What Will It Take To Defeat ISIS?


In the past few years, we’ve seen the Obama administration stumble and fall numerous times when it comes to developing an effective policy on what to do about ISIS and radicalization. Interestingly, during the past eight years, while the administration has taken a more wait and see approach – there are a number of folks, many Muslim, who have started to look at the issue to figure out what went wrong and what can be done to prevent radicalization on our soil.

Much of the problem goes back to the close of the Iraq War and the transition from the Bush to Obama administrations. At the close of the war, Iraq had roughly 67 counterinsurgent groups that were fighting for different pieces of the pie and for very different reasons. This included a number of Sunni and Shia militias and counterinsurgent groups – some backed and others grifting off the populations they came across.

The Obama administration should have taken a Marshall Plan approach to working with the Al-Maliki government to help in the transition of power and the re-establishment of an Iraqi state. Why? Because the situation in Iraq is similar to what happened after WWII in Germany. So, had we instituted an effective plan for the reestablishment of the country, things may have turned out differently. Instead, with several hundred thousand unemployed Iraqis, disrupted water and distribution systems – we handed over a country that was ripe for upheaval due to simple economics and a known Sunni/Shia divide.

Al-Baghdadi was originally a member of Al-Qaeda Iraq who weaponized the rhetoric of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (formerly Taliban and Al-Qaeda Iraq) and started suicide bomb attacks against Shia sites. Shortly thereafter he successfully recruited the Sons of Iraq (former commanders from Saddam’s army) and ISI was born.

As this organization has grown and morphed, their rhetoric and ideology has deviated from Islam and the rhetoric of Al-Qaeda to become almost identical to that of cult liturgy. What’s been shed of the religion in that process has been replaced with a recruitment process that is more like getting trapped in a no-way out situation that many unfortunate souls have fallen prey to.

Countering Violent Extremism

The Obama administration has largely touted CVE or Countering Violent Extremism as the solution to preventing terrorism on our soil. However, as the last eight years have proved, CVE has largely become an ugly moniker for state and federal governments to use technology to monitor Muslim populations. What started out under Obama with the opportunity to become something that prevented terrorism only became a quagmire that many state governments are now paying for in civil suit time and in certain cases payments to affected populations.

What’s clear is that in order for CVE to succeed, state and federal leaders have to start looking at what causes radicalization vs. the false perceptions that we’ve operated under for almost a decade.

Why? Because when we look at the nature of recent terrorist attacks both domestically and abroad, a number of things become clear – we have to stop looking at Muslims as mice in a cage and start engaging to identify the root of why radicalization is occurring.

What’s most important is understanding why a 15-year old protestant girl from the Midwest or a secular teen from the UK or a reasonably well adjusted college student in Germany would run off and join a cult whose stated aim is wage chaos to create a war between Muslims while destroying everyone or thing that stands in their path.

The ISIS Media Machine

ISIS has spent several years developing one of the most advanced media organizations in the world – presenting their cult worldview with glitz that hasn’t been seen since a WWII propaganda campaign. ISIS publishes a full color magazine called Dabiq that is printed and published digitally in about 5 languages. The magazine asserts their rhetoric as fact and preaches a promised land while highlighting their atrocities as things to be proud of. They also present a revisionist message on Islam, very much like Reverend Jim Jones presented a revisionist Christianity with the Peoples Temple and the Jonestown Massacre.

Their digital media organization alone operates with around 100 full time staff that control thousands of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media accounts. This is larger than the digital department of most of the biggest brands in the world. They also operate in English, Arabic, Urdu, Swahili, and Bahasa – which presents a challenge to Intelligence agencies that deescalated many foreign operations in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

ISIS has even gone as far as to develop and launch recruitment video games, that the FBI is having a hard time combatting.

In order to effectively disrupt their media machine, our next president will need to develop a propaganda organization that rivals our WWII efforts. A year in social media time means that ISIS will be that much more entrenched online, before we start taking steps to remediate the situation.

The next president will also need to develop a method by which we can better coordinate our information gathering efforts in Arabic and Urdu with a focus on Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Similarly, the complicated relationship between ISIS and Boko Haram, how Al-Qaeda has become an enemy of ISIS, and how that should be leveraged, needs more than just a paltry drone strategy.

If they’re playing a guerrilla warfare type “James Bond Game” with attacks like Paris, we need to step up our linguistic and counterterrorism focus to include engaging domestic Muslim communities to help American Muslims aid in the fight against a common foe. We also need to get back to basics and start fighting terrorist intelligence network with intelligence.


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