Originally published under the title "An End to the Grievance-Based Approach."
Jamal al-Harith didn't look very aggrieved in the moments before beginning his suicide mission.
When a British jihadi named Jamal al-Harith became an Islamic State (ISIS) suicide bomber last month, he killed not only Iraqi soldiers but also the naïve theory that nations can effectively fight terrorism by listening to the complaints of terrorists and then making the appropriate conciliatory adjustments.
Harith (born Ronald Fiddler) was granted every conceivable concession, but none of them stopped him from becoming the latest smiling suicide bomber.
What Melvin E. Lee calls the "grievance-based approach" to counterterrorism holds that by addressing the stated grievances of terrorists, their motivations for committing acts of violence can be stopped and further acts preempted. It is a surprisingly popular idea among both academics and politicians. But evidence in the real world suggests that it is little more than a fantasy of the peace studies and conflict resolution crowd.
The grievance-based approach to counter-terrorism is a fantasy of the peace studies & conflict resolution crowd.
The grievance-based approach can be applied both on a structural (group) level and on an individual level. On the group level, for decades it was the preferred approach taken by the government of Sri Lanka with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Successive Sri Lankan governments negotiated continuously with the Tamil Tigers since the 1980s, and whenever there was an impasse, the Tigers struck. It was not until 2009 when president Mahinda Rajapaksa ended negotiations and with his brother Gotabaya, who ran the military, declared war on the LTTE that peace came back to the island state.
Israel was locked into a decades-long grievance-based approach in its struggle with the Palestinian people. The memories of Oslo make it unlikely that major concessions are forthcoming. However, the Jewish state is under tremendous pressure from the UN, the EU and for the past eight years, the US, to make yet more concessions.
On the individual level, the grievance-based approach is at the heart of the erroneous explanation that poverty and lack of education are the "root causes" of terrorism, despite the plethora of engineers and medical doctors who have joined the global jihad. It was also favored by the Obama administration. In 2015 State Department spokesperson (and current Fox News analyst) Marie Harf suggested a grievance-based approach when she opined that a jobs program might effectively keep unemployed Muslim men from becoming jihadists. Harf explained that we need "to go after the root causes that lead people to join these groups, whether it's lack of opportunity for jobs."
Poverty and lack of education are not the 'root causes' of Islamist terrorism.
But Harith didn't need a job. In fact, he was a millionaire. He was an original al-Qaida member who joined when the fledgling group was still in the Sudan and then moved to Afghanistan when Osama bin Laden relocated his operations there. Harith was captured in Afghanistan in March 2002 by US troops and sent to the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. Since he was a British citizen, his government lobbied for his repatriation. When the Bush administration complied in 2004, Harith was sent back to Britain and granted his freedom. He faced no charges in spite of the circumstances of his case.
But that wasn't enough. Harith sued the British government and won a million-pound settlement. Not only were his grievances thoroughly redressed, but he was compensated with a fortune.
If the theory upon which the grievance-based approach is based were correct, Harith's new fortune and freedom would have ended his jihad. But it didn't. And in another apparent case of insufficient government surveillance of a known terrorist threat, Harith fled to Turkey in 2014 and then to Syria to join ISIS under the name Abu Zakariya al-Britani. Becoming a millionaire did not temper his taste for jihad and his thirst for martyrdom.
The idea that a job or money could stop Harith from rejoining the global jihad could only be entertained by someone who does not understand his reason for becoming an al-Qaida member to begin with.
Negotiating with terrorists is rarely a good idea, but nations that reach out to Islamist terrorists, as Melvin Lee explains, "misunderstand the enemy and its nature."
Harith gleefully embraced his death, convinced of the rewards he would reap upon completion of his attack. This element of the jihadi mindset has eluded us since 1983 when witnesses were baffled by the smiling suicide attacker who drove his explosive-laden truck into the US Marine barracks in Beirut.
Until we fight the ideology that attracts men like Harith, addressing specific grievances is futile.
The grievance-based approach to terrorism asks what else might have been done for Harith or given to Harith to dissuade him from his attack. It looks at his life and asks how society might have made it better, so that he would never have contemplated jihad against the West.
Until we acknowledge the ideology that attracts men like Ronald Fiddler, and then fight that ideology, addressing specific grievances of specific individuals or groups is futile. Or as Melvin Lee put it, "Acquiescing to political grievances will not alter the fundamental incompatibility between Lockean precepts of tolerance and current interpretations of Islam: Only Islam's fundamental reform will resolve the conflict."
Until then the suicide bombers will continue. Smiling like Harith.
A.J. Caschetta is a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum and a senior lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.