What is the so-called Islamic State (also known as ISIS/ISIL, Daesh)? What threat does it pose to global security? Should we even consider it to be a threat? What will be left behind after it someday goes away? These questions and more were tackled by a group of scholars, practitioners and journalists at the Stimson Center in Washington D.C. on 27 and 28 April. The two-day conference organized by TRENDS Research and Advisory, based in Abu Dhabi, UAE, the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies at the University of California, and the Stimson Center brought together terrorism and counter-terrorism experts from diverse backgrounds to confront the challenges presented by Daesh. The wide-ranging discussions that occurred over eight thematic panels dove challenged existing conceptions of Daesh and how states ought to respond to it.
The conference began early Wednesday morning with a discussion that traced the history of “terrorism” as a means of political expression, how counter-terrorism actions can inspire and deter terrorist violence challenged participants to reconsider the very definition of who terrorists actually are. This opening panel of Mark Sageman, Laura Dugan, and Marie Breen-Smyth instituted what became a abiding theme of the conference: to effectively confront Daesh, we must be willing to challenge established conceptions of what it represents, what motivates it and what is the appropriate response to it.
From the theoretical and statistically driven examination of the issue from the scholarly heights, two academics with counter-insurgency experience in Iraq dove deep to compare Daesh to historical revolutionary, violent political movements. Whiteside, a former US Army officer with combat experience in Iraq, asserted that Daesh represents a return to revolutionary warfare, much in the same strain of the kind of war fought by the Vietnamese Communists. Englund, a former intelligence analyst, compared Daesh to contemporary and historical guerilla movements in order to understand how it might eventually end, concluding that Daesh will likely remain a traditional terrorist threat even after its inevitable military defeat.
Next, attention was turned to consider how Daesh seems to survive in a conflict where everyone seems to be opposed to it, and even thrive in the form of affiliated organizations spread across the globe. Hussein Ibish assessed that the conflict spread across Iraq and Syria represents one of the most complex conflicts in modern history; Daesh is able to survive in the spaces of the overlapping and conflicting interests of each of its opponents. Joel Day explained how Daesh has spread its influence to organizations as far away as South-East Asia, and how these far-flung organizations tend to benefit from their association with Daesh. Thus, the threat posed by Daesh is indeed global, requiring a global response.
Wrapping up the first day, how Daesh communicates and how western media cover it was investigated. Charlie Winter, using documents he has translated himself, reported a pattern of off-line propaganda, which he compared to the insidious propaganda efforts undertaken by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Ben Smith and Andrea Caballero confronted how United States media outlets have failed to differentiate between Daesh and al-Qaeda; this fundamental failure has led to the public mis-understanding the motives (and perhaps goals) of Daesh. This confusion leads to poor perception of appropriate counter-measures, and unrealistic expectations.
The conference began early again Thursday morning, first taking on the issue of recruitment and radicalization. Danish scholar Lasse Lindekilde presented a model of de-radicalization and disengagement used by the Danish town of Aarhus, which experienced a disproportionately high number of its citizens leaving to join the fight in Syria and Iraq. Sara Zeiger described the role women play in terror organizations like Daesh, and the role they can play in discouraging people in their community from joining or supporting Daesh. Mia Bloom described how Daesh predates on children and uses them as child-soldiers. The day thus began considering how some of the most vulnerable are drawn into fighting, and what efforts are being undertaken to challenge the attraction of Daesh’s ideology and re-direct young people and women away from potentially self-destructive behavior.
The morning was rounded out by two apparently different approaches that ended up converging. Victor Asal demonstrated using new data and statistical analysis patterns of lethality among violent groups in the Middle East region while John Mueller challenged the basic understanding of Daesh by asserting that it does not represent a true threat to global security at all. Though these two presentations began from two different beginnings, and used entirely different methods, the discussion converged around how threats are perceived and thus how the public demands their governments to respond. Though being killed in a terrorist attack is a very remote threat, people remain concerned about terrorism. Indeed, though Daesh (or other the threat terrorism generally) does not represent an “existential threat,” it is a tremendously significant threat to security in the Middle East and North Africa, a region that remains strategically important for much of the rest of the world.
Next the very nature of the threat Daesh presents, and what could come after it was considered. Risa Brooks began by posing an analytical puzzle, is Daesh qualitatively different from other terrorist groups, or is it just and extreme example of prior types; if it is different, is that the result of its own characteristics, or the environment in which it operates. She assessed that though it may take advantage of unique political conditions, Daesh does not represent a unique or exceptional threat. Psychologist Clark McCauley explained that he believed the core of the Daesh phenomenon is emotion, specifically humiliation, which he defined as the combination of anger and shame. He then proposed a radically different approach to confronting Daesh. This violent group is successful because it offers an exhilarating remedy for humiliation, thus to effectively end it as a violent movement, an even greater remedy must be made available. His solution was to create ethnically based nations that redrew the map of the Levant drawn at the conclusion of the First World War, claiming that essentially this was a process that is already underway.
The conference ended with an insightful conversation between Stimson Center Chairman Ambassador Lincoln Bloomfield and Professor Richard Falk.