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How do you defeat an idea, especially an idea wrapped in the cloak of religious infallibility?

Now add the complications of long-held justifiable grievances against Western society; unbalanced personalities and a communications network which can transmit hate messages to anyone, anytime, anywhere.

This is the problem The West is facing in its battle against Islamic Jihadists.

Following this week’s incident outside the British parliament, it was revealed that British intelligence agencies had 10,000 “persons of interest” that they were monitoring in the UK. In the past year, they had stopped 13 terrorist attacks from Islamic terrorists and four from far-right groups.

Almost simultaneously both the Pentagon and the UN issued reports saying that ISIS is far from defeated, despite the claims of Donald Trump and the Iraqi government.

The physical territory controlled by ISIS has shrunk to a pinpoint of its former self which—at its height—was the size of France. But ISIS is still there. The UN and Pentagon estimate that up to 30,000 committed Jihadists remain in Syria and Iraq. Another 5,000 are in Libya. A thousand are in the Sinai and up to 8,000 are active in Afghanistan.

Their tactics have switched from the creation of an expanding geographic base to the more traditional terrorist structure of loosely-tied individuals and small groups united by radical ideas—with differences. The biggest difference is that the link between the central authority and the terrorist on the ground is increasingly forged through cyberspace rather than physical contact.

Computer-based Jihadist recruiters surf the internet in search of vulnerable personalities looking for a cause through which to channel their grievances. These can be anything from prejudice to mental illness. One of the suicide bombers in the 7/7 London bombings is believed to have been spurred into action by a broken love affair.

Once hooked, the would-be terrorist is carefully flattered and cultivated by his digital mentor. He is made to feel a key component in a structure that needs him to don a bomb-packed suicide vest or drive a car into a crowd of innocent bystanders.

Other wannabe Jihadists find their way to the battlefields of the Middle East and Central Asia. When defeated many of them return to their European homes and are thrown into prison, or possibly sent to Guantanamo Bay where they brutalized by Western captors seeking an understandable vengeance and further radicalised by Islamic inmates.

The dusty pages of history offer a possible solution to this downward spiral. During World War Two , hundreds of thousands of German Prisoners of War were sent to camps in Britain, the US, and Canada. Their treatment is credited with helping to lay the foundations for today’s successful liberal Germany.

In the United States, there were 371,000 German POWs spread across 650 camps. Initially, they were treated in the traditional manner. There was a camp commandant who was responsible for keeping them behind barbed wire. Day-to-day activities were controlled by German officers who were by and large, hardened Nazis. The result was that the brutal regime and fascist ideology of Adolf Hitler were mirrored in the camps.

By March 1943 it was apparent that the American government was missing a major opportunity to turn a large number of Germans away from Fascist authoritarianism and towards traditional Western democratic values.

The first step was to segregate the officers—or hardcore Nazis—from the non-commissioned ranks. The next was to educate the prisoners. Initially, the emphasis was on cultural aspects such as music, art, and literature. The idea was to make the re-education process enjoyable so that the prisoners would want to move onto the next stage of learning the philosophical and governmental structures which underlay the cultural aspects.

It worked. At the end of the war, one million re-educated Germans held in American, Canadian and American returned to Germany – most of them converted to Western values. Can the same or similar tactics be used to convince Jihadists of the error of their ways? The brutal, vengeful alternative does not appear to be working.

Tom Arms is the editor of


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