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Why ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ is the wrong phrase

United States President Donald Trump has made it very clear that a central focus of his tenure will be, in his own words, to “eradicate radical Islamic terrorism from the face of the earth”.

People carrying coffins of men who were killed in the recent Saudi-led airstrikes during a funeral in the Old City of Sanaa, Yemen on Jan 28. The strike was one of US President Donald Trump’s attempts to eradicate militants ‘from the face of the earth’. Photo: AP

People carrying coffins of men who were killed in the recent Saudi-led airstrikes during a funeral in the Old City of Sanaa, Yemen on Jan 28. The strike was one of US President Donald Trump’s attempts to eradicate militants ‘from the face of the earth’. Photo: AP

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United States President Donald Trump has made it very clear that a central focus of his tenure will be, in his own words, to “eradicate radical Islamic terrorism from the face of the earth”.

In adopting such rhetoric, Mr Trump has gone further than Mr Barack Obama and Mr George W Bush, his immediate predecessors. Both took care to avoid associating Islam with the terrorist threat posed by the likes of Al Qaeda and later the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (IS).

That Mr Trump means business was illustrated by the attack by US Navy Seals on Jan 28 on the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) network in Yemen, in which 14 militants were reportedly killed, along with an American soldier.

The raid demonstrated that Mr Trump not only has IS in his crosshairs; other terrorist networks with transnational reach such as AQAP — which was implicated in the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris two years ago — are being targeted as well. In keeping with a campaign promise, Mr Trump has given the Pentagon 30 days to come up with a strategy for defeating IS. Mr Trump even mentioned that he has an “extremely tough secret plan” to defeat IS that will “knock the hell out of them”.

When such a plan does materialise, it will likely be one in which military force will play the dominant role in the ongoing struggle against “radical Islamic terrorism”. But how effective will it be?

This is no mere academic question. Even if IS does get “the hell” knocked out of it in Iraq and Syria, most analysts agree that it will merely morph into what FBI Director James Comey has called a “terrorist diaspora” that would spread outwards and threaten other regions — including South-east Asia. Mr Trump therefore needs to get the strategic focus right. Deploying massive military force against “radical Islamic terrorism”, however, might very well be the wrong approach.

Since the Twin Towers tumbled, transnational terrorism remains a concern and has even metastasised. A 2016 study by the US-based Investigative Project on Terrorism showed that in the five years after September 11, there was an annual average of 2,508 terrorism-related deaths globally.

In the following five years till 2011, another 3,284 were killed annually. By 2013, the annual terrorist death average had tripled to 9,537 and another two years on, that number tripled yet again, hitting an unprecedented 28,708 annually.

The study attributed this exponential rise to the fact that more terror groups ideologically similar to Al Qaeda have emerged in the Middle East and Africa. Moreover, IS — a particularly brutal offshoot of Al Qaeda — has itself expanded its influence in the Middle East, Africa and even South-east Asia. Thanks to the emergence of cheap smartphone technology and Internet broadband access, the rise of popular social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp and Telegram for instance, violent narratives of such terror networks have been enabled to fuel the rise of low-signature lone wolf attacks over and above the residual threat from established terrorist networks.

Against this backdrop, the Trump administration’s designation of “radical Islamic terrorism” as the threat and the likely emphasis on a largely militarised strategy targeting it, is unlikely to be an optimal response. There is a need to unpack the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” itself to gain deeper insights into this matter.


Firstly, the phrase “radical” needs re-examination. Terrorism scholar Alex Schmid suggests that an analytical distinction between “radical” and “extremist” is important.

While radicals preach a root-and-branch transformation of society, they need not necessarily do so violently. They may be debated with and even won over to one’s side, such as the former British Hizbut Tahrir activists Maajid Nawaz and Ed Husain, who nowadays engage in the ideological counter-attack against the likes of IS with the needed familiarity and nuance.

Prof Schmid reckons that it is rather the extremists — those activists who possess supremacist leanings twinned with ideological justifications for the violent seizure of power — that pose the real threat. They should never be negotiated with, and the full force of the law should be applied against them. Anjem Choudary in the United Kingdom and Aman Abdurrahman in Indonesia are examples of such extremists in recent times.

Secondly, use of the term “Islamic” is unhelpful. Islam the religion is not the problem. It is the power-driven, organised violent Islamists who are. Technically, therefore the Trump administration should be targeting Islamism and not Islam. At the moment, though, ambiguity seems rife. While some senior US officials have apparently identified the religion itself, rather mistakenly, as a “cancer”, others argue the real problems are “enemy doctrines” and the “ideology”.

Whatever the case, semantic ambiguity is problematic. It can influence policy — such as the highly controversial travel ban affecting citizens from seven Middle Eastern countries — that unwittingly suggests that all Muslims are the enemy.

The impression of Islamophobia encouraged by such heavy-handed policy measures is highly counterproductive. It merely reinforces the violent Islamist narrative that the US and its allies are indeed at war with the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, the vast majority of whom reject the invidious supremacist goals that animate Al Qaeda and IS networks.

Thirdly, the term “terrorism” seems rather narrow. The Trump administration appears aware that it is not just the physical networks but the “enemy doctrines” driving them that are of concern. Terror cells and extremist Islamist ideology aside, what terrorism scholar Scott Atran calls the “passive infrastructure” or the supporting ecosystem of Islamist extremism should also be targeted.

Hence closer intelligence cooperation with precisely those “countries of concern” on whose citizens the travel ban has been imposed, remains critical. These national jurisdictions should be mapped much more granularly to identify specific smaller “communities of concern”.

They are where extremist ideology — for historical, socio-economic and political reasons — have incubated within closed networks of individuals, educational institutions, places of worship and other social spaces.

Such a mapping strategy, incidentally, should also be employed to isolate similar communities of concern in Europe, Africa, Asia and elsewhere, within which violent Islamist cells of potential transnational reach may be gestating.

In turn this suggests that military force mounted by any additional “boots on the ground” must be closely calibrated and integrated with political, socio-economic, educational and counter-ideological efforts. This should be done in partnership with local communities, businesses, municipalities and other relevant stakeholders, customised to each specific locale. This entails hard work and resources, but really, that is the only sustainable way to “eradicate” the threat.

In short, the term “radical Islamic terrorism”, while perhaps a pithy sound bite, is nevertheless not optimal policy-wise. While the Trump administration is energetically engaging with this issue, what it really should be targeting is more precisely termed “extremist Islamist ecosystems”. Furthermore, rather than raw military power alone, a judicious and customised use of hard and soft power — “smart power” if you like, remains the way forward.

If 16 years of the struggle against extremist Islamist terror networks has taught us anything, it is that no “secret plan” based largely on military force can bomb them into oblivion. They will merely mutate into something else. Sun Tzu’s ancient adage thus remains as pertinent as ever: “Let us fight with wisdom, and not just force alone”.


Kumar Ramakrishna is associate professor, head of Policy Studies and coordinator of the National Security Studies Programme in the office of the executive deputy chairman, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. This is adapted from a piece in RSIS Commentary.

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