In 2011, it was widely assumed that the so-called “Arab Spring” would render groups like al-Qaeda irrelevant, as dissidents would find that they could achieve their goals for reformation through the ballot box rather than needing to rely on violence.
I was one of the early and consistent cynics of this thesis. It seemed clear that the widespread foreign manipulation and exploitation of these events, when combined with the impending deep-state counter-revolutions, and likely spiral into violence—these would dramatically undermine the civil Islamist project while bolstering the narrative of groups like al-Qaeda. Unfortunately, this analysis has proved extremely prescient.
However, the essential error of my interlocutors was not the underlying premise: the appeal of violent groups can be dramatically reduced if there are alternative means for dissidents to realize their social objectives; their mistake was in underestimating the immense forces galvanized around the existing status-quo.
I return to many of these themes in my most recent piece for Al-Jazeera America, “The Secret of ISIL’s Appeal:”
It is oft-remarked that proponents of the prevailing international order, despite rhetoric about freedom and democracy, eagerly support dictators, warlords and other autocrats in order to preserve the status quo. However, this tendency is no less pronounced in opponents of the system. For example: during the Cold War, Stalin and Mao inspired large swaths of Westerners, particularly young people, into leftist movements—many of which carried outcampaigns of domestic terrorism in order to provoke revolution.
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) similarly aspires towards a new form of social arrangement. In this post-Occupy movement period, where no one else seems to have the willingness or ability to meaningfully “fight the system,” ISIL appears to many as virtually the only actor interested in, and capable of, radical societal reforms. Understanding this source of ISIL’s appeal will be critical to countering its narratives, undermining its recruitment, and ultimately defeating the group.
The example from the left is instructive: while there remains a residual affection for Latin American post-socialist autocrats, a fascination with Russian premiere Vladimir Putin, and a reflexive defensiveness for figures like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad insofar as they are viewed as “resistance” actors—many other leftists became convinced that “the West” offered a more potent vehicle for change. They not only turned away from Stalin and Mao, but abandoned socialism and communism altogether. In its stead they founded the neoconservative movement, re-appropriating a good deal of Marxist eschatology in the service of the establishment, and decisively hollowing out and marginalizing the left in the process (particularly in America, but even to a lesser extent in Europe).
We can set aside whether these developments proved on the whole positive or negative (given how disastrous the neocons’ tenure has been so far)–the lesson is clear: even the most passionate anti-establishment ideologues can come to work within the system to realize their objectives, provided this option seems viable. And this, in turn, can lead to the demise (for all intents and purposes) of the movements they are converting from.
ISIL can be defeated, decisively and permanently. The current strategy, however, is unlikely to succeed:
Coalition members are holding “haqqathons” to counter ISIL’s social media outreach, establishing “de-radicalization” camps, and carrying out military ventures to contain and diminish ISIL’s capabilities. But these methods do not resolve the underlying causes of ISIL’s appeal. Precisely, they are attempts to mitigate the threat without making any significant geopolitical, social or economic concessions and reforms. Ultimately, this is a losing proposition. So long as the United States and its allies continue to champion the global status quo — along with the oppression, exploitation and injustice entailed thereby — the appeal of “resistance actors” such as ISIL will persist or even grow.
It doesn’t help that the anti-ISIL coalition is, more-or-less, the very constellation of powers which helped squash the “Arab Spring.” It is no wonder that while ISIL’s recruitment has managed to keep pace with (or exceed) its rates of attrition, the United States finds itself unable to seduce even a third of those they’d hoped to train and equip as a Sunni-led (but Baghdad-subordinate) counter-ISIL force. It is not clear what militiamen would stand to gain from their participation: defeat ISIL, and then what?
To compensate for this lack of enthusiasm among Iraqi Sunnis to be integrated into the coalition, the U.S. is considering simply dumping weapons and resources into the hands of Sunni tribal leaders–hoping that in the short run Sunnis will deploy these assets against ISIL (rather than defecting thereto), and that in the longer run these resources will not be used to overthrow, or secede from, Baghdad. But of course, this is a tactic which has already failed once before, in the process providing a critical backbone for the ISI’s revival in Iraq, and later, their spread into Syria. The last thing the Middle East needs is more brainless dumps of money and guns which tend to perpetuate, escalate and spread conflicts—making them much harder to predict, control or wind-down.
The U.S. experience in Latin America provides a better way forward:
During the time of major U.S. interventions in South and Central America, our primary threat from terrorism was also from the Americas. Today, while there remains an important (and largely unaddressed) security challenge from Mexican drug cartels, the specter of Latin-American terrorism on U.S. soil has more-or-less passed. Why? In large part because the United States changed its policies and posture in the region.
The current challenge of Islamic terrorism also began with (and continues to be motivated by) U.S. military interventions and occupations in the Middle East. It won’t somehow be resolved by a more prolonged and aggressive application of the same tactics that helped lead us here. Instead,
…The U.S. has an unparalleled capacity to reform international systems and institutions. It could counter ISIL’s narrative by simply changing the way it does business in the Middle East: a demonstrated American willingness and commitment to revising its relationship with the region would dramatically weaken the appeal of these resistance agents and the urgency of their cause.