Beyond airstrikes


How to tackle ISIS


A successful war strategy suggests that an untraditional enemy should be fought in an unconventional way.

Certainly, airstrikes—led by United States (US) and Arab coalition—have made it difficult for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to continue its massive expansion, at least for the time being. But the question that arises in many minds is, are these strikes enough to counter ISIS? Global defence forces have explored and devised new techniques to ensure security from such nihilistic, barbaric groups. However, at the same time, ISIS has also formed a well-planned strategy for its own survival and smooth functioning. Within a short span of time, ISIS has outmanoeuvered al Qaeda, which was once the face of global-jihad network and an umbrella organisation overseeing many terrorist outfits, and assumed somewhat of a leading role. Therefore, some of the al Qaeda affiliates have pledged allegiance to ISIS. So, what distinguishes ISIS from other organisations? And, how traditional warfare (air strikes and ground offensive) is not enough to counter ISIS growing influence?

Comparing it with al Qaeda, ISIS has an entirely different organisational structure. The former is more complex and resembles a secret society, functionally and structurally. Anyone seeking recruitment in al Qaeda must overcome various hurdles in finding training camps and to be in contact with the top or middle level leadership. On the other hand, ISIS has made things convenient for anyone who wants to join it. He or she simply needs to take pledge (baiyat) from local emir appointed by the self-styled Islamic State. One really does not need to go to Iraq or Syria to become its member. ISIS social media team assists and guides people via Skype, Twitter, YouTube and other social networks, and, also, receives its would-be fighters from Turkey’s borders.

Moreover, ISIS is more pragmatic and adaptive to new modus operandi. Its magazine, Dabiq, has been a key medium to promote its manifesto. Unlike al Qaeda, it has thoroughly described its utopian model which includes its bureaucratic structure, traffic rules, infrastructure, industry, banks, health care, schools, social services etc. Its propaganda does not only appeal fighters, but also welcomes doctors, engineers, researchers, and even filmmakers.

Another important thing, which has been praised by many people, is the dispensation of speedy justice. A recently published book, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, discusses anecdotes of ISIS justice system. When ISIS took control of an Iraqi city, Albu Kamal, it solved long pending cases which were filed during Saddam reign. This helped ISIS in gaining support from the people who had grown weary of the previous rotten judicial system.

ISIS has provided platforms which any other organisation had failed to provide. Muhammad Amir Rana, an expert on counterterrorism, argues in his article The Extremism Debate that the absence of student unions in campuses has contributed in the rise of extremism. He further explains that when students do not have a platform (student unions) where they can express and voice their concerns, extremist outfits taking the advantage of the situation fill this vacuum by providing a space where they can be heard. That is exactly what ISIS is doing. As J M Berger defines ISIS’ appeal to people in a straightforward way in his co-authored book ISIS: The State of Terror, “You have a place here, if you want it, and we’ll put you to work on this exciting project as soon as you show up.”

Aforementioned examples are not to praise ISIS, but to argue that we need to look beyond the scope of the traditional warfare so as to defeat and counter the group. First, we should be clear in our approach towards ISIS that it is not a traditional terrorist organisation which can be wiped out with the use of force only. Arguably, it is not its strength only that attracts people, especially foreign fighters, but its superficially cogent-cum-evil ideology. This particularly makes it an ideological warfare that should be fought ideologically, too. For this purpose, we need a Muslim-led counter narrative as the one provided by the west has apparently failed so far.

Second, states must address their negligence and incompetence. Muslim countries, especially those states which are plagued by extremism such as Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, need to provide basic necessities to their citizens, including justice and social welfare. It is an established fact that terrorist organisations always need local support to advance their network. When mismanagement and bad governance becomes rampant, people get vulnerable to extremism. And every time non-state actors benefit from such an opportunity.

Third, political space and the culture of public discourse must be enhanced and revived respectively. Most of the fighters, who constitute majority in ISIS, have come from Arab countries where political rights are suppressed by monarchies. Muslim world must realise that if it does not guarantee basic rights to its citizens, someone else, let’s say ISIS, is ready to attract their citizens. So, we need to create such platforms where people, especially youth, can partake in the political process at least at the grassroots level.

The ISIS, learning from the failures of former terrorist organisations, has come up with an entirely different strategy. As a result, it has become one of the most dangerous threats to international peace, stability and order. While, on the other hand, international community, notably US and its coalition partners, are mostly relying on airstrikes which may be productive for now but not for a long term. As Jordanian King Abdullah defined, war against ISIS is a “generational fight”. So, we must not let the region be jeopardised for posterity by being less countering to the ISIS.