Going to Extremes

Why Muslim fundamentalists may be our best hope for stopping terror.

In 1996, Richard Reid, a petty criminal recently released from prison, found his way to an unassuming mosque in the rough-edged south London neighborhood of Brixton. The majority of worshippers were converts to Islam: some of them ex-convicts who had taken up the faith in prison, some immigrants. Most of the women wore the full niqab and abaya, showing only their eyes in accordance with the mosque's strictly conservative bent.

The mosque's demographics fit Reid, who had grown up in a mixed-race suburban London household and converted to Islam while in prison. They also suited a fellow Brixton worshipper Reid might or might not have met: Zacarias Moussaoui, a French-born son of Moroccan immigrants who had attended university in London. Neither man stayed long. Moussaoui was kicked out in 1997 for his aggressively extremist views, and Reid drifted away the following year. Both found their way first into terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and then, in 2001, into the headlines. Moussaoui, al Qaeda's so-called 20th hijacker, was arrested in the United States and later charged with playing a role in the 9/11 plot; Reid was captured several months later for attempting to blow up a transatlantic flight with a bomb hidden in his shoe.

Although Brixton Mosque was scrupulously anti-violence, Britons began to worry that the mosque had become, in the words of Time magazine, "an ideal hunting ground for terrorist talent spotters." But some of Britain's front-line experts on Islamist radicalism soon came to believe that this cloud hanging over the mosque had a silver lining -- that the same fundamentalist Muslim community that had been a departure point for Britain's most notorious terrorists could be used to persuade other alienated young Muslim men not to make the same decision. "The Brixton Mosque is not a center of violent extremism -- it is a center of resistance to violent extremism," says Robert Lambert, a former counterterrorism operative with London's Metropolitan Police Service.

Nearly a decade after 9/11, this thinking has evolved into one of Britain's most promising counterterrorism strategies -- and perhaps its most controversial. The government is, in effect, betting that the ideology that so many Islamist radicals claim to believe in can be employed to keep them from becoming terrorists in the first place.

The man at the center of this idea is Abdul Haqq Baker, a Londoner who converted to Islam as a young man and served as Brixton Mosque's chairman for 15 years. Born Anthony Baker to Nigerian and Guyanese parents, he adopted a Muslim name when he embraced Salafism, the fundamentalist branch of Sunni Islam preached at the Brixton Mosque. Hard-line mosques like Brixton have often been the last stop before radicalism for people like Moussaoui and Reid. But mosques generally don't know what to do with such young men, especially if they stop short of openly advocating violence. The usual response is to expel them. But once they're out the door, they may be gone for good.

In this dilemma, Baker saw an opportunity. In March 2007, he launched the Strategy to Reach, Empower and Educate Teenagers (STREET), a center near the Brixton Mosque aimed at young Muslims. Operating on a shoestring budget, STREET offers mentoring for thousands of drop-ins and recently released Muslim convicts, helping with schooling, job training, and anti-violence counseling. If a STREET drop-in mentions an al Qaeda propaganda video he has seen, counselors watch it with him, pointing out the fallacies in its interpretation of Islam. STREET's mostly Salafi staff members are credible to their audience because they are like them -- indeed, several were once in their shoes. "If they cannot relate to you," says Baker, "if your lifestyle doesn't resonate, they will not accept anything from you."

Baker's model for countering extremism echoes the findings of Marc Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist and former CIA case officer who has found in his research that ideologies matter less than relationships in creating terrorists. The 9/11 plotters, who started as a militant study group at the al-Quds mosque in Hamburg, Germany, were typical of the hundreds of radicals Sageman examined: outsiders, often expatriates sent abroad to study, and radicalized within that expat clique, an intellectual cocoon with ever-escalating views that would have been impossible to maintain in their home countries. "The only people who count are the members of your group," Sageman told me. "You discount the outsiders."

This is straight out of what social scientists call group dynamics theory -- it explains not only why people become terrorists, but also why they join gangs or cults. Sageman named the phenomenon after a term the Canadian police had used to label a Montreal group that later turned out to be a terrorist cell: BOG, or "bunch of guys." It is the bunch-of-guys theory of terrorism -- and by building his STREET community, Baker is creating a bunch-of-guys strategy for preventing it.

Mixing fundamentalist Islam and counterterrorism, however, has proved to be controversial with just about everyone. Baker has received threats from Islamist extremists, serious enough that in 2002 he moved his family to Saudi Arabia, where he now lives most of the time. But many in mainstream Britain are also wary. One influential critic is the Quilliam Foundation, a London-based think tank that promotes a liberal, pro-Western Muslim identity. "The Brixton Mosque subscribes to an austere, conservative Saudi brand of Islam. Without that ideology, you can't promote terrorist acts," says Ghaffar Hussain, director of training and consultancy for Quilliam. "It's not enough to say, 'Well, I oppose terrorism, but I still embrace a harsh Islam.'"

Others go further, arguing that Baker's theology is necessarily part of the support structure of terrorism. The conservative think tank Policy Exchange called working with Baker one of the big mistakes of Britain's counterterrorism strategy. Melanie Phillips, a right-wing journalist and author of Londonistan, has written that Baker's ideology is the "sea in which violence swims."

Call it the Good Muslim/Bad Muslim debate. Why should the British government give money and support to groups that share much of the ideology and grievances of terrorists? Baker has an answer: A would-be terrorist is unlikely ever to walk into an event sponsored by a group like Quilliam. But he might very well stop by STREET. "We are the ones who have credibility with these young people, and we're the ones addressing their concerns," says Baker.

Baker is far from alone in claiming that his approach is working. "The feedback that we get from offenders and probation officers is that STREET is very successful," says Simon Cornwall, a senior probation officer with the London Probation Trust's Central Extremism Unit. Security officials as far afield as Vancouver and Los Angeles have contacted Baker about the STREET model, with an eye to starting something similar. But as paranoia over Islam has hit new heights in Europe and the United States -- where even the decidedly moderate Park51 community center proposed for Lower Manhattan provoked weeks of outrage -- such projects are certain to be a tough sell. STREET has had to lay off half its staff since the new cost-cutting Conservative-led government took over. With a wholesale review of Britain's anti-terrorism programs under way, Baker says his project will almost certainly lose financing for its drop-in center and remain open only to referrals from agencies such as the probation service.

Western governments may well prefer working only with Muslims who share basic liberal values, teach English and civics, and try to convince angry young men that reports of their oppression are greatly exaggerated. But they will be talking to the wrong men. Grievances aren't the real problem; after all, millions of people who never take up violence are irate over the Iraq war, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and the banning of full head coverings in France. There are many angry Muslims and very few terrorists. And it may be that you need the first to stop the second.



Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

It’s getting harder and harder to cheat at the elections game these days. So what’s a Ugandan strongman to do?

KAMPALA — On Friday, Feb. 18, Uganda will hold national presidential elections. Incumbent Yoweri Museveni is seeking a fourth term to extend his 25-year rule, and by most accounts he will almost certainly win.

Given all the advantages working in his favor -- from state electoral machinery to a deservedly solid reputation for fostering economic growth -- the winner of this contest is almost preordained. But Museveni is still dropping millions of dollars to ensure the result. These days in Uganda, it seems, it's not as cheap to buy an election as it used to be.

It's hard to overstate Museveni's advantage in Friday's ballot. He has significantly more campaign funds -- both legitimate and under the table -- than the opposition. He has access to state resources to mobilize his supporters, and the loyalty of the security services. Uganda has seen record economic growth in recent years under his oversight. And Museveni has strong Western backing, winning praise for example for his innovative HIV/AIDS campaign and his commitment to fighting terrorism. (It also helps, of course, that he appointed the electoral commission.)

Sounds easy, right? Yet Museveni and his party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), are leaving nothing to chance. Across Kampala, major billboards usually devoted to expensive advertisements for Coca-Cola, phone companies, or other big spenders have almost all been replaced with NRM campaign items. The party has even hired a helicopter to fly around the city dropping leaflets and blaring Museveni's campaign song -- a remixed version of his attempt to bond with young voters by rapping at a rally. And then there is Museveni's use of government resources, like the presidential helicopter, to travel around the country and campaign.

Since it's not officially reported, campaign spending is hard to gauge here. But Andrew Mwenda, editor of the Independent weekly magazine and consistent critic of Museveni's regime, has an estimate: "Museveni has spent $350 million dollars on this election alone," he told me.

Meanwhile, the government is effectively bankrupt. In January, parliament passed a supplemental budget increase of $260 million, yet just weeks later, Minister of Finance Syda Bbumba announced that the government was broke and ministries would be examining emergency cost-cutting measures. According to local newspaper reports, government officials confirm that money was diverted to NRM campaigns for the presidency and parliamentary seats, and $1.3 billion, or almost a third of the annual budget was spent in January alone. (Unsurprisingly, the IMF refused last week to sign off on Uganda's economic policies, diplomatically describing them as "inconsistent" with previous agreements with the fund.)

So why is Museveni spending so much if he's a shoo-in?

First and foremost because the stakes of the election are incredibly high -- worth, it seems, a major front-end investment. Whoever wins has access to the state treasury -- and skimming off the top is common. With Uganda set to begin producing oil in the next year or so, government revenues are expected to skyrocket; whoever is in power will have an even greater ability to trade patronage for support. For now, there's no obvious downside to the corruption. There have been no serious attempts at prosecuting government officials, even when newspaper or parliamentary investigations more or less provide all the necessary evidence.

Oil might also be the reason why Museveni isn't worried about spending too much now. "In previous elections, you saw Museveni buying individuals," said Godber Tumushabe, a lawyer and director of prominent think tank Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment. "In this election he is buying constituencies and groups. If the oil money starts flowing, you could see that deepening, essentially putting every other group on the payroll."

But that's not the only reason Museveni is on a spending spree. The money flowing into Friday's election suggests that the NRM believes it can no longer resort to the kind of thuggery it has used to win elections in the past. In 2006, for example, leading opposition candidate Kizza Besigye was repeatedly arrested and his supporters beaten by official security agencies as well as un-uniformed goons who were later alleged to be government agents. In part because of international pressure, Tumushabe points out, as well as the example of the International Criminal Court indicting politicians in next-door Kenya for instigating election violence, outright physical coercion is mostly off the table.

The election system itself is also more reliable and transparent than it has been previously, according to Silvestre Rwomukubwe, chairperson of DEMGroup, a coalition of pro-democracy civil society organizations. This year's election will use improved ballots. And it will be watched by both international and local party observers, the latter of whom plan to tally their own results. The largest opposition party, for example, will deploy 19 party agents at every polling station, a total of more than 900,000 people, to help avoid malpractice and encourage turnout. Even the Museveni-appointed electoral commission has gone to great lengths to equip observers and media with information about each step of the tallying process and provided phone numbers in each polling area where voters can report abuse. That kind of transparency will make actual vote rigging much more difficult this time around.

Efforts have even been made to tackle perhaps the trickiest form of rigging: voter bribery, which is happening on both sides of the campaign (despite the opposition groups' much smaller budgets). With support from Western donors, Rwomukubwe's DEMGroup created a monitoring system called Uganda Watch through which anyone can report electoral complaints by text message. The incidents are then displayed on the Uganda Watch website and, if possible, followed up upon by DEMGroup's network of activists. The organization has members throughout the country, who, Rwomukubwe said, may call police, media, or electoral officials with the complaints.

A final reason for the NRM's insecurity is that the opposition may have a better chance than analysts and even polls have indicated. A poll conducted in late 2010 by Afrobarometer, a respected African survey organization focused on public opinions about democracy, showed (pdf) Museveni with 65 percent of the expected vote. But Hussein Kyanjo, spokesman for the largest opposition group, Besigye's Inter-Party Coalition (IPC), is quick to argue that more than half of respondents also said they thought the polling agents were sent by the Ugandan government, and thus overstated their support for Museveni out of fear.

Kyanjo's own calculation is that Besigye will come in with about 60-65 percent of the vote, putting Museveni at 35 percent. Even if this estimate proves optimistic, Museveni's popularity has dropped in every election cycle, from more than 75 percent in 1996 to just 59 percent in 2006. And many pressing issues such as corruption, poverty, and access to medical care have not improved since then. If neither Museveni nor the IPC win more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will follow, and the two other major opposition parties, the Democratic Party and the Uganda People's Congress, as well as some smaller parties, would likely unite with the IPC against Museveni.

Nor will the opposition go down quietly if the vote is somehow rigged. Besigye has made it clear that he will not contest any malpractice in the court system, as he has did unsuccessfully in 2001 and 2006. Instead, "we will go to the court of the people who support us," warned spokesman Kyanjo. That means protests -- maybe violent ones. "If the [electoral commission] tries to rig, we are going to riot," said George, a journalism student and Besigye supporter who declined to give his last name. "What has happened in Tunisia and Egypt is going to happen here." The police and army have been preparing for exactly that outcome, investing in crowd-control equipment like water cannons. On Thursday, the Uganda Communications Commission also issued a directive requiring mobile phone operators to block text messages with words like "Egypt," "dictator," "teargas," and even "people power." Yet none of this may prove enough to keep demonstrators from gathering.

Could Museveni actually lose power? Despite the opposition's hopes, the flurry of government spending might work, and if Museveni finds his chances seriously threatened, the government has a history of cracking down on dissent. In 2006, military jamming equipment was used to shut down a radio station's live tally of voting. Both the police and army have shown little restraint in firing on civilians in recent years during riots and protests. While Museveni values his close connections with the West and is considered a key U.S. ally for promoting stability in Somalia and Southern Sudan, Western pressure is unlikely to have much of an effect. Those same security concerns may also keep the United States from condemning any anti-democratic actions by Museveni as strongly as it has in other countries, such as the Ivory Coast or Zimbabwe.

Although he has pledged to abide by the election results, a more famous line of Museveni's still rings in the ears of many Ugandans:

"I came to power by the gun and can't be removed by [a] mere piece of paper."