It would be grossly negligent to ignore theology, but its use as a tool of counterterrorism is limited
The question: Can you do counter-terrorism without theology?
This question is quite obviously about al-Qaida inspired terrorism. Far-right or left terrorists have their own holy scriptures, like the Turner Diaries, but this could in no way be describe as theology.
In a practical sense, the answer is a no-brainer. For counterterrorism agencies to not understand the theological motivation behind terrorist acts – as stated by terrorists themselves – would be tantamount to criminal negligence.
There is much debate about the the role that theology plays in terrorism. Many commentators believe the theology is the problem; that terrorism inspired by religious fanaticism is a new phenomenon, and that Islam needs to undergo a root and branch reform. Yet other research shows that Islamic religiosity can lead individuals to reject and actively discourage violence, often through moral and social sanctions. Our own research at Demos suggests that theology plays a relatively minor role for many al-Qaida terrorists – at least of the home-grown variety.
However, there is one undeniable fact: that some engagement in religious extremist ideology – however fleeting or superficial – is an essential element of al-Qaida terrorism, and that all terrorists seek out religious sanction for their actions. At the very least theology shapes symbolic content and meaning, bringing the individual to believe a movement is just – and in their eyes offering legitimacy or an obligation to commit violence.
The difficult fact for counterterrorism agencies is that al-Qaida emerged along with a broader resurgence of religious extremism, some proponents of which share elements of al-Qaida’s ideology or language but reject violence. This makes their work altogether more complicated. The irony is that targeting the wrong people can breed resentment and alienate potential allies. Theology can help better target resources. Clearly having theologians as advisers, or Muslim officers, to sift through the maze of theological concepts can help, because certain theological concepts like takfir are more useful than other radical but harmless ones like supporting sharia law.