It's Not About Bin Laden, It's About Influence

On May 1, U.S. Navy SEALs burst into a compound in Northern Pakistan and killed the world's most notorious terrorist. And while that moment was a clear victory for the principle of justice, Osama bin Laden's death may do surprisingly little for the cause of peace.

That so many of us suffer from galloping expectations when a Hosni Mubarak exits the stage, when bin Laden is killed, or when—fingers crossed—Gadhafi is somehow removed, illustrates our naiveté about what truly shapes our destiny.

While we hope for instant change, lasting peace will not come about through the simple removal of a few bad guys. Real peace will only come through fundamental changes in behavior. And those changes will never happen until more of us step up to the hard work of influence. It's time we learned to change the broad array of influences that produce the behaviors shaping our reality.

We practice the same wishful thinking as leaders, in our politics and in our personal lives. We try to improve organizational performance with new processes or programs when the evidence proves that the most potent competitive advantage comes through creating a world-class culture. We hope to solve social problems by building more prisons or funding more programs when the cause of many of our woes is behavioral. And we dream of a gimmick to make us rich or thin rather than thinking wisely about what it will take to change our habits.

Flaws in the Thinking

Let me repeat, I personally sleep better knowing bin Laden no longer shares the planet with me. Justice has been served, and al-Qaeda leadership has been weakened.

My point is simply that the rampant speculation that we're now significantly safer is deeply flawed. The terrorism problem was never bin Laden. The problem is that the range of influences I regularly write about in this column are perfectly organized to perpetuate the kind of division, contention, and violence that spawned bin Laden in the first place. And no one is safe unless and until we intentionally counter and even transform these sources of influence to promote comity and cooperation. As General David Petraeus says, the U.S. "cannot kill [its] way to victory."

Think about it for a moment. The real problem is that a 17-year-old man—let's call him Ibrahim—living in a Paris suburb is exposed to an overwhelming number of influences that will radicalize him. For example:

1. Moral Motivation. Persuasive religious leaders in his local mosque who misunderstand or intentionally misuse the Koran bombard him with arguments that frame Westerners as moral enemies and make violence seem righteous. Evidence suggests the typical radicalized Muslim is less, not more, educated in Islamic theology than the average Muslim. That made it easy for a drug-dealer-turned-cleric in the Netherlands to create his own version of Islam—a terrorist cell known as the Hofstad Group, documented by Harvard Law School professor Jessica Stern in "Mind Over Martyr" in Foreign Affairs.

2. Skills. Ibrahim is being tutored in radical political thought. He is being trained to argue against more moderate views of the world. Over time he will learn skills to participate in jihad. He won't simply one day don a vest laced with explosives; rather, he'll be trained to take smaller actions and slowly increase his competence at this craft. For example, the takfir teachings of the Hofstad Group first trained acolytes in skills for accusing other Muslims of apostasy along the path to training them for more aggressive expressions of discontent.

3. Social Motivation. Each time a peer dies in the cause, Ibrahim will watch him elevated to the status of hero. Our behavior is powerfully shaped when we see others praised or punished for their actions. Stern further reports that contrary to Western belief, ideology rarely ranks as the most important source of influence in a person's choice to engage in terrorism. In fact, it's almost a fad in European Muslim communities for second- and third-generation youth to rebel against "softer" forms of Islam and look for a more demanding faith. This social influence is positively amplified for a youth like Ibrahim when he lives in a Western country where groups that might have mainstreamed him end up ostracizing him. A 2006 study by the European Monitoring Center on Racism & Xenophobia shows, for example, that Ibrahim will find himself socially excluded and even reviled by majority ethnicities in his host country.

4. Social Ability. A host of influences will not only encourage but also socially enable Ibrahim to drift in a radical direction. His friends will forward website URLs and make play lists of rap artists who weave potent anti-Western themes into their catchy tunes. Al-Shabab's Abu Mansour-al-Amriki has successfully promoted "jihad rap" in recruitment videos. A British rap group called Blakstone and an American band called Soldiers of Allah use music to instruct youth to engage in violence against kafir (nonbelievers). When violent jihad becomes "cool," people will engage in violent jihad.

5. Incentives. It turns out the vast majority of terrorists are not the image we see on television or movies of affluent and sophisticated thinkers motivated purely by ideological zeal. For many, terrorism is a job. According to Major General Douglas Stone, the former commander of Task Force 134, out of 25,000 terror suspects, 78 percent were unemployed at the time they began their radical "career." Our Ibrahim is particularly vulnerable to economic incentives as studies in the European Union show minorities are far more likely to be unemployed or have access to only low-wage positions.

6. Environment. When you add a physical environment that serves up nonstop information promoting a singular point of view to the potent power of moral arguments, skills, social motivation, peer enabling, and economic incentives, you complete Ibrahim's behavioral model. From the time he wakes until he says his evening prayers, Ibrahim will be surrounded by a data stream of news outlets, websites, and e-mails that present a slanted view of the world. In fact, even the reports of bin Laden's death will be used in these media to influence Ibrahim toward radicalism.

The sketch I've given here is admittedly partial. But that's just the point. If there are a few million Ibrahims—or even thousand—who experience all these influences, can you see how insignificant bin Laden's death is in taking us any closer to the world we want? In fact, in the absence of a more robust influence strategy, his death is most likely to provide additional potency to the sources of influence working against peace.

Please don't misunderstand. This is no argument for being soft on criminals like bin Laden. Consequences can exert influence. But even dire consequences, such as a hail of bullets, are unlikely to create the effect we want if we don't fully engage in turning the broad complement of influences Ibrahim is experiencing in another direction right this minute.

Saudi Arabia's Strategy

Interestingly, some are attempting more comprehensive approaches to influence. For example, Saudi Arabia—not always known for its liberal approach to social problems—has developed an impressively well-informed approach to influencing those accused of terrorism. The approach addresses every one of the sources of influence I've just outlined.

Thousands of convicted terrorists in the Riyadh "Care Rehabilitation Center" have been reintegrated into Saudi society after careful instruction by respected imams, psychological counseling, guided reconnection with family and other social influences, job training, housing assistance, and other powerful ways of reversing the forces that shaped their previous radicalization.

While these efforts are still in early stages, data from the Saudi government, as reported by Stern, suggest recidivism rates are 60 percent to 80 percent lower than those in the U.S. It appears that when you think about influence and not only about justice or safety, you are more likely to achieve all three.

Contrast the Saudi experiment with the U.S.'s approach to detention-only in Guantánamo. Recently released military documents suggest that a significant number of those who were wrongfully detained—and had no previous record of radical violence—committed acts of violence after their detention. Detention without consideration of its influence ultimately made us less safe.

Now lest readers engage me in debate about the content of the Saudi effort, let me be clear. Whether the Saudis have got it right or not is secondary to my point. While it appears that even those who have already engaged in violence can be influenced, our real work is not the Khalid Sheikh Muhammeds of the world, but our friend Ibrahim. The real work that will bring real peace can't be done in one single act of retribution. It will have to be done through a combination of citizen action, nonprofits, and far-sighted development efforts designed to change the experience of millions of Ibrahims before they are radicalized.

It would be wonderful if two bullets would do the job. But the clear evidence is they won't. If we want a different world, we'll need different behavior. And if we want different behavior, we'll need a thoughtful approach to marshaling all six of the sources of influence in support of a new future for Ibrahim.

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