cJune 18, 2015 "Information Clearing House" - "Al Jazeera" - It is often remarked that proponents of the prevailing international order, despite their 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, Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro inspired many Westerners in leftist movements, particularly young people, some of whom carried out campaigns of domestic terrorism in order to provoke revolution. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) similarly aspires to a new form of social arrangement. In this post-Occupy period, when no one else seems to have the willingness or ability to meaningfully fight the system, ISIL appears to many youths as virtually the only actor interested in and capable of radical societal reforms. Understanding this source of ISIL’s appeal is critical to countering its narratives, undermining its recruitment and ultimately defeating the group.
ISIL’s recruits are generally
not stupid, ignorant or naive, nor are they
religious zealots, nor are they somehow unable to resist
social media messaging. It is comforting to write off ISIL
supporters as deranged or
brainwashed because it helps distract from the role the
anti-ISIL coalition’s members played in
creating and perpetuating the conditions under which ISIL could
emerge and flourish, but the extensive post-9/11 body of research on
terrorism clearly shows that, regardless of how a campaign may be
primary reason people support terrorism is to achieve political
goals.For example, it is widely assumed
that most suicide bombers are uneducated, mentally ill or otherwise
cognitively deficient. Or that would-be martyrs are simply
nihilistic (often from having few socioeconomic prospects) or are
narcissists eager for notoriety. It turns out that those cases are
exception rather than the rule: Suicide bombers tend to be
wealthier and better educated than most in their societies. In
fact, it is their deeper understanding of societal problems that
often impels their activism. And rather than sociopathic, they tend
prosocial, idealistic and altruistic, driven by
compassion and a sense of moral outrage.
Millennials tend to be especially
globally conscious and passionate about making a difference.
However, they are also
intensely skeptical about societal institutions and whether the
system can bring about
sufficient change on pressing issues. This is the main source of
ISIL’s allure among youths.
Sympathizers are well aware of the atrocities
committed by ISIL — news of which is disseminated widely by the
group itself, in part
to lure unpopular foreign actors into its theater of war. By
taking the bait, the Western-led coalition has allowed ISIL to
position itself as a resistance organization against a
U.S.-dominated unipolar world order, a bulwark against meddling in
Middle Eastern and Muslim affairs by former colonial and imperial
powers and the repression of Western-backed autocrats. ISIL’s
recruitment has surged as a result.
Most insurgencies are driven
initially and primarily by local concerns, in particular
poor governance or
foreign intervention or occupation. These indigenous
uprisings are often
framed in terms of a larger ideological struggle by
transnational groups or external state actors with a stake
in the outcome, albeit typically after they are already well
underway. Rebels, in turn, tend to embrace imposed
narratives if they believe it will help garner international
attention and support for their cause.
A rapid succession of uprisings in the Middle
East and North Africa marked 2011 — collectively referred to
as the Arab Spring. In the beginning, there was
widespread optimism that these revolts would
delegitimize the terrorist narrative by addressing endemic
state oppression, violence and corruption across the region.
it was the civil Islamists who were devastated as they
were overcome by violent counterrevolutionary forces.
Meanwhile, after some initial halfhearted support for the
uprisings, outside powers came to be more concerned with
maintaining and restoring the long-standing status quo,
embracing autocrats once more.
But most Arabs were not nearly as keen to
turn the clock back. And given that it appears impossible to
achieve meaningful political reforms through
democratic processes or diplomatic coercion, ISIL is
increasingly seen as the best, if not the only, conduit to
redress local grievances. The group will not be defeated as
long as this state of affairs prevails. And military
solutions are likely to make the situation worse: Insofar as
campaigns are spearheaded by Western powers and regional
loss of territory or
attrition of ISIL forces will continue to be offset by
increased popular support.
A way out
Coalition members are holding “haqqathons”
(haqq is Arabic for “truth”) to counter ISIL’s
social media outreach, establishing
deradicalization 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. As long as the United
States and its allies continue to champion the global status
quo — along with the oppression,
exploitation and injustice that entails — the appeal of
resistance actors such as ISIL will
persist or even grow.But it
doesn’t have to be this way. 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. If the U.S.
demonstrated a willingness and commitment to revising its
relationship with the region, the appeal of these resistance
agents and the urgency of their cause would diminish.
need not require imperialistic actions such as
invasions, occupations and regime change; the current crisis
is in part a result of previous attempts to
impose and universalize liberalism. Instead, the U.S.
must stop its
insistence on failed strategies and acknowledge not only
immense harm wrought by its Middle East policies but
also the extent to which Washington’s actions have
profoundly contradicted its lofty rhetoric and ideals.
As a show of good faith, the U.S. should
cut off all funding for substate and nonstate proxies and
end unconditional military and geopolitical assistance for
Middle Eastern tyrants and Israel. Perhaps most important,
the U.S. should cease
picking sides and intervening in conflicts in which
there are no
direct and urgent national security imperatives —
although even most of these challenges can be
well managed through domestic security measures to repel
any immediate threats and by leveraging diplomatic and
humanitarian measures or policy reforms to address
This approach would offer much higher
dividends for a much lower cost. And Washington could, in
principle, deploy this strategy more or less immediately and
unilaterally. But unfortunately,
most U.S. politicians appear committed to escalating the
ill-fated military campaign instead.
Musa al-Gharbi is a senior fellow with
the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East
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