Pragmatism often competes or even outweighs religious ideology for some members of Islamic extremist groups such as al-Shabaab, al-Qaida, and ISIS. By looking at the pragmatic aspect of extremist groups, we can alter the fight against them using non-kinetic and non-military approaches.

Younger individuals living in countries afflicted with poverty, war, and broken education systems have little chance of being successful. There are no dreams to become a productive member of the community, only the drive to survive day-to-day and week-to-week. Survive to support oneself or a young family. A tipping point of hopelessness is usually reached before joining a terrorist group. Being a terrorist is a means to make a living. The religious ideology helps to support the pragmatic drive to survive. It justifies the unimaginable and makes it righteous. Men and women become susceptible to terrorist group propaganda and recruitment due to economic and social reasons.

Socially, terrorism is also generally pursued in the hopes of obtaining power and notoriety. Collectively, extremist groups seek power and control. However, individual members seek to have a purpose, belonging, and notoriety (in addition to the monetary benefits). In the case of ISIS, the group is not nationalist in nature, instead pursuing power, land, wealth, and resources from other nations. ISIS seeks power by reviving the caliphate. This mission is supported by their religious ideology, which overshadows the true motivation behind their quest of power and control. Using religious ideology only romanticizes their ultimate goal and aids in their recruitment.

As an individual, joining an extremist group can give a previously faceless person instant power based on association and the fear their organization inspires among their community. Before joining the group, such individuals likely had little opportunity for basic education (outside of religious education) and zero chance of higher education to take on a profession. All of a sudden a previous nobody now has a title and a job. They belong to something bigger than themselves. Their new role offers respect among their peers. Realizing the pragmatic social and economic motivations behind Islamic extremist groups can help shape our plan to counter the threat.

General Joseph Votel (who has been nominated to take over U.S. Central Command) addresses the ISIS threat in Libya and the potentially non-kinetic role that special operations may play.

According to Gen. Votel, “What may appear a vast trans-regional threat (ISIS in Libya) is in many cases a series of local issues in which an external actor has taken advantage of by leveraging modern communications through contextually appropriate messaging.”

Votel continued to say, “In order to address this threat holistically, we do have to do activities and pursue objectives that allow us to tamp down on it,” he said, “prevent it, and destroy it in areas where it is not wholly grown or beginning to metastasize so that we can bring that area back to legitimate local control.”

If we want to win the war on terrorism, particularity in the Middle East and northern Africa, we will have to incorporate the pragmatic issues into the post-military planning phase. While we cannot legitimately counter the religious ideology, we can alter the individual economic and social aspect of extremist group recruitment and retainment. The collective global Muslim community (the ummah) will have to take a stand and address the extreme religious ideology. Humanitarian aid such as schools, medical care, food, water, and jobs are some of the basic necessities needed following periods of chaos to counteract the feelings of hopelessness that drive individuals into the open arms of such terrorist organizations. Our ability to implement non-kinetic efforts is debatable as many of these services are lacking domestically. This will no doubt be a difficult task that will require a multi-national effort.