A mere three years ago, the radical terrorist group known as ISIS stood at a mere 12,000 fighters. Today, most estimates place the group’s numbers closer to 32,000 and substantial evidence suggests that ISIS will continue to expand its recruiting pool to over 80 countries. What is most shocking about this surge is that it has occurred during or in spite of America’s military campaign against the group. Operation Inherent Resolve has successfully killed no less than 27,000 fighters through the conduction of 11,000 airstrikes, and yet ISIS continues to grow. Such failure to contain the group has left American politicians and military leaders scrambling for answers and talking points indicative of a better strategy.
Among the alternative viewpoints are those voices calling for a withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and Syria. In the minds of these proponents ISIS’ identity is only tangentially related to the Muslim faith, and the group’s appeal may be more directly linked to “blowback” from foreign influence in the region. Should American forces withdraw, it is surmised, ISIS would be left to its caliphate project but without a major source of its attractiveness. In the meantime the Unites States will have untangled itself from a problem that was never ours to begin with.
The problem with this approach is that it fails to recognize the range of ISIS’ recruitment. Even if ISIS wasn’t or shouldn’t have been an American problem originally, it has certainly become one now. Last year reports by the FBI revealed that American law enforcement agencies are actively pursuing over 900 investigations of domestic ISIS recruitment. The scope of these investigations include one or more in all 50 states, and at least 27% of the suspects identified are or have been engaged in plots to attack our homeland.
Regardless of whether or not an American withdrawal would have positive long term affects in deterring ISIS, few would dispute the proposition that ISIS would immediately claim “victory” in response to an American retreat. Such a boost in public relations would no doubt give ISIS a recruitment spike and bolstering of offensive capability. For a group that sees every non-believer as an enemy deserving death, this would represent an enormous risk with potentially disastrous consequences for American national security.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are those calling for greater and more robust investment in the military campaign against ISIS. Many of these proponents directly link the appeal of ISIS to the Muslim faith itself, with some even going so far as to say that Muslim immigration to the United States should be halted and Muslim neighborhoods should be monitored. The issue with this approach, aside from its legal complications, is that it risks aggravating and radicalizing the 3.3 million Muslims presently living in America. However one may interpret the Quran and its teachings on jihad, numerous studies indicate that at present over 80% of American Muslims express at least some opposition to ISIS and its tactics. Nearly half want to see more vocal opposition from their clerics and religious leaders.
Should law enforcement action be taken against this group, such numbers would undoubtedly change for the worst. With greater sympathy for ISIS would come the strong potential of increased domestic recruitment and attacks. To understand this, non-Muslim Americans should consider the same methodology if it were applied to themselves and their own beliefs. If an American politician or media spokesperson were to claim that Westboro Baptist Church was an isolated hate group, for example, many evangelicals including mainstream Baptists would express immediate approval. But if that same politician were to claim that Westboro Baptist’s behavior was indicative of a larger evangelical problem, those same mainstream Baptists would feel stereotyped, threatened, and unjustly linked to a radical group they don’t agree with.
Close analysis thus reveals that both alternative strategies will make the problem worse. To truly defeat ISIS, the United States must reject both avenues and instead adopt a strategy that focuses not only on ISIS’ institutions (personnel, territory, and resources) but also the problems of its identity and ideology. American politicians must communicate an understanding of Islam that unifies ISIS dissenters and emboldens them and their religious leaders to further decry the terrorist group’s association with the Muslim faith.
Such a strategy requires facing off against ISIS in the realm in which it has experienced the majority of its success: namely, social media. Unlike al-Qaeda, which mainly releases leader-focused media involving sermonizing and long diatribes, ISIS prefers a sensationalist approach. On average, ISIS puts out 40 or more high-quality social media products (violent videos, dramatic short films, etc.) per day. Evidence abounds that the group also engages in crowd sourcing and similar tactics to amplify its message. To defeat ISIS and truly cut off its primary recruiting pipeline, the United States must match the group’s investment in social media and respond with a unified counter message that exposes the group’s failures and effectively severs them from the Muslim faith.
The components of this campaign exist, but presently they are disorganized and fragmentary. US government efforts, such as its “Think First, Turn Away” initiative focus particularly on overt negative messaging and lack the broad religious support to be effective. Isolated Muslim grassroots efforts such as “My Jihad” and “Not in My Name” remain separate from the authority of religious figures such as Shawki Alam (Grand Mufti in Egypt), Abdulaziz al-Shaikh (Grand Mufti in Saudia Arabia), and Mehmet Gormez (highest cleric in Turkey) who have previously denounced ISIS. And many nongovernmental organizations working to better the lives of peaceful Muslims, such as Lazuardi Birru in Indonesia, remain disconnected from international efforts.
Americans must encourage these ISIS dissenters to link their efforts and respond in a unified voice. Steady amounts of publicity, including a daily stream of quality material blending both negative and positive messaging, will be required. The voice of every Muslim from refugees, former terrorists, clerics, to common practitioners should be amplified to explain both what Islam is not (a religion conducive to the type of violence practiced by ISIS) and what it can and should be (a religion of tolerance and peace). This amplification must be fueled by media outlets worldwide, and it will likely take cooperation between international nongovernmental organizations, religious experts, cinema elites, and government clandestine agencies to be successful.
Critics, many of whom have neither read nor studied the Quran, will say that such a project is doomed from the start. They will say that the Muslim faith is inescapably tied to violence. A strict interpretation of the Muslim holy book’s 9th chapter, they will argue, prevents moderation and lasting peace with infidels. Lest we engage in hypocrisy, I would encourage such critics to examine their own worldview (be it Judaic, Christian, atheist, or otherwise) and remind themselves why and how they are not tied to the violent practitioners of their own movement. Beyond this I would argue that we as American citizens have a responsibility to uphold the legacy of religious liberty imparted to us. Do we not have a moral duty to strengthen the voices of religious peace, and thereby quell the hatred of our enemies?