Sixteen years into our seemingly endless state of war since September 11th, a significant body of research is finally emerging to clarify who exactly U.S. forces are fighting in their ever-expanding war zones, and what drives civilians to join armed groups like the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Islamic State.
We have been told that U.S. forces are “fighting them there” so that we don’t have to “fight them here.” But researchers are learning that, like the Iraqis who rose up to resist the illegal U.S. invasion and occupation of their country, most of the people joining armed groups across the Middle East and Africa are only fighting at all because U.S. and allied forces are “fighting them there,” in their countries, cities, villages and homes.
In 2015, the Center for Civilians in Conflict published the results of interviews with 250 people who joined armed groups in Bosnia, Somalia, Gaza and Libya in a report titled, The People’s Perspective: Civilian Involvement in Armed Conflict. One of its main findings was that, “The most common motivation for involvement, described by interviewees in all four case studies, was the protection of self or family.”
Also in 2015, Lydia Wilson, a researcher from Oxford University, was allowed to interview a number of captured Islamic State fighters in Kirkuk, Iraq. It was hard for Wilson to find captured Islamic State fighters to interview, because Kurdish and U.S.-backed Iraqi government forces summarily execute Islamic State fighters that they capture. But the police in Kirkuk were holding prisoners and trying them in court, so Wilson got permission from the police chief to talk to some of them.
The first prisoner Lydia Wilson interviewed was captured, tried and sentenced to death for exploding at least four car-bombs and a scooter-bomb in Kirkuk. But his interview was not exceptional – his account of his motivations was repeated by every other prisoner. He said that his first loyalty was to his wife and two children, and that he joined Islamic State to support his family. He told Wilson, “We need the war to be over, we need security, we are tired of so much war… all I want is to be with my family, my children.”
At the end of the interview, Wilson asked the prisoner if he had any questions. By then he knew that General Stone, one of Wilson’s colleagues, was ex-U.S. military, and, instead of asking a question, he just exploded in anger at him, “The Americans came. They took away Saddam but they also took away our security. I didn’t like Saddam, we were starving then, but at least we didn’t have war. When you came here, the civil war started.”
General Stone was not surprised. This was the same outraged speech he had heard from nearly every prisoner since he began interviewing prisoners as the commandant of U.S. military prisons in Iraq in 2007.
Lydia Wilson summarized what she learned about the prisoners in Kirkuk in an article for The Nation: “They are children of the occupation, many with missing fathers at crucial periods (through jail, death by execution or fighting in the insurgency), filled with rage against America and their own government. They are not fueled by the idea of an Islamic caliphate without borders; rather, ISIS is the first group since the crushed Al Qaeda to offer these humiliated and enraged young men a way to defend their dignity, family and tribe. This is not radicalization to the ISIS way of life, but the promise of a way out of their insecure and undignified lives; the promise of living in pride as Iraqi Sunni Arabs, which is not just a religious identity, but cultural, tribal and land-based, too.”
The recent killing of four U.S. soldiers in Niger surprised many Americans, but the U.S. has 6,000 troops in 53 countries in Africa, so we should not be surprised by flag-draped coffins coming home from seemingly random countries there. But before our leaders reduce the entire continent to a new U.S. “battlefield,” we should take note of a new report published by the U.N. Development Program (UNDP), titled Journey to Extremism in Africa: Drivers, Incentives and the Tipping Point for Recruitment.
This report is based on 500 interviews with militants from across Africa. As its title suggests, the interviewers questioned the militants specifically about the “tipping point” that decided each of them to actually join an armed group such as Boko Haram, Al-Shabab or Al Qaeda. By far the largest number (71 percent) said that some kind of “government action,” such as ”killing of a family member or friend” or “arrest of a family member or friend,” was the final straw that pushed them over the red line from civilian life to guerrilla war and/or terrorism. By contrast, religious ideology was generally not the decisive factor in their decision.
The report concluded, “State security-actor conduct is revealed as a prominent accelerator of recruitment, rather than the reverse.” In a section on “Policy Implications,” the report added, “The Journey to Extremism research provides startling new evidence of just how directly counter-productive security-driven responses can be when conducted insensitively.”
All these studies agree that, by design or default, U.S. policy is confusing cause and effect to justify military operations that turn civilians into combatants, fueling an ever-escalating, ever-spreading cycle of increasingly global violence and chaos.
The prescription for peace is to stop “counter-productive security-driven responses” that fuel this cycle of violence, and to start turning combatants back into civilians, as Colombia is doing as a result of the peace agreement that is ending 53 years of civil war. With all the problems facing America and the world in the 21st century, we cannot afford to wait so long to choose the path of peace and start reengaging peacefully and constructively with all our neighbors.