The Islamic State (ISIS) is a group that rose to its peak power around the year 2015. BBC World Service and International Centre for the Study of Radicalization studied this group and reported that in just the month of November in 2014, the terrorists killed 2,206 people. ISIS is a unique group because it became a quasi-state. ISIS controlled both land and people. The international community responded to this violent threat with various military, political, and economic strategies to defeat the group. In March of 2019, NBC News reported that the U.S. backed forces in Syria were declaring total victory over ISIS. However, this was simply victory over the quasi-state. ISIS continues to exist and the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is still at large. Daily Mail recently reported on the rising concern over thousands of ISIS sleeper cells that could attack the international stage. Additionally, The Guardian and ABC News have both reported attacks in Africa and Egypt within the past month. While ISIS has lost land, it has not lost its ideology or all of its fighters. This means the international community still has work to do.
The United States is the most powerful country involved with the campaign against ISIS and has served as a sort of leader for the international community. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism claims the United States has used primarily military efforts to bring down the group. These military efforts have included both direct and indirect military efforts such as air strikes, support for the Sunni National Guard units, and support and training for the Iraqi Security Forces. Since announcing the defeat of ISIS in March 2019, the U.S. has begun to remove troops and military efforts from Syria but continues to monitor the region. The U.K. has also utilized airstrikes in their efforts. International Affairs claimed that smaller, regional countries such as Iran have adopted policies of indirect military force by funding nonstate groups. Additionally, Iran focuses on preaching inclusiveness and unity between Sunnis and Shi’as in an attempt to discredit ISIS’s caliphate claims.
The reliance on military tactics by the international community is the primary reason that ISIS still exists. Military force may be able to take back land and break apart the state-like aspects of the terror group, but it is unable to address deeper causes of terrorism and may actually create more problems. The Journal of Conflict Resolution wrote on this phenomenon. When the international community uses violence against ISIS, ISIS uses these interventions to draw more attention to itself both domestically and internationally. ISIS also uses this violence to gain sympathy and spread anti-West messages. Additionally, it is easier for terrorist groups to dehumanize foreigners than nationals, so it is easier for terrorist groups to justify extreme tactics against foreign interventions than against their own countrymen. Also, the violence and destruction that results from international military interventions create distrust and distancing of citizens from their government and the foreign governments trying to help them. This distancing of citizens makes it easier for terrorist groups to recruit new members.
Likewise, Iran and the United States’s sponsorship of regional militaries creates a phenomenon known as asymmetry. Asymmetry refers to when one group has more power or capability than the group it is combating. The bolstered Iraqi government, when compared to ISIS, is an example of asymmetry. Unfortunately, as suggested by Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy, asymmetric conditions tend to increase terrorist activities. The weak group in the asymmetric pair tends to use nonconventional means of violence as an equalizer. Strengthening the Iraqi forces gives them the advantage over ISIS fighters in conventional warfare, but it will only encourage ISIS to commit acts of terror instead of deterring them.
These military tactics have failed to address one key component of the group: the unique structure and inner workings of ISIS as an organization. As mentioned previously, ISIS behaves as both a state and a terrorist organization. The military strategies utilized by the United States and others in the international community were aimed at defeating the state aspect of ISIS. Airstrikes and ground campaigns took land and property from ISIS and effectively defeated its state. However, these campaigns failed to defeat the group’s ideology. Global News quoted Canada’s former commander of the Joint Task Force Impact as saying, “[ISIS] no longer hold any ground, but they are absolutely still alive and well in the background … seeking to expand their influence and undermine the governments of Iraq and other nations.” This suggests that in order to eliminate the threat of ISIS completely, alternate solutions must be explored.
There are three different solution types that should be enacted in order to end ISIS for good. The first type is economic. Economic ties and interdependence can be used to bring the region together and encourage cooperation. If one of the countries in the region is struggling or war-torn, the others will be more inclined to help in the interest of their own economy. These economic ties will incentivize the region to rid itself of ISIS. Also, a country is less likely to engage in war or other destructive measures if the country they are targeting is beneficial to their own economy. This stabilization will diminish ISIS’s recruitment levels and strengthen the region enough to prevent its resurgence. Additionally, creating favorable economic conditions in the Middle East may help prevent citizens from turning to terrorist groups for financial aid.
The second type of solution is social. Social actions against terrorist groups are designed to prevent the recruitment and growth of ISIS. The first aspect of a social solution is to combat Islamophobia. The division between Muslims and non-Muslims allows ISIS to gain power internationally by providing evidence to their ideology. The second aspect of a social solution is to counter recruitment materials online. Preventing ISIS from being able to spread their propaganda online or with other media outlets can help dramatically decrease the number of people who become radicalized and either travel to join ISIS’s ranks or carry out attacks in the name of the group in their home countries.
Lastly, political action should be taken to combat ISIS and its cells. Fixing political problems such as unjust regimes and turmoil in Iraq will allow the government to earn the respect of their citizens and focus their attention on eliminating the various uprisings and terror groups. De-escalation policies are especially important for reducing tension in the region and allowing governments time to rebuild. One possible solution is to create a regional organization that would include Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and other regional countries. This group would function in a fashion similar to the United Nations in the sense that it would not deal directly with the conflict within the region but would establish agreements and cooperation between states. Diplomatic peace and stable governments will lessen the appeal of terrorism and reduce ISIS’s influence in the region. Additionally, the creation of a regional organization would allow countries to work together and develop a unified plan for counterterrorism.
When it comes to counterterrorism, it is easy to assume that hard power and military campaigns will eradicate the threat. While military campaigns do have value and are helpful in taking back land from terrorists, it tends to breed more negative emotions in the region and add fuel to the terrorists’ fire. Even if a terrorist group loses its physical stronghold, if their ideology is not eliminated, the group will remain a threat. ISIS has been defeated in physical military battles in Syria but continues to launch attacks and plot further destruction. The only way to completely eliminate the threat of ISIS is to enact programs that will take away support for the group. These programs should be economic, social, and political in nature, and should focus on strengthening the region to discredit ISIS’s claim of a caliphate and turn people back towards their governments and away from terrorist organizations.