More Evidence on How Not to Fight ISIS

A typical week in the confounding “global war on terror,” in which terrorists perform their evil deeds across many countries while governments keep looking for the appropriate strategy to defeat them.

The continuing stream of recent terror attacks against targets in several countries across four continents continues to vex governments and other institutions that seek desperately to counter and eventually stop this dangerous trend. The evidence of policy actions and new research indicates two broad trends, however, that beg for more diligent action based on more credible diagnoses.

The first trend is how very complex is the problem of terrorism and its causes, whether it is carried out by individuals who act on their own due to personal grievances, or organized groups like Al-Qaeda and “Islamic State” (ISIS) that use religion as a mobilizing lens. The second is the limited impact to date of the two principal strategies—military attacks and digital counter-narrative programs—to fight these groups.

The past week typically provides a familiar array of evidence in this arena. This includes the British government launching air attacks against ISIS targets in Syria, reports of ISIS strengthening its foothold in parts of northern Libya, and Al-Qaeda expanding its control of towns in southeastern Yemen.

The latest attack to attract global attention was the killing of fourteen people in San Bernardino, California, this week, by the husband and wife team of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, of Pakistani origin. We will know in due course whether they were acting alone or were somehow linked to Islamist or other groups that “radicalized” them, whether on-line or through personal contacts.

Two important new reports in the United States this week clarify the difficulties involved in defeating ISIS or at least reducing its impact around the world. The first is a study by the Program on Extremism at George Washington University that analyzes the range of individuals who were involved in legal action against them, showing that there is no single profile of a typical ISIS recruit. Rather, the very wide range of people who explore ISIS and similar ideologies suggests that no single strategy—like social media counter-narratives or more public activism by “moderate” Muslims—will succeed in reducing this threat.

Another press report said that the U.S. government’s campaign to counter ISIS recruitment efforts through on-line activities has not worked very well, and needs to be revamped—yet again, because many existing efforts to reduce the flow of recruits to ISIS and Al-Qaeda by using on-line media instruments have only seen the flow of recruits stay strong.

This has been accompanied by intense, and increasing, military actions by a dozen Arab and foreign governments against facilities and leaders of these terror groups. None of these strategies on their own or together seem to have blunted the ability of these Islamist militant groups to keep expanding in pockets here and there, and to keep attracting new recruits. Every week provides fresh evidence of both these troubling realities.

Is it possible that the military, digital, and other policies being carried out to defeat ISIS and Al-Qaeda are largely based on wrong or incomplete diagnoses of precisely why such groups came into being and continue to attract recruits and supporters? Are we seeing a repeat of the “war on drugs” that the U.S. government launched decades ago, without making any substantial progress in reducing drug use or trade?

The George Washington University report said that fifty-six people were arrested in the United States this year on charges of supporting or plotting with ISIS. These people showed a very wide range of ages, religions, ethnicities, professional backgrounds, and places of residence, making it difficult for law enforcement organizations to spot potential recruits to radical movements before they become a danger to society. Some only dabbled in reading ISIS-related websites or social media, others travelled to Syria and Iraq, and a few actually seemed ready to plan attacks in the United States.

The numbers involved are relatively small. About 250 Americans are thought to have traveled or attempted to travel to join ISIS in some manner, and U.S. government agencies are investigating some 900 cases of individuals across the United States who allegedly support ISIS.

The second important report this week is about the findings of an expert group that was commissioned by the U.S. government to assess the State Department’s programs to counter ISIS and other such militant groups by using social media primarily. The State Department’s counter-narrative attempts via social media seem to have little impact, this and other reports have indicated. So these efforts may be scaled down soon, given doubts about, “the U.S. government’s ability to serve as a credible voice against the terrorist group’s propaganda,” according to current and former U.S. officials quoted by the Washington Post report.

This has been just one more typical week in the confounding “global war on terror,” in which terrorists perform their evil deeds across many countries while governments keep looking for the appropriate strategy to defeat them. If governments persist in their existing strategies, we should expect the terrorism to persist as well.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global