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ISIS is Not a Terrorist Organization
Given the climate of U.S. public opinion about U.S. intervention in the Middle East it is not surprising that the current administration has focused its foreign policy objectives on counter-terrorism.
But that priority limits our position to a defensive one. Further, the term “terrorist organization” offers little insight and limits our understanding and approach. ISIS is an insurgent organization using terrorism as a tactic.
The American public is wary of getting into what it views as quagmires, particularly in the Middle East, but is less hesitant when it comes to fighting terrorists who we view as a direct threat to the US. As a result, we have intervened in Syria to fight ISIS but not Assad.
While ISIS certainly employs terrorism as a tactic, and the label is one that de-legitimizes an opponent, the label also obscures the facts. To call it a terrorist organization is to mislabel it.
Traditionally, groups were identified as terrorist groups if their goal was ultimately to effect policy through intimidation. The policies in question were regionally specific: Ireland, Israel, even as specific as the green line separating Muslims and Christians in Beirut. What we are witnessing now is something closer to criminal psychopathology than terrorism. And the aims of these groups are not regionally specific but often international in scope. Moreover, the tactics have gone beyond intimidation to affect policy.
Terrorist organizations do not typically hold territory. They are generally comprised of small numbers, and they cannot prevail in a military confrontation. They pose an asymmetric threat. ISIS, however, has impressive military capabilities, has an estimated 30,000 man army, and conducts itself as a global criminal enterprise looting its victims, exchanging hostages for millions in ransom, stealing and selling antiquities, imposing taxes, routinely engaging in extortion, creating and imposing laws. It has demonstrated a disregard for national borders and is holding territory in Iraq and Syria. In the first six months of 2014 it took Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul, Tikrit, and al Qaim, while the world watched in disbelief.
And ISIS has a decidedly genocidal aspect. Its victims are not just means to an end. The “end” of the mass executions by ISIS is to rid the earth of targeted populations – never mind the effect on the rest of us. Terrorism is just one tactic groups like ISIS employ in addition to conventional military operations, unconventional warfare techniques, state-building and even humanitarian aid. ISIS has even issued its own currency.
If we understand ISIS as an insurgency using terrorist tactics, their goals are comprehensible. Insurgency is the strategy; terrorism and guerrilla warfare are its tactics.
Because ISIS is not simply a terrorist organization, what is required to deal with this threat goes beyond the CT strategies of any one country. It is going to require joint military tactics to contain its expansion on the ground and to protect soft power initiatives designed to counter its media appeal, stem recruitment, and ensure diplomatic progress.
A light military footprint may be tactically advantageous in short-term local conflicts, but our focus on counter-terrorism strategy leaves us unfocused on other forms of instability in the region that can undermine our interests in the Middle East.
In order to get ahead of the game we should focus on preventing and mitigating regional conflicts. Regional instability and non-functional states create a vacuum that terrorist organizations are ready to fill. Even if it were possible to kill off every member of ISIS, new groups would form to take its place as long as core grievances are not addressed. When governments are too fragile to operate, and when fringe groups have greater capacity to address the needs of populations than their governments, some organization is going to take advantage of that vacuum.
Robust diplomacy combined with conflict resolution and mitigation strategies can potentially disrupt conflicting tensions and reduce the level and scope of the antagonisms and civil disorder that extremist groups require in order to flourish.
We should not think of the marker of success as having the solution to every problem. Success would be the reduction and containment of conflict. And it is not our job to do this alone but we have a vested interest in partnering with vulnerable states, like Yemen and Iraq, to help invigorate their governance and defense capacities. Insurgency happens when governance fails.
The real threat from these groups to the US isn’t the acts of terror they perpetrate. The real threat results from the regional instability they create or take advantage of. When they become insurgencies or function as states we are in big trouble. And that is where we are now. Containment from here on means stabilizing the region through partnerships and protecting civilian refugees.
Now is the time to take preventative action. This does not mean exporting democracy. It means resolving, or at least mitigating, conflict with the goal of making states less vulnerable to civil war and promoting regional stability by providing local support and capacity building to regional allies and creating new ones.
The situation in Syria has left over 12 million people displaced, has de-stabilized much of the Middle East, has created an unprecedented refugee crisis that has not been addressed - and the situation rages on with no end in sight.
The refugee crisis threatens to become something more if not for intervention.
Sustained military attacks kill a few fighters, more civilians, and heighten the instability that generates mass exoduses and the desperation that ISIS capitalizes on. It also reiterates the narrative of extremist Sunnis that they are under attack. Military attacks presented on social media and the instability they create on the ground as well as the feeding they do to the extremist narrative provide a perfect breeding ground for further recruitment.
ISIS’s real or imagined attractions may fail to deliver but so have countries like Syria failed to deliver. Removing ISIS militarily, even if it were possible, without removing the elements that enable it to flourish is not a good strategy.
Frustrated with the complexity of the problem, some voices have called for a conventional war. But to fight a conventional war against an unconventional enemy is a losing proposition that would deplete our resources and the majority of the American public simply would not get behind such a move. We would not win. Do we withdraw and take an isolationist stance? We cannot. Our own stability and security is too interdependent on the rest of the world’s stability and security.
We must cooperate with other countries that are equally or more threatened by ISIS’s advance and advocate joint diplomatic endeavors to assist refugees and local forces like the Kurdish Pesh Merga. And together we must wake the UN out of its slumber. When millions of people are ousted from their homes by a global criminal enterprise it is time for the UN to act.