at National Defense University. Prior to this, he was the Defense Department director responsible for policy concerning Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Prior to this assignment, he has served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as Liaison to the Department of Homeland Security, as senior country director for Pakistan, as NATO operations director, and as deputy director for peacekeeping.

An Airborne Ranger in the Army Reserve, he was awarded the Bronze Star for service in Afghanistan.  He has commanded conventional and special operations parachute units and has served on the US Special Operations Command staff as well as on the Joint Staff.

He graduated from the United States Military Academy and obtained advanced degrees in Arab Politics from the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies, in War Studies from Kings College London, and Strategic Studies from the US Army War College. He has also attended the Federal Executive Institute, the German Staff College’s Higher Officer Seminar, the US Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare School and the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.

His academic awards include Phi Kappa Phi, the British Marshall Scholarship, designation as a Distinguished Alumnus of the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, and selection as a Joseph Malone Fellow of the National Council of Arab American Relations.

For more on terror propaganda and recruitment, see Christopher C. Harmon’s Westminster talk, The Terrorist Argument: Modern Advocacy and Propaganda. Des Roches will address Westminster on The Ongoing War in The Persian Gulf: Why Does it Matter to the US? on August 28.


Robert R. Reilly:

We’re very happy to welcome here tonight for the first time, Dave Des Roches, about whom I was asked to specially say two very important things. One is that he had 106 military parachute jumps and he’s still standing on the original equipment. And number two is that he was the first major graduate in Arabic studies from West Point. Did I cover the essentials there? Okay.

The other important thing to note is that we had the largest number of RSVPs for his appearance here tonight at 91. Whoever didn’t come, thank you for staying home because we don’t have that much room.

By the way, I just want to quickly announce for those of you who have seen the invitation it’s unnecessary but Congressman Frank Wolf, who is in northern Iraq as we speak, will be back to give us a first hand report on what survives of the Christian community there and what it’s prospect may be. So, please join us next Wednesday night.

Now, to flesh out Dave Des Roches’ bio here, he is Associate Professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Security Studies at the National Defense University. Prior to that he was the DOD Director responsible for policy concerning Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen, an area of the world where not much takes place so easy 9-to-5 job there.

Prior to that assignment he served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Liaison to the Department of Homeland Security, as senior country for Pakistan, as NATO Operations Director, and Deputy Director for Peacekeeping.

He is an Airborne Ranger in the Army Reserve. He was decorated with the bronze star for his service in Afghanistan. He was commander of both conventional and special operations parachute units and has served on both the U.S. Operations Command Staff as well as the Joint Staff. Please join me in welcoming Dave Des Roches.

David Des Roches:

Well, thank you. It is indeed an honor to be here. I really appreciate you coming in. This is a beautiful summer day for August in Washington and the fact that some of you have chosen to spend it with me instead of out as God intended, I regard as a bit of a challenge. I also note that some of you are armed.

So- so I’ll endeavor to give everybody what they want. I just hope that giving- my subject is very broad range and I have to say at the outset that this is the basis of my research. It does not reflect any U.S. policy.

Hopefully, we’ll get something out of this, but if not, I’m reminded of an academic conference I went to on a similar summer’s night at the University of Bristol in England. As you can tell by my accent I am a also a graduate of the University of London. My wife is a historian of some renown. We went to a conference at Bristol on Victorian painting and we were a little late. We came in. We had to crawl over people, sit right in the middle of it, and we sat down, and I was trying to make heads or tails of it, and after about five minutes we realized that we were in the wrong conference. And instead of Victorian art, it was actually on beneficial insects.

But I did learn something of use. Apparently, the easiest way to determine the sex of ants – I learned this in the conference – is you take the ants and you throw them in a bucket of water and if they sink, girl ant. If they float, boy ant. Okay. I- I- I haven’t seen any- any- any pistols removed from their holsters so I will take that as approval. If I can survive that I believe I can survive anything.

This is my email, my Facebook, and my Twitter if you want to join the 40 people who follow me on Twitter and at least three of them are my mother under various pseudonyms. Although I should point out I have published books in Berlin and in London and all that. The only thing I’ve ever written that has impressed my wife is that one of my tweets was retweeted by Morgan Fairchild. I’ll just tell jokes. On with the topic.

This is what I’m going to talk about today. You can interrupt me at any time. I am aware, I’m in your debt for coming out on a beautiful night, so I won’t be- police yourselves, you know. If you decide somebody’s going on too long or something, you guys suppress him because I’ll just be the punching bag as long as you want.

So, first off, who are these people? I want to start off with this model. This is the radicalization model used by the FBI. When I speak to foreign groups, and I generally do speak to foreign groups, I point this out to make a point about the strength of the United States, which is in most countries there is a centralized ministry of the interior, a centralized law enforcement agency that says ‘this is how it is’ and propagates it downward and everybody does that.

This model was actually developed by the New York City Police Department. It made its way up to the FBI, which said ‘hey, that looks pretty good’. They tweaked it a little bit and then they adapted it. This was done to counter Islamist terrorism, but I would point out that this radicalization model can apply to just about any form of political violence.

And generally, the first time I taught a terrorism course was when I was a starving young political appointee in the Clinton White House Drug Czar’s Office in the ’90s. I taught a course on terrorism at the Department of Agriculture night school.

If you think it’s bad sitting through a three hour lecture at night, it’s even worse when you have to give that three hour lecture at night. It was a living hell. Some people were traumatized by the impeachment. I was traumatized by that class.

But in those days terrorism was viewed as [an] exclusively rightwing Christian problem in the United States. That’s right. Still is. I generally draw on those things to do that.

And what you can find is when you look down this model here, and I will use my high tech pointer, you have four stages: pre-radicalization, identification, indoctrination, and action. Now, people can move all up and down this until they get to the last step. There’s still no thing here.

So, for example, you know, my mother probably is, you know, dedicated to, you know, countering abortion, which was a major issue in the rightwing movements that we looked at, Eric Rudolph, the Atlantic Olympics bomber. My mother probably goes all the way down here and stops at this point, thank god, but this could apply to… This could apply to Irishmen.

Audience member:


David Des Roches:

Yeah, that’s right, along with every other negative you can think of in the world. It’s amazing, in America, cardinals and senators tell Irish jokes. In Britain, it’s practically a hate crime.

So, pre-radicalization, identification, indoctrination, and action and basically, you have an individual motivation/conversion, a stimulus, an opportunity, and then that leads to action. So, the first one is conversion and reinterpretation of faith, whether it’s radical, say, could be radical Catholicism or Protestantism for abortion clinic bombers, or it could be a commitment to uniting the 26 counties of Ireland, or it could be to imposing a global caliphate.

Then, the individual accepts the cause, becomes isolated from his former life, you know, perhaps some domestic training or overseas experience. That leads to further exception and a propensity for action. And again, you can find this universally. And then finally, intensified group bonds, increased vetting opportunities, training camps, financing – basically, a conspiracy in legal terms. That leads to conviction, ready for action, and finally, you have action.

Now, where can government most effectively intervene? This is just me doing this. The first one is just motivation and the conversion. So, this is the hardest part to intervene because – and it’s particularly tough for Western democracies because we are based on the idea of freedom of conscience and I don’t think that government – quite frankly – has a role in this. If it does, the actions it takes will almost invariably be counterproductive, so it’s up to people like you who are willing to sacrifice one of the most beautiful summer nights I’ve ever heard to listen to some bald, overweight man in a dead man’s suit.

The second one is the opportunity. If you look at foiled plots, Islamist-inspired plots, you’ll find that a majority of them are reported by people within the religious community, usually within a mosque, and what they say is ‘we were at services and all of a sudden this guy, this eighteen year old stands up and says we’re not true Muslims because we’re serving, you know, the illegitimate regime’.

And so engagement with that is a big deal, and when I say engagement, I don’t necessarily mean having police spies in that, I mean having police teach bicycle safety classes to the members of the mosque, and I mean police dealing with things like vandalism and parking, the same as with any other religious institution.

I live about fifty yards from a synagogue and parking is a big issue on Saturdays. Thank god it’s not a Catholic Church because then we’d have problems Wednesday night for bingo as well. Basically, the point of this is to have people who are seen as friendly and approachable because, by and large, people want to do the right thing and if you look at the level of violence, you’ll see that.

The next one is overseas training, domestic training. Basically, government can intervene effectively when people get involved with one more than one person in illegal activities. A conspiracy is always harder to foil than a dedicated person.

Training camps, surveillance, and finance: one of the most difficult things we do is tracking money from legitimate sources to illegitimate sources, but one of the best things the U.S. government does is tracking money from criminals to criminals because criminals have to work with other criminals and there really is no honor among thieves, there’s just opportunity.

And then finally, facilitation, recruitment, and financing, this is our final opportunity for governments to intervene. Now, I give you this to frame the remarks I’m about to make because this is sort of my perception as to where government can intervene to stop radical violence of any flavor based on my study of the literature.

And I’m going to now talk about a study that was done by a psychologist. This was done several years ago and I picked it because it accorded with my own prejudices. Basically, this was a psychologist and what she did was she analyzed a rather small sample size at that time. It was about 58 people who had either been captured or defected from Daesh and gave interviews on television, so there are some flaws with this. The sample size was small, it was not necessarily a universal sample. There’s no double blind because she was passively receiving the information, she wasn’t able to answer all questions, but basically, she tried to categorize these people.

And the first category was to break them up into where they were from, so External Western: these are people from France, Britain, Belgium; External Arabs: basically, Arabs who are not from Iraq or Syria, Tunisia and Saudis, Jordanians; and then Internal: Iraqis and Syrians. And then she tried to categorize them according to their motivations: status seekers, identity seekers, you can read it for yourself.

So what did we get? First off with your motivations, the biggest ones were Status and Identity Seekers, and within that they were looking at group ideological, personal, social, political status. Identity was up there as well. Revenge was a distant second. This is kind of interesting: you have a large number of death seekers, thrill seekers as their primary motivation, but let’s break it up by the origin of these fighters and see what that gets us.

First, let’s start with Westerners. When you look at Westerners – again, this is a very small group – so, for example, 13%, 12%, 13%, it’s more or less the same size, what you see is 62% of these people were identity seekers.

Audience member:

What does that mean?

David Des Roches:

What that means is these are people who believe their only way they can express their identity as a Muslim, the only way that they can gain assistance and define themselves is by joining Daesh. The Daesh propaganda – Daesh, ISIS, ISIL, I’ll say Daesh because I’m academic and I have to use foreign words, otherwise my pay gets cut – these are people who basically said, ‘I’m not Belgian, I will never be Belgian, I will never be accepted by these people, the only way I can find my identity is doing this’.

Audience member:

You said a sense of longing?

David Des Roches:

Yes, that’s right. They feel alienated from the country in which they live and the identity in which they live, and so what I argue is that that represents a failure of assimilation, full stop, a failure of assimilation. I would go a little further, and let me show you some ideological leg and tell you that in 2006 at the U.S. Army War College I wrote my thesis on the need for a national assimilation policy in the United States.

And it went over – my parents are immigrants. I come from Canada, which to hear my parents talk, you think that they tunneled under the Berlin Wall with a spoon, but, you know, Canada has a national identity problem and quite frankly, if Canada were an island, if it did not have the United States to define themselves negatively against – there were troops on the streets in Montreal in the ’70s when I was a boy. I can still remember that – in Montreal, you know, not Beirut, Montreal, as we call it ‘Beirut with polar bears’.

The problem is in Europe, assimilation is a much greater challenge than in the United States. Historically, immigrants have immigrated to the United States. I argued in my War College thesis this was a product of historical accident not policy, that we could not rely on it, and that technological factors were making it less inevitable that new immigrants would assimilate because, for example, you know, you could speak Italian and only Italian on the Lower East Side of New York in 1910, and maybe up until the 1930s, but you certainly couldn’t do it in the 1970s. You had to get a job, but today, you can live in Minneapolis and you can speak only Korean, you can watch television, you can read newspapers, you can listen to internet radio, you can order stuff only in Korean. And so the critical mass of a language which was required to assimilate is done.

I looked at a few other things, for example, the rise of a welfare state. If you have to go out and get a job, then you are greatly, greatly motivated to speak the language of that workplace, but if you don’t have to get a job – anyhow, I made that argument in 2006 and I think that this kind of shows – perhaps I’m just holding a grudge because nobody understood my paper.

Twelve percent of these people are redemption seekers. These are the small time drug dealers who are converted in prison, basically, the guys who make a mess of their life and decide that they want to go on and do something and become a shining knight of Islam instead of that. We saw the same thing with the Irish Republican Army, you know, people running drugs. For a while in the ’70s pretty much every drug dealer in New England, you know, claimed an IRA thing, Whitey Bulger, you know, supporting the IRA. So redemption is also a strong motive, but what’s really remarkable here is 62% are identity seekers.

By the way, thrill seekers, this is really scary. This is basically people who want to play Call of Duty, but in real life in a consequence-free environment and honestly, this is a challenge for any government. I don’t know how we can deal with this.

Audience member:

Do you know of the previous screen, you say Westerners, how many are born in Europe and of European parents of-

David Des Roches:

That’s a good question. I did not look at that and the numbers are so small that you can’t draw any conclusions, but generally, when you see a convert, it’s usually a redemption seeker and when you see the identity seekers, they are usually immigrants or children of immigrants. The numbers are so small, you can’t really draw any hard and fast conclusions other than general traits because the sample numbers are small and I’m obliged to give you that. I can’t really present this as a scientific study. I can present it as a rhetorical study.

Audience member:

May I interrupt just for a moment before we go any further? Can you give us the groups on jihad? Can you explain what your concept of jihad is, what it means, where it comes from, what are its origins?

David Des Roches:

Well, that’s not the subject of my speech and I’m aware that defining jihad specifically is kind of a political litmus test in the United States right now, so let me give you two sides of it. Jihad literally means struggle in Arabic. So in Arabic there is a three consonant root, ja-ha-da, so jihad, mujahideen, ijtihad, all comes from the same root. And the beauty of Arabic is that you take the root, you put vowels, you add little things on like legos, so jihad, struggle, mujahid, one who struggles, it goes on like that.

So one interpretation is that this refers to struggle, it refers to the internal struggle, the greater jihad, which is the struggle within yourself or person, personal virtue, and then the lesser jihad is the struggle to wage holy war, which is how people particularly on the Right in the West interpret jihad, which they go with the definition of holy war. It is an obligation of Islam to wage holy war against the unbelievers until they are subjugated to Islam, either converted or subjugated to Islam, so there’s two.

And of course right now in the United States there are some people generally in government who hold that the second definition and there are other people in the scholarly world generally who hold the first definition, but I should point out the folks in Daesh, the recruiters, they go with the second definition too.

So you know, my mom always said that in matters of faith, you should never question a person, so I take everybody at their word when they express their faith, but I can tell you that I spent a lot of time in Saudi Arabia. Actually, I’ve given this lecture to senior Saudi officers, like general officers, many times. One of the points I make is now if you think this is compatible, understand this: in the Daesh methodology you are an apostate. You claim to be a Muslim and you’ve turned yourselves. What is the sentence for apostasy in strict Sharia? That’s right, it’s death. I on the other hand just have to pay a tax, so this talk goes over pretty well.

But I am aware that that issue that you’ve asked is sort of a political litmus test in the United States and so I try to avoid it. I only answer the question out of courtesy to you. It applies to terrorist recruitment very severely because they basically say – particularly if you’re an identity seeker – you want to be a Muslim? If you want to be a Muslim, then your obligation is to either make the hijrah to immigrate to the caliphate, the land that is under the control of Islam, run by Islamic rules or you must support the hijrah from your place there by either challenging the laws, sending funds and weapons, conducting attacks, or the internet thing, you know, grooming people to leave, that sort of thing, so that is definitely their line.

Now, the issue we have here is and let me go back to an Irish setting. If the British government, which it has done several times, said, you know, all you Catholics are bad, bad, bad, we’re not going to incorporate you in any civil thing, then you’d still have bombs going off in London and so, you know, recognize the good, recognize the bad.

The other thing that complicates this in an Islamic setting vis-a-vis a Christian setting is in Christianity there is as you know a large number of commentary on the Bible, but in general, that commentary is regarded as opinions. The writing of Saint Thomas Aquinas, you know, the doctors of the Catholic Church, those are regarded as opinions. And so you can argue them, you can debate them. Different orders of monks, you know, the Franciscans arose as a counteraction to the Dominicans, which were sort of a more vivid version of the Benedictines. That’s all seen as legitimate discourse for the most part aside from some unpleasantness in Florence in the 15th century.

In Islam, first-off, the Quran is the literal word of God. the Bible has revelations, you know, the Gospel according to Luke, the Gospel according to John, there is no ‘gospel according to’. It’s all the literal word of God. Then you have a huge body of the Hadith, sayings of the prophet which are less than divinely inspired, but still viewed, and the Hadith, you know as I said, there are volumes and some are regarded as better than others, but when you’re dealing with an 18-year old who’s searching for identity, it’s pretty easy to bamboozle these guys. And there is not a Christian comparison to Hadith. That’s a lot of Islamic theology. I hope you find it satisfactory or at least respectable. Let me move on.

External Arabs

External Arabs: Egyptians, Jordanians, Tunisians for the most part; Saudis. Now note 62% were identity seekers in the West. Only 11% are identity seekers in the Arab world. 23% are seeking justice. This is justice in abstract sense like justice for Northern Ireland not justice for me personally. 22% are seeking status. I went to a university, I have a degree, I cannot get a job, I’m selling fruit, but I can go and become a knight of Islam and fight the enemy there. 22% are thrill seekers, roughly double the number we saw in the West.

And 11% – this is really scary – are death seekers, basically, I’ve made a mess of my life and the only way I can get out is to do this. And by the way, this is not unique to Islamic culture. What is the greatest nationalistic icon in Mexico? The nineteen cadets who threw themselves off the wall rather than surrender to the Yankees in 1848, so this is not exclusive. They were Catholic, so it’s not exclusive to the United States. What’s unusual about this is this reflects an inability of government to address the needs of its citizens in the Arab world. This is really a governance issue.

Internal Arabs

Now, let’s look at Iraqis and Syrians. This is really remarkable: status means getting a job, getting enough money that you can someday get married. Revenge means revenge for an act taken against you, your brother, your family personally, you know, my brother was shot by a Shia policeman. Responsibility: my father’s died, so I’ve got to do that. Identity is only 7% and that’s mostly the Sunni-Shia thing.

You know, the Iraqi government became basically a armed gang of the Shia Dawa Party, which is why ISIS initially blew through so quickly. I’ve also argued that the parallel is not Napoleon blowing through Central Europe, it’s the British retreat from Burma in 1942 or the Dutch retreat from Indonesia where basically you had a popular uprising against a colonial occupier, also a pretty effective military force doing it, but it’s not a juggernaut. What it reflects is a failure of governance.

This, this, this, and this – so basically, 90% – I argue would be eliminated if there was effective governance in Iraq and Syria. This is why I’ve always argued that Daesh is a failure of governance not a military failure. Now people say you say that because you’re an army-civil affairs guy and you would say that, but I’ll go toe-to-toe with anybody on that.

Oil Dependency

Now, is the problem going to get better or worse? Oil prices. The breakeven price for the GCC, which are the best-off countries in the Arab world, this is the amount of money that oil has to sell for for the governments to make a profit. So even in Saudi Arabia, oil needs to be about $100 a barrel. Okay, what was the price of oil today? It was about $46. It’s less than $50. Nobody predicts – even with Venezuela going up the spout – that oil is going to get above $80 a barrel, so the only countries that are going to be able to float are Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE. Even Saudi Arabia is going to be in trouble.

Youth Bulge and Unemployment

And here’s another problem coming down the pike. This is kind of a busy chart, but basically what it shows is youth unemployment as a percentage and then percentage of the population aged between 15 and 24 years old. Now, what is the defining characteristic of young men between the ages of 15 and 24 years old? What stands out most about them? What can you say about damn near every man between 15 and 24? I have been an infantry platoon leader, I can tell you, they are stupid.

You know, when I was that age I was perhaps the best illustration of my proposal, but if you talk to anybody who sells car insurance, they will tell you these people, you know, you look at the intake of any jail, you look at the people who go to any emergency room, this is your trouble zone. These are people who are young, active, strong, able to do something, trying to find their way in life, and there is a problem. So if you have a high percentage of unemployment among the youth, and a high percentage of that youth bulge, you have trouble.

The size of the circle indicates relative population, so basically, the world average is 14% youth unemployment and about 16% of people in the demographic danger zone. In the Arab world it is about double that, 30% youth unemployment, and two points higher, just over 18% of people in the danger zone.

But look at some of these other countries. Yemen, failed state, has 21% in that youth danger zone, and about 30% unemployment. Mauretania is a failed state outside of the capital. [It has] 45% unemployment. Libya, in the middle of a civil war, [has an unemployment rate of] 50%. Egypt, wow, look at that unemployment. This is a problem, and I was talking before with this gentleman about Ayman al-Zawahiri, exiled leader of Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda right now is basically the Egyptian Islamic Jihad in exile. All of the senior leadership of Al-Qaeda-main are Egyptian and basically their organization, their governance, their scheme is indistinguishable from Egyptian Islamic Jihad in the 1980s, 1990s before Hosni Mubarak.

Iraq [is a] failed state. Jordan [is] more or less a police state that is perpetually on the verge of failing.

See the rest of his Westminster talk…