THE BLOG
10/29/2014 02:17 pm ET Updated Dec 29, 2014

Radicalization: An Urgent Threat That Needs Washington's Attention

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Despite news of United States and coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the radical group continues its successful recruitment strategy through social media to magnetize and recruit young Westerners; thus raising fundamental questions about the root causes that lead young people from the West, including Americans, to forsake their identities and lifestyles to swell ISIS ranks as fighters.

Against this backdrop, Western intelligence services are unable to determine the exact number of these recruits. Yet, the fundamental question we are not asking is whether the US has an understanding of the root causes leading to radicalization. Unfortunately, the number of recruits is growing faster than the West -- and the United States for that matter -- can keep up with. While Western intelligence services are stating that the number is classified; my belief is that they do not know the exact number; thus, using their bureaucratic language, "It's classified," to avoid embarrassment.

As one who has an understanding of the history of not only Syria and Iraq, but also the broader Middle East; one who is familiar with the religious and ideological difference between Sunnis and Shiites; I do not see any shared values these westerner recruiters might have with ISIS. Yet, their reasons for joining the group can be as varied as their own life stories. Some seek acceptance, friendship, and new adventures; while others are compelled to fight injustice, perceived imperialism, and Western hegemony. Whatever the case might be, sometimes these reasons are stronger than any religious motivations.

What is evident is that radicalization in the West, mainly in the U.S., is on the rise. To illustrate, what does one make of Moner Mohammad Abusalha, a 22-year-old Floridian, who was raised playing basketball? Prior to carrying out a suicide mission in Syria last May that ended his life and the lives of 16 others, he described his journey to jihadism and the influence of Anwar al-Awlaqi, the U.S. -- born cleric targeted and killed in Yemen in 2011. US officials need to understand that the root causes of radicalization go beyond simplistic statements such as, "They hate our freedom" or "They don't like democracy." Be that as it may, if we, as a society, are not willing to address and ask questions that matter, then we will never understand what motivates young men and women to go to the extreme and embrace ideologies that defy logic. If we, as society, do not address the fact that it is our foreign policy behavior, double standards approach, erratic involvement in the internal affairs of the Middle East, military presence in the region, and a host of other reasons that fuel this resentment. I understand how the political game on the intentional stage is played; I have a grasp of how in international affairs context matters; but, I also understand that we have pressing domestic challenges that need our immediate attention: We have an education system that is failing, a crumbling infrastructure, a dwindling economy, a swelling national debt, student loan debts that is about to burst, much needed immigration reform, and a leadership crisis, among others.

I think radicalization is a national security threat that the US needs to take seriously; however, given how Washington establishment tends to yield to competing political agendas, I doubt policymakers will take this threat seriously.

So what can be done to combat this growing menace? The answer depends on addressing three key points:

The US government needs to engage moderate Muslim communities within the United States. It must reach out through Islamic centers and similar organizations to promote accurate teachings of Islam and sharpen our understanding within those communities, especially where the true Islamic teachings are embraced.

U.S. embassies mainly in the Muslim world need to step outside their comfort zone and aggressively engage host countries through exchange programs that promote dialogue and implement strategies to curb extremists' influence and ideology.

Since ISIS appears to be, efficiently, managing its social media outreach and recruiting strategies, the United States needs to pursue countermeasures to discourage young Muslim Americans from joining ISIS or even considering the notion.

Currently, the United States does not understand why and how the process of radicalization evolves, and who is being radicalized and why. Alas, once again, the US government's efforts in addressing this issue are cosmetic. The only explanation I have is that policymakers are not devoting enough time, resources, and a political will to understand what spurs one to embrace extremism and radicalized ideology.

I wonder what we have achieved thus far by conducting airstrikes that targeted empty buildings while ISIS is marching toward Baghdad and taking over Kobani on the Turkish Syrian border. U.S. officials need to stop playing politics and see the challenges for what they are. Our country is in desperate need for an honest and objective national debate about where the US is headed and what lies ahead for American foreign policy in the Middle East.