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 framed, the 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 the 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 to be 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.
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.
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. Instead, 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 autocrats, any 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.
These reforms 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 the 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 underlying issues.
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.