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by Rob Margetta


The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee received a first-hand account of how young Muslims become radicalized when a former member of an Islamist extremist organization testified Thursday that a combination of a personal crisis of faith and racism he faced as a British teenager steered him toward that ideology.

"The question arose in my mind — was I British? Was I English? Was a I Pakistani? . . . Was I Muslim?" Maajid Nawaz told the committee. Eventually, he said, he met a medical student who introduced him to the idea that he had no national loyalties; he was a member of a worldwide Muslim caliphate.

At 16, Nawaz became a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a group associated with the planning and execution of terrorists acts. Nawaz became a leader and recruiter in the organization, and was arrested in Egypt in 2002. He spent four years imprisoned there until Amnesty International arranged for his release as a "prisoner of conscience."

"Amnesty International extended a hand to me, despite the fact that I had been propagating that Amnesty International was an enemy of Islam," he said. He returned to Britain, and eventually denounced Hizb ut-Tahrir and became co-director of the Quilliam Foundation, which opposes Islamist theology.

The foundation's goal was of intense interest to the Senate committee.

"We are particularly interested in how the ideology facilitates the radicalization process, the end point, of which, is the planning and execution of a terrorist attack," said Chairman Joseph I. Lieberman , I-Conn. Like all of the witnesses who testified at the hearing, Lieberman made a point to emphasize that he was not speaking about the Islamic religion, but rather "Islamism," a radical political offshoot.

In his testimony, Nawaz outlined four main characteristics of Islamism. At the top of the list is that adherents consider Islam to be a political ideology rather than a religion, he said. Additionally, they believe that Sharia, or Islamic religious law, must become state law, that there is a global Islamist community that crosses national borders and has no allegiance except to itself, and that the Islamist community needs a physical bloc, or caliphate.

"This state will be expansionist because it must represent that global community," Nawaz said.

Furthermore, he said, there are different types of Islamists, ranging from the political, which seek to infiltrate governments through the ballot box and other institutions, to the revolutionary, which try to infiltrate militaries to stage coup d'etats, to militant groups.

Nawaz and other experts on Islamism who appeared at the hearing said that a combination of social factors lead to Muslims subscribing to Islamist ideology, a point upon which committee members agreed.

"I do not believe that we can say that ideology is the root cause of terrorism any more than we can say that racism or perceptions of injustice and oppression are sufficient in themselves to explain violent extremism," said ranking Republican Susan Collins of Maine. "Indeed, experts have debunked myths that all terrorists are psychotic, poor, uneducated or otherwise fall within an easily identifiable profile."

The experts said one transition point in the path to extremism is when an individual with local, personal frustrations — economic hardship, racism, political disenfranchisement — and begins to see himself as part of a global movement or community.

Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said the poorly educated are not necessarily more susceptible (in fact, he said, Islamism appears to appeal more to those with technical and scientific backgrounds), nor are those with deeply religious backgrounds (one United Kingdom study found that many radicals had low levels of religious knowledge before joining extremist groups).

Leiter said extremist groups seek to capitalize on the idea that ideological adherents are part of a persecuted worldwide group.

"The core narratives repeated in al Qaeda messages are that the West and its allies in the Muslim world seek to destroy Islam, that Muslims must counter this threat through violence," he said. Another witness, Zeyno Baran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, called the idea a "defensive Jihad."

Baran said Islamism does not necessarily lead all adherents to violence, but said it is the root that all Islamic terrorist groups use to justify their actions.

"Not all Islamists will one day become terrorists," she said. "But all Islamic terrorists started off with non-violent extremism." Nawaz concurred with the statement.

Both Nawaz and Leiter said there is no one message or method for keeping those most likely to subscribe to Islamist ideology from making the leap. Doing so requires addressing the local issues that lead them to the ideology in the first place, Leiter said.

"We have to think about this globally, but act locally," he said. He added that counter-radicalization is a long process, where success is difficult to assess.


Rob Margetta can be reached at This article was published on the CQ Politics website


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