Military responses alone will not defeat ISIL

We must address the underlying causes that lead young Muslims to join the Islamic State

November 15, 2015 11:00AM ET

In the past month, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) launched three major terror attacks: the downing of a Russian airplane over Sinai, two suicide bombings in Beirut and coordinated suicide attacks against civilians in Paris. The wave of violence had five targets: Russia, Egypt, Hezbollah, Lebanon and France. The ambitiousness of these actions appears to mark a shift in ISIL’s strategy that will likely trigger heightened military attacks against its facilities, supply lines and leaders. After the Paris attacks, French President François Hollande promised a “merciless” response against ISIL.

All five targeted foes will undoubtedly step up the military means they have already used against ISIL in Syria, Lebanon and Sinai. The United States and others who fight ISIL will also expand their attacks. Global military and intelligence coordination against ISIL will be enhanced significantly. 

But all this will probably not succeed if those fighting ISIL simply repeat the military-heavy strategy that has not destroyed Al-Qaeda in the past 17 years of nonstop attacks. In fact, it will further ISIL’s strategy of destabilizing the Middle East and drawing all sides into a conflagration of violence. The more critical and urgent strategy that is needed now in view of ISIL’s widening circle of targets abroad — but that has never been attempted — is to accompany military attacks with serious actions to address the underlying political, economic and social drivers that created and maintain ISIL.

Futile military solutions

Since U.S. President Bill Clinton first attacked Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Sudan in August 1998, that group has survived, decentralized and even expanded in areas of chaos such as Yemen and Afghanistan. ISIL and Al-Qaeda may be the fastest growing political brand names in the Middle East and South Asia, where they continue to gain adherents and establish affiliated groups across many lands. They remain relatively small operations with just some thousands of hardcore members, compared to much bigger and more established nationalist Islamist groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, Ansarullah (Houthis) in Yemen, or the Mahdi Army (Sadrists) in Iraq. Yet their ability to create havoc through terror attacks remains high.

ISIL will find it more difficult to keep expanding its “state,” now that both the U.S. and Russia are actively attacking it and other militant Islamists in Syria and Iraq, and regional powers such as Iran and Turkey are joining the fight. But it is the time for all those Middle Eastern and foreign powers seeking to defeat ISIL to acknowledge that their military actions alone will not succeed. They must find a way to work with Middle Eastern societies to start targeting and reforming the underlying drivers of discontent, mainly in Arab countries, that have funneled recruits and funds to Islamist militants for the past few decades.

The power of ISIL resides not in its military prowess or frightening brutality, but in the very extensive list of reasons why individuals in the Middle East and abroad join or support it. Examining these reasons may provide an agenda of structural problems within the Arab World that must be solved, if we hope to defeat ISIL and avoid seeing it replaced by something more vicious.

The common denominator among ISIL adherents appears to be a combined sense of anger at current conditions — no jobs, no income, no voice, no power — and hopelessness about improving their future wellbeing. This same combination of anger and helplessness also sparked the non-violent Arab uprisings in 2010-11, which have mostly failed to deliver on their promise. In fact, both material and political conditions have worsened for most young people in the region since then. In the mind of those who join ISIL, the group promises to overturn corrupt political systems and offer a new life in the Islamic State and the wider utopian Caliphate that would protect all Muslims and provide them with a decent life.

Disrupting groups such as ISIL militarily without removing the causes that give them life is a fool’s strategy.

Sustained military attacks alone have proven difficult to eradicate Al-Qaeda and ISIL, because they merely augment the social, economic, psychological and political stresses that generate mass discontent, vulnerability and desperation and create new ISIL recruits faster than Arab and foreign armies can kill them. In some cases, the assaults against ISIL reinforce one of its main attractions — the sense among some Sunni Muslims that their religion is under attack and must be defended, and only ISIL and similar groups seem to defend them. Military attacks against Muslim majority states such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Yemen and Libya also create new zones of anarchy, which are the prized recruiting grounds for ISIL and Al-Qaeda.

A total way of life

The fact that the overwhelming majority of all Muslims reject ISIL and see it as a dangerous criminal fraud does not bother these zealots, who feel they are engaged in divinely mandated and personally uplifting righteous behavior. When they join ISIL, they can get involved in any of its many dimensions of state-building, expanding the Caliphate, carrying out jihad to protect pure Sunni Islam, and providing Muslims with a society of law, justice, camaraderie and plenty. Religion is critical for shaping the theological concept of the Islamic State and the wider Caliphate, but it may not be the most important reason why individuals go there to live, work and do battle.

Specifically, there are eight reasons why people across Islamic societies join or support ISIL:

  1. To overcome Sunni victimhood and the perception that Shia and foreign powers now dominate the Middle East.
  2. To live in a society that practices true Islamic values, such as justice, security, the rule of law, equal citizenship, mercy, righteousness and good governance, which are often absent in Arab-Islamic lands. 
  3. To build the Islamic State and expand the Caliphate, which are necessary for the millennial promise of the apocalypse and the return of the Mehdi, a messianic figure who will usher in a world of permanent peace and justice.
  4. To live among like-minded people in a society defined by camaraderie, peace, justice and wholesome family life.
  5. To fulfill material needs that many in the Arab world lack, such as employment, income, and basic goods and services such as water, electricity, health care and food.
  6. To find meaning, direction and purpose to one’s personal life, or to escape family or personal problems, loneliness or alienation.
  7. To avenge past grievances, such as Western powers’ drawing of artificial Arab state borders, foreign military attacks against Arabs, Israeli humiliation of Arabs and Arab regimes’ dictatorial, brutal and corrupt rule.
  8. To experience daring adventures and thrills, or rebel against family and social constraints, as teenagers around the world do regularly.

ISIL’s real or imagined attractions respond to every need in the life of a Muslim living in poverty, vulnerability and hopelessness in autocratic states. The promise of spiritual, political, personal, communitarian, material, psychological, national, social and cosmic fulfillment cannot be eradicated by military action, let alone digital media strategies. Recruits to ISIL who suffer profound deficiencies or vulnerabilities in their lives and join the Islamic State instantly shed their troubles and start a whole new life, often including taking on a new name. ISIL promises heaven on earth, power, equity, material comforts and credits for the next life. What it delivers may be very different, but their recruits are already living in societies that have failed to deliver.

If the underlying threats to ordinary citizens’ lives in autocratic Arab-Islamic societies remain unaddressed — from jobs, water and health insurance, to free elections, a credible justice system and corruption — the flow of recruits to movements like ISIL or something even worse will persist and even accelerate. When issues in Arab societies raised by the Muslim Brotherhood were not addressed, we got Al-Qaeda. When issues raised by Al-Qaeda were not addressed, we got ISIL. Disrupting such groups militarily without removing the causes that give them life is a fool’s strategy.

Rami G. Khouri, a Jordanian-Palestinian national, is a senior public policy fellow at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut and a senior fellow of the Harvard Kennedy School.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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