THE BLOG
01/11/2015 11:34 am ET Updated Mar 13, 2015

To Stop Al Qaeda We Must Change the Way We React to Its Attacks

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula announced on Friday evening that it was responsible for the three-day rampage in France that started with the killing of 12 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine.

It's been nearly a decade and a half since al Qaeda announced itself. Despite the shock and outrage after the 9/11 attacks, it went on to stage several more attacks, fight two wars, and develop global affiliates. Most recently, it has spawned a rival -- Islamic State (IS) -- which takes al Qaeda's ideas and applies them even more brutally.

Clearly, the response isn't working.

The anger at Wednesday's attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine and defiance towards those that perpetrated them are again leading to reactions that do little to actually thwart al Qaeda and instead actually help it to gain recruits.

Since IS stole the Jihadi limelight after its summer blitzkrieg campaign in Iraq and Syria, it is not a huge surprise that al Qaeda is looking to re-install itself as the premier global Jihadist group.

The Paris attack is classic al Qaeda -- a swift and violent assault on targets of high symbolic value. True to al Qaeda's way of integrated political, military and media war, the attack wasn't designed to be just a one-off act of vengeance. It was a calculated action designed to provoke a response that proves the veracity of its worldview. Where IS employs brutal force, al Qaeda prefers judo -- using its opponents own strength and direction of travel against them.

So, what is the worldview al Qaeda is going to great lengths to convince its audience of? The U.S. Open Source Center's report on al Qaeda messaging breaks down the core elements of its vision as the following:

• There is a war raging against Islam

• Muslim rulers are puppets of the West

• Muslim lands are being occupied

• Violent Jihad is the only way to win back dignity

• Willingness to die a martyr is the key to victory

• Victory is the restoration of the caliphate

As observers like Lawrence Wright, have noted, before 9/11, al Qaeda's saw the vast majority of Muslims were not interested in armed struggle to impose a literalist reading of Islamic law.

The big, signature attacks were designed to create conditions whereby ordinary Muslim populations are marginalized and vilified enough to make them accept al Qaeda's view of the world and adopt its solution of a violent fight back.

The idea that the struggle against violent extremism is a "battle of narratives" has become something of a cliché. And, the problem with clichés is that they lose real meaning. The battle of narratives with al Qaeda's ideology comes down to this simple idea: If Muslims and non-Muslims can live peacefully together in a just society, the premise of the group's ideology is demonstrably wrong. Equally, if countries in the Arab and wider Muslim worlds can evolve governments capable of serving their people and treating them fairly, then al Qaeda's proposed remedy becomes obsolete.

As a journalist who covered extremism across the world since the 9/11 attacks, and then worked with governments to counter it, I fear the reaction to al Qaeda attacks more than the attacks themselves. The attacks are aimed at making young impressionable Muslims believe that al Qaeada's words are true. In reality, the attacks themselves don't accomplish that, but the reactions do. The images of occupation, arbitrary arrests, racial profiling, reports of torture, vigilante attacks etc. demonstrate the veracity of al Qaeda's claims much better than the group could ever do itself.

It's worth exploring how the reactions to the attacks look to al Qaeda's target audience of young, disaffected and socially marginalized young people (predominantly but not exclusively Muslims).

While the perpetrators were still on the run, reports surfaced of at least two mosques and a kebab shop in France being attacked with guns and grenades. Social media is awash with anti-Muslim bigotry. Such developments are hard to ignore, particularly as it creates the impression of popular, violent anti-Muslim sentiment amongst the mainstream.

Western news outlets and ordinary social media users have taken to printing and sharing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. In the majority of cases, this has been to show solidarity with the victims and to support the principle of free speech. The effect has been to stir debate amongst Muslim audiences about how free speech is lauded when it mocks Muslims but doesn't apply when it mocks or insults other groups. The discussion -- stemming from the reaction -- sharpens the already existing perception that Muslims face double standards in the West. Again, this plays perfectly into al Qaeda's central argument.

The benefit of having Muslim leaders denounce acts like the Charlie Hebdo attack is limited to community relations rather than counter extremism. To the target audience they make figures of authority look like stooges.

The biggest score for al Qaeda, however, has been the long-term response. Al Qaeda's initial claim that Western societies were dens of oppression with nothing to teach the Muslim world rang hollow to millions of people who might have disliked foreign policies but thought life in Europe and North America offered rights and equality under the law.

The use of torture by U.S. agencies has gotten much coverage. However, Muslim audiences focus equally closely on issues such as profiling, unwarranted surveillance, secret trials and citizenship revocation. The message is that Western freedoms were never real and so the entire political construct is false. This, of course, then sets up al Qaeda to present its thoroughly flawed political vision as a viable alternative.

Al Qaeda has gone from a few hundred men holed up in Afghanistan to a global affiliate network with a worldview that is becoming increasingly plausible. The only way to counter its strategy is through integrated security, political and communications action that demonstrates the veracity of a better vision -- in other words, in the same way as al Qaeda.