Experts with a knowledge of religion, particularly Islam, are playing an increasingly prominent role in battling terrorism, according to an article inThe Atlantic magazine (November).
Such experts engaging in a field the article calls “forensic theology,” have become key in authenticating terrorist documents, identifying and targeting perpetrators for surveillance and, most importantly, pinpointing groups that present the greatest threat. The French have pioneered in forensic theology, or what they call “ideological surveillance, at least since 1986 when Islamic experts teamed up with security services to identify the trademarks of extremist thought. The result has been the identification and disruption of a number of militant cells and the prevention of more than 25 planned attacks.
Last year, for example, religious experts listening to sermons in various mosques pinpointed three clerics as probable extremists. Police found that all three had links to a terrorist group led by a Turkish militant, and were subsequently ordered expelled from France. In the U.S., the Middle East Media Research Institute in Washington, a group with an Israeli intelligence background, has poured over thousands of extremist Islamic texts and sermons and has become proficient in identifying authentic and fake al-Qaeda documents.
These specialists tend to focus on how militant Islamic groups interpret two key concepts: that of taqfir, or the idea of declaring a fellow Muslim an apostate, and that of self-defense, interpreted by al-Qaeda and other terrorists as justification for worldwide jihad. Using such criteria one such expert, Alastair Crooke, charges that many Western policy makers tend to lump groups opposing the call to jihad outside of what they regard as occupied territories, such as Hamas and Hizbollaha, into the same category as al-Queda, and thus “demonize almost the entire spectrum of political Islam.”