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Defeating ISIS: What Will it Take?

“We’ve defeated ISIS in Syria.” – President Donald J. Trump, December 19, 2018

U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s claim of defeating ISIS (also known as Daesh) and the need to withdraw troops from Syria caused a tumult in Washington. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and senior diplomat Brett McGurk resigned. Defense strategists and diplomats were left with no transition strategy. National Security Council Advisor Jim Bolton traveled to Turkey and Israel only to be snubbed by Turkey’s president; later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to eight Arab states to reinforce continuity in Trump’s Middle East policy and promote a containment policy toward Iran.

During this frenzy, U.S. officials, analysts, and policymakers have neglected a crucial fact about ISIS: Though it is based in Syria and Iraq, it is not limited to those countries. The group has invested a great deal of funding, organization, and recruitment in what it identified as at least 35 provinces around the world. New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi, who uncovered 15,000 pages of ISIS documents from 11 different cities in Iraq, revealed the inner workings of a complex system of government, as well as blueprints of a manifesto to establish an Islamic theocratic state. At its peak of power in 2014-2016, the ISIS caliphate was the size of Britain; controlled more than 12 million people; and ran a vast web of bureaucrats efficiently supervising tax collection, schools, propaganda, hospitals, garbage collection, and a perfunctory judicial system.

What should we learn from this? Never announce the defeat of a terrorist group when it is extremely organized across three continents and aims to take revenge. Daesh’s cultural power does not come solely from holding territory; it gains much from its efforts to penetrate the minds of disillusioned and disenfranchised youth who want to join a community with an unflagging devotion to a “just cause.” Despite its military and territory losses, the ISIS “brand” still stands as a powerful symbol of the “oppressed” fighting the oppressors, and of the cleansing of the faith and the land of corruption to win eventual messianic blessings.

On the Scene in the Philippines

Earlier this week, the decimation of the Jolo Cathedral in the Philippines’ Mindanao state killed 20 people and wounded at least 81. The Daesh news agency, Amaq, took responsibility for the two blasts which occurred during Sunday Mass, followed by another blast outside as government forces responded to the attack. Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the attack was a “dastardly act” and that “we will use the full force of the law to bring to justice the perpetrators behind this incident.”The area where the attack occurred has a historical presence of Abu Sayyaf militants, who are on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations.

ISIS extremists have developed an elaborate network with Abu Sayyaf militants to take advantage of tensions in the Philippines. The CGP policy report “Terrorist Safe Havens and the Next ISIS“ by Ryan Greer demonstrated that the new frontier of ISIS activities will be in safe havens in the Philippines and Libya. These countries offer an existing infrastructure to build upon and experienced fighters willing and able to execute terrorist attacks.

Active in Africa

Throughout Africa, governments feared that the fall of ISIS in Syria would contribute to a resurgence of terrorism among local militant Islamists who would welcome ISIS fighters and adapt their strategies and tactics. In Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, militants like al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Dine and al Mourabitoun are engaging with government and coalition forces. In Nigeria, a faction of the Boko Haram group declared its allegiance to Daesh in 2015. In return, the group received organizational support, funding, ammunition, training for fighters, and technical support for propaganda.

Not surprisingly, Boko Haram was able to use the Daesh brand and reputation to recruit new members and sustain itself. The Islamic State in Somalia (Abnaa ul-Calipha) is a Daesh-affiliated group operating in the Puntland mountains of Somalia. Shaikh Abdul Qadir Mumin, the prolific Islamist ideologue, leads the group. Interestingly, Al Shabaab is actively trying to protect its turf by fighting the Islamic State in Somalia because Al Shabaab views the other group as a foreign competitor infringing on local matters.

In Africa, not all local militants align with Daesh networks. For example, Al Shabaab and AQIM are rejecting Daesh funding and support and robustly fighting Daesh to suppress its presence in the Islamist market. Libyan tribal militias have contained Daesh’s territory there to areas in Misurata. Even Boko Haram has splintered into two rival factions: one aligning with Daesh and the other insisting that any alignment with foreign militant groups will compromise local allegiances.

What is the Policy Focus?

The United States and global alliances’ efforts to defeat ISIS and its affiliates have used military power and counterterrorism tactics to weaken these groups. However, the most important lesson is that terrorism is inherently weaker when there is greater transparency of governance, more economic opportunities, thriving economies, robust institutions with public involvement, investment in schools, and diverse platforms for debate. It is important to ascertain what policy guidelines the Trump White House has given, if any, to the State Department and to the Defense Department to prevent, disrupt and ultimately lead a global effort to defeat Daesh and its dozens of affiliates. From Africa to the Philippines, ISIS has active networks operating to destabilize security and terrorize civilians.

The fact that the Intelligence Community’s assessment on ISIS (among a host of other issues) differs from that of the White House is deeply alarming. For the president to publicly react to the testimonies of the heads of the DNI, CIA, FBI, NSA, DIA, and the NGA by suggesting that they should ‘go back to school’ emboldens ISIS and our other enemies. President Trump must find a way to align his domestic political imperatives with the input he is receiving on foreign policy matters from the nation’s top intelligence agencies. More importantly, his administration needs to focus its energies on developing a long-term strategy beyond kinetic battlespace operations so as to ensure the underlying geopolitical problems that enable ISIS can be addressed.  

Dr. Qamar-ul Huda is Vice President of Development and Strategy at the Center for Global Policy (CGP). Prior to joining CGP, Dr. Huda was a Senior Policy Advisor to the U.S. Department of State Secretary’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs. He tweets at @qbhuda. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.