Over the past year, violent extremist movements have made striking gains. ISIS has consolidated its control over a large swathe of Iraq and Syria, attracting tens of thousands of foreigners, establishing footholds elsewhere, and perpetrating terrorist attacks across the Middle East and beyond.
Al Qaeda affiliates from Yemen to Syria to Somalia appear resilient, in some cases stronger than ever.
ISIS’s attacks in the West – apparently centrally coordinated in the case of Paris, perpetrated by lone wolves elsewhere – have upped pressure on Western powers to respond more forcefully. Certainly, more can be done to fight ISIS. But any action must be informed by an accurate diagnosis of the problem and must avoid the mistakes of the past.
With that in mind, here are 10 dos and don’ts to consider in the fight against ISIS. They all draw on Crisis Group’s years of experience covering violent extremist movements and the conflicts they feed off, as well as lessons of the past decade and a half’s counterterrorism operations.
1. Don’t overstate the threat
ISIS has demonstrated its potency and may grow stronger yet, but in the past, extremists have tended to profit from their enemies’ overreaction. Their terrorism is often designed to provoke indiscriminate retaliatory violence, which benefits them further. ISIS itself is at least in part a product of the US post-9/11 “war on terror”. Leaders in the US and Europe need to better control the narrative, avoid feeding fear, make sure they do not alienate whole communities, and use force sensibly.
2. Don’t expect bombs to defeat ISIS
Bombs can disrupt training camps, weaken command structures and kill leaders. But no insurgent movement with roots in communities has ever been defeated by bombs alone. Bombers will run out of targets and ISIS will still control some parts of Iraq and Syria. Bombs alone may even prove counterproductive: civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure can push communities into the arms of extremists. In the end, the battle needs to take place on the ground.
3. Don’t expect ‘allies’ to wage that ground war
ISIS may be a common enemy, but few of its enemies in the region think it is the number one priority. The Saudis care more about weakening Iran. Turkey’s main priorities in Syria are ousting Assad and containing Kurdish separatism. The Syrian Kurds care about Kurdistan. Iran – along with the Assad regime and, for the time being, Russia – cares more about maintaining Assad in power than defeating ISIS. Not only have regional politics and escalating competition between states been a major boon for ISIS, they also complicate efforts to defeat it.
4. Don’t overlook the political and socioeconomic roots of ISIS by focusing exclusively on their religious propaganda
True, of the many components that comprise ISIS, some are religious and pursue theologically inspired goals. And true, decades of Gulf-sponsored religious messaging, via schools or satellite television, helped shape a climate receptive to this message. But in the Middle East, where ISIS and other jihadist groups have won the support or acquiescence of communities under their control, that is not so much because of their ideology and more because of the things they provide, particularly for people living in conflict zones or failed states. ISIS has won support thanks largely to the violence Sunni Muslims suffered at the hands of regimes in Baghdad and Damascus, and by appealing to the disenfranchised and alienated within the Sunni community. And in Europe, the new generation of radicalized youth are lured to ISIS online, rather than through mosques, often with little reference to religion and more to violence or fraternity. To paraphrase the French scholar Olivier Roy: we are witnessing the Islamization of radicalism rather than the radicalization of Islam.
5. Do not pursue policies to defeat ISIS that aggravate the conditions that enabled its rise
The increasing influence of ISIS, like that of other extremist groups, is in large part a product of violence and decades of repressive rule. Partnering with repressive governments – particularly those that class all their enemies as violent extremists – in efforts to stamp out the threat risks pushing ever greater numbers of their enemies into the extremist camp. And focusing exclusively on extremism can lead governments to overlook other sources of fragility that can create the crises and state collapse that extremists profit from.
6. Understand the multi-dimensional nature of the problem
ISIS and other extremist groups are symptoms of the dramatic upheaval in the Middle East. The Sunni/Shia divide and a deep sense of Sunni victimization are, of course, prime factors in its rise. Less known, but perhaps no less important, are parallel changes within Sunni communities themselves, particularly in Iraq, where ISIS has been able to play on a series of social fault lines – urban, rural, tribal, generational, and so forth – to give others, not only extremists, a significant stake in their continued rule.
7. Be cautious with the use of force
Military force often needs to be part of fighting extremism, but it is always a blunt instrument, particularly when the main goal – as it must be – is winning over communities. Only forces that can establish positive local relations should participate in an assault – with ISIS, this probably rules out Shia fighting in Sunni-majority areas and Kurdish forces in Arab lands, and it mandates caution even with local Sunni forces that may have scores to settle. If the suffering of a local community cannot be minimized, it is probably preferable to avoid attempting to retake territory and instead contain ISIS within its current boundaries. Taking the territory and losing the people again – as in the aftermath of both the US invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring – is worse than leaving ISIS in control.
8. Work openly to end the polarization destroying the Middle East and do not unwittingly become part of it
The escalating competition between Gulf monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia and Iran – now reflected in an Iran/Russia axis pitted against a Saudi-led coalition – is as grave a threat to stability as ISIS, driving the region’s sectarian currents and opening space for extremism. Western leaders should acknowledge this publicly and redouble efforts to dampen tensions. Unless they do that, no strategy to defeat ISIS will be effective.
9. Reinvigorate efforts to end existing wars and prevent others erupting – particularly by responding sensibly to terrorism
Without reasonably inclusive peace deals in Syria, Yemen and Libya, tackling groups linked to ISIS or Al Qaeda will be impossible – they have flourished as more powerful armed actors fight each other. Given that any crisis in the Muslim world is likely to assume an extremist dimension, even in countries with little history of Salafi-jihadism, preventing conflicts is critical to protecting the states still standing. This requires bolstering those in danger, as in the Sahel, where criminal trafficking of all sorts easily morphs into political violence. Since jihadi groups like ISIS take root only after a long period of unaddressed local grievances, botched security responses and festering low-intensity conflicts, a focus on prevention and early action is key. Once a local conflict has radicalized, it acquires a transnational dimension that renders a political solution much more difficult to reach. Thus even as the Middle East burns, Europe should not forget the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa.
10. In developed countries, prioritize domestic security over military engagement in the Middle East
Military engagement can potentially weaken the appeal and influence of jihadist movements by demonstrating that they are not invincible. But their eventual eradication will be the result of political processes that may take decades. In the meantime, preventing a destructive fragmentation of multicultural Western societies should be the priority. This requires a clear rejection of the politics of fear, but such rejection will be possible only if terrorism is contained, which requires sufficient resources to protect the home front.