“Thirty, forty years ago, we were still debating about what the future will be: communist, fascist, capitalist, whatever. Today, nobody even debates these issues. We all silently accept global capitalism is here to stay. On the other hand, we are obsessed with cosmic catastrophes: the whole life on earth disintegrating, because of some virus, because of an asteroid hitting the earth, and so on. So the paradox is, that it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.”
It is oft-remarked that proponents of the prevailing international order, despite 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, Lenin and Mao inspired large swaths of Westerners, particularly young people, into leftist movements—many of which carried out campaigns of domestic terrorism in order to provoke revolution.
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) similarly aspires towards a new form of social arrangement. In this post-Occupy movement period, where no one else seems to have the willingness or ability to meaningfully “fight the system,” ISIL appears to many as virtually the only actor interested in, and capable of, radical societal reforms. Understanding this source of ISIL’s appeal will be critical to countering its narratives, undermining its recruitment, and ultimately defeating the group.
ISIL’s recruits are generally not stupid, ignorant or naïve , 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 the “Islamic State” 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 aspirations.
For example, it is widely assumed that most suicide bombers were uneducated, mentally ill or otherwise cognitively deficient. Or that martyrs were simply nihilistic (often from having few socio-economic prospects), or were 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 being sociopathic, would-be martyrs 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, or that “the system” can work to evoke sufficient change on pressing issues. This is the main source of ISIL’s allure among youth.
Sympathizers are well-aware of the atrocities committed by the organization—crimes which are disseminated widely by ISIL itself, in part to lure unpopular foreign actors into their 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 East and Muslim affairs by former colonial and imperial powers and the repression of western-backed autocrats. ISIL’s recruitment has surged as a result.
A lack of alternatives
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.
2011 was marked by a rapid succession of local uprisings, collectively referred to as the “Arab Spring.” Initially, there was widespread optimism that these revolts would delegitimize the terrorist narrative by addressing endemic state oppression, violence, and corruption across the Middle East and North Africa. Instead, it was the civil Islamists who were devastated as they were overcome by violent counter-revolutionary forces. Meanwhile, after some initial half-hearted support for the uprisings, outside powers came to be more concerned with maintaining and restoring the longstanding status quo—embracing autocrats once more.
But most Arabs were not nearly as keen to turn the clock backwards. And insofar as 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. ISIL will not be defeated as long as this state of affairs continues to prevail. 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” to counter ISIL’s social media outreach, establishing “de-radicalization” 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. So long as the United States and its allies continue to champion the global status quo — along with the oppression, exploitation and injustice entailed thereby — 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: a demonstrated American willingness and commitment to revising its relationship with the region would weaken the appeal of these resistance agents and the urgency of their cause.
The example from the left is instructive: while there remains a residual affection for Latin American post-socialist autocrats, a fascination with Russian premiere Vladimir Putin, and a reflexive defensiveness for figures like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad insofar as they are viewed as “resistance” actors—many other leftists became convinced that the United States offered a more potent vehicle for change. They not only turned away from Stalin and Mao, but abandoned socialism and communism altogether. In its stead they founded the neoconservative movement, decisively hollowing out and marginalizing the American left in the process.
In short, even the most passionate anti-establishment ideologues can come to work within the system to realize their objectives, provided this options seems viable. And this, in turn, can lead to the demise (of all intents and purposes) of the movements they are converting from.
In the case of undermining ISIL, these reforms need not require imperialistic actions such as invasions, occupations or regime-changes; 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 sub-state and non-state proxies, and end unconditional military and geopolitical assistance for Israel and Mideast tyrants. Perhaps most importantly, the U.S. should cease picking sides and intervening in conflicts where 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.