Confronting the Challenges to Global Security Created by Daesh/Islamic State

April 19, 2016
Confronting the Challenges to Global Security Created by Daesh/Islamic State
Scott Englund
Scott Englund Non-Resident Fellow, Counter-terrorism
Richard Burchill
Richard Burchill Director of Research & Engagement at TRENDS Research & Advisory

Daesh/Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS/ISIL has seized the attention of global leaders, diplomats, military and security officials, academics and journalists alike.  Tracing its linage back to the insurgency that grew out of the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States and its allies, Daesh/IS now transcends political boundaries in the Middle East, and claims affiliated organizations in North Africa and in Central and South Asia.  Beyond waging an effective insurgency in Iraq and Syria, it has inspired attacks in Beirut, the Sinai, and Western Europe.  Though Daesh/IS may not be the most violent, or longest lived terrorist organization in history, it presents several challenges that require careful attention.  In many respects Daesh/IS has become ubiquitous in our minds as other terrorist groups declare their loyalty to the primary leaders, individuals carry out violent acts in their name, or the almost natural assumption that any terrorist activity is Daesh/IS related.  Also we cannot forget that Daesh/IS is the target of national and international armed forces conducting military operations. As has been commented upon extensively, Daesh/IS is many things in many different ways – making use of physical violence, perpetuating extremist ideas and ideology, and effectively utilizing marketing and media tactics in support of its cause.  Recent reports attempt to claim that Daesh/IS is weakening.  At the same time, it appears that Daesh/IS, either its organized form, its affiliates, or its influence, are not diminishing.

The ubiquity of Daesh/IS has complicated military and counter-terrorism responses as well as muddled understanding what the organization is, or may be, or how it influences others.   Understanding groups of this nature is a complex task.  TRENDS and the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara have been attempting to redress these shortcomings through a joint project on the Constructions of Terrorism.  Following a successful event in 2015 at UCSB, TRENDS and the Orfalea Center are holding a second event in cooperation The Stimson Center of Washington DC to focus on the challenges posed by Daesh/IS to global security.  This two-day event will bring together terrorism and counter-terror experts from academic institutions, policy think-tanks, and government organizations to tackle topics such as, understanding the relationship between government action and terrorism, Daesh/IS as a violent non-state actor, its global network and communication strategy, and its recruiting strategies.

Four major themes will be explored:  First, what is the nature of the threat posed by Daesh/IS?  Though commonly understood as a terrorist organization and an insurgency, Daesh/IS clearly transcends those definitions and can operate as both depending on its organizational objectives.  Its tactical repertoire will be investigated and compared to other organizations and the gravity of its threat will also be evaluated.  Secondly, Daesh/IS has demonstrated its capacity to broadcast a sophisticated media image globally.  How Daesh/IS communicates, recruits, and maintains affiliates abroad and the effect of its communication program on how its allies and enemies alike perceive Daesh/IS will be discussed.  The way states confront the threat of terrorism can vary significantly, and different kinds of threats required different sorts of responses.  In this way, counter-terrorism cannot be fully understood separate from terror threats themselves.  This often overlooked relationship between state action and terrorist behavior will also be considered.  Finally, Daesh/IS has proven itself to be highly effective at recruiting people to its cause using a variety of methods.  During the conference, experts will explore the pathways by which people (to include the very young, women, Westerners) make their way to the battlefield to fight for Daesh, or to support its cause at home.

Over this two-day conference, accepted understandings of what Daesh/IS is, how it operates, and the nature of the threat it poses will be interrogated and challenged.  To highlight just a few of the topics to be discussed by a few of our presenters, John Mueller will explore how policy-makers have a tendency to “mis-overestimate” the threat posed by Daesh, while Rosa Brooks asks if Daesh/IS is truly exceptional or unique among terrorist organizations and insurgencies.  Charlie Whiteside, of the Naval War College will situate Daesh/IS in the context of revolutionary insurgent groups while others compare Daesh/IS to historical terror organizations looking to draw insights about how Daesh/IS fights and may eventually end.  Mia Bloom, Lasse Lindekilde and Sara Zieger draw attention to groups that are particularly vulnerable to recruitment and methods by which people are drawn to join groups like Daesh.

Determining the nature of the threat is important as it typically ensures responses that are proportionate and appropriate to the circumstances.  The nature of the threat posed by Daesh/IS seems to change depending on where you are.  In Iraq and Syria it is one thing, on the streets of Paris it appears to be something else.  Much of the response to terrorist attacks or threat of terrorist attacks has been highly militarised with criminal justice matters being marginalised.  This is often justified by arguing that the threat from violent extremism requires a military based response.  At the same time, military responses will not remove extremism, requiring more nuanced approaches where the military, criminal justice, and development support approaches have to be combined.

It is clear that the current situation of violent extremism is global and local and the two are very much interconnected and highly complex. We see violent attacks occurring in local communities well distanced from where Daesh/IS is based.  Much of violent extremism is based on local grievances and typically directed at the local authority.  However, there is also the ever growing presence and influence of global dynamics which are fuelling the localised sense of grievance.

In Western states, violent extremism is most acute where at first glance it may be argued that individuals and societies enjoy a decent life (however defined).  However, terrorist groups can construct a narrative that convinces people that in spite of any sense of the good life one might be enjoying, they are really being oppressed.   This raises the issue of how to combat the influence of global extremist movements in local settings in a way which does not contribute to further radicalisation.  In this regard local efforts are crucial but only part of the solution.  As Daesh/IS has demonstrated there is now a complex relation between the local and the global as events in far away places appear to compel individuals to use extremist violence in places far removed.  Clearly cooperation between and among governments and societies is necessary requiring an outlook that takes account of the close proximity as well as more distant forces and factors.

A key strength of Daesh/IS is its appeal to individuals from outside the territorial space where it operates.  The recruitment ideology being used by Daesh/IS and supporters works to destabilise societies, fomenting wider form of hatred and discontent as it distorts understandings of religion, politics and one could even say, common sense.  When individuals return to their homes from the battlefield, disillusioned, injured or exhausted, states are taking varying approaches from strong criminal retribution or social rehabilitation.   The question remains, however, as to which approach ensures not only that the affected individuals turn away from violence, and how to best overcome the extremist ideologies that led to violence.

Daesh/IS poses many challenges to leaders and policy makers around the world.  While we do not wish to enhance its prominence in any way, we must admit that the challenge created by Daesh/IS is substantially impact global, national and local security.  Responding and removing the threat of Daesh/IS requires multi-faceted approaches involving national and international military operations, police and intelligence operations, economic development, social integration, and education.  There is no easy quick fix policy and many of the responses to date appear to have both reduced the threat and furthered sympathies for the organization at the same time.  The negative impact of extremist ideology is well known yet these deplorable ideas continue to take hold, with no society being immune.   It is perhaps stating the obvious to say we need more effective responses, but clearly we do.  And for responses to be more effective we need to further and better our understanding(s) of the challenges Daesh/IS pose to our security, by furthering our understanding of the organization and its tactics.