After the Paris tragedy, terrorism analysts found links to al-Qaeda in Yemen and the Islamic State. But rather than seeing this as a directed conspiracy, it may be more useful to analyze the street-gang and prison connections of Said and Cherif Kouachi, the Charlie Hebdo gunmen, and Amedy Coulibaly, the man who attacked the kosher deli. French press accounts suggest the trio are closer to what former CIA officer Marc Sageman calls “leaderless jihad” than the 9/11 model of core al-Qaeda.

“The role of religion in all of this is dangerously exaggerated,” says a former State Department official who now organizes private-sector efforts to counter extremism. “When we get stuck in a religious debate we are never going to win, we miss the point, which is that extremists are offering young people a sense of belonging, an outlet for adventure, and some kind of enhanced status. To combat this, we have to appeal to them as young people more than we have to appeal to them as Muslims.”

What has the United States learned from a decade of debilitating battles against al-Qaeda? Over the past week, I’ve put that question to counterterrorism experts in the White House and across government, and I’ve gotten some pointed answers.

First, the United States isn’t a credible voice in telling Muslims what real Islam is all about.