The Islamic State as a geographic entity in Iraq and Syria is approaching its inevitable demise. Much like the German Army in the Second World War, ISIS has too many enemies. It may hold out for a time. It will certain take down many innocent people in the process. But eventually all of its territory will be reclaimed.
What’s next for Jihadism?
At the train station this morning I saw that very question on the cover of the latest issue of The Atlantic. It’s also the theme of a new USIP report titled The Jihadi Threat: Beyond ISIS and Al Qaeda.
Let’s not overstate the big-picture Counter-Terrorism significance of beating ISIS the geographic entity.
A good thing? Of course. But the longer-term security problem is the growing appeal of radical Islamic extremism, the ideology. This issue is not new. It’s been around for decades independently of the Syrian Civil War. And unfortunately, Islamic extremism’s appeal is accelerating for two key reasons that also have nothing to do with Syria:
- The Youth Bulge generation hitting adulthood. Meaning the number of disgruntled 20 and 30 somethings per capita in cities like Cairo, Tunis, Amman etc is significantly more in 2016 than say, 1998. Barring some kind of totally unforeseen Black-Swan type economic miracle, those numbers will be even greater in 2025 compared to 2016 and more in 2035 compared to 2025 and so on.
- Jihadist Recruiting is exponentially easier in the social media/hyper-connection age. For example, 1990s era Al-Qaeda could only recruit people it could “touch” – in person or by sending letters, videos etc by traditional post. As a result membership capped out at maybe 2 or 3 k people. Now – anyone, anywhere is one mouse click away. The recruiting pool is exponentially bigger.
Reversing the growing ideological appeal of Jihadism will be extremely difficult. However, the only long-term path that has any chance of success is one that follows the general model that we used to undermine the ideological appeal of Communism during the Cold War.
Some of the most innovative thinking I’ve seen on this topic is that of Mr. Thomas Barrack Jr, a senior advisor to President Trump – more on that later in this post.
Understanding modern Jihadism as a 21st century Middle Eastern version of Communism/National Socialism/Anarchism
Each of these movements are inevitable (and rationale) reflections of socio-economic discontent in given societies with the ongoing process of modernization and the inability of the “system” to reasonably accommodate with the industrial, hyper-connected “modern” world in a way that provides a fair and just for a critical mass of the population.
Violent, utopian reform movements promising its followers to redress these problems always arise in these contexts.
And each of the four are ultimately symptoms of the same problems. For those who think these are radically different movements, the kinds of people who join Jihadism movements in the modern Middle East today are the same types of people that if born in a different place and time would have joined Communist and Anarchist or Nazi movements (and vice versa).
The main difference between Communism vs Anarchism vs Jihadism ultimately comes down to their reading of history: what caused the problems in their society that has caused such degree of discontent? The diagnose of the root of the problem than tells us how they plan to fix it:
- Communists (and Anarchists) Entirely class-based diagnosis – tear down all of the old institutions of the past that supposedly held the people down (aristocrats, religion). Eliminate them — and then create the “perfect” New World Order.
- Modern Jihadist movements (very similar to Nazism) Arguably just as class-focused as well, just using different language and cultural references to describe it. The difference between Jihadism and Communism is that there is no need to create anything new. The model of perfect “good government” existed in the first few generations of Islam. 100% of what went wrong can be traced to a deviation from that model of greatness over the ensuing centuries. The solution? Quite simple – destroy whatever non-Muslim influences they believe caused the Umma to lose its way. Their enemies are then, local “bad” Muslims. And to the extent that the US and the West is seen as aiding them, the US.
Trump Administration Counter-Terrorism Policy: Rooted in an Understanding of History
The primary reason for pessimism about stopping the growing appeal of Islamic Jihadism is that none of the underlying reasons that have led to so many people to embrace it over the last 30-40 years has changed. In fact, those factors have gotten far worse.
Therefore, there is every reason to believe that more recruits per capita per year will embrace Jihadism over every year in the coming 10,15, 20 years. Especially given that there are going to be thousands and thousands of Syria alumni returning to their home countries to stir up trouble. The problem is probably just beginning.
Of course, from a CT policy, anyone taking up arms has to be arrested or killed, or in some select cases allowed to reintegrate back into society. But that’s the short-term way to stop the bleeding. The long-term answer is to address the underlying factors leading to so many people joining the movements in the first place.
The Only Proven Way to Drain the Ideological Appeal of radical Islamism?
Make enough people content with the here and now to reduce the temptation of Jihadism.
How can we do that? A very important article on this angle was recently published by Mr. Thomas Barrack Jr, a close advisor to President Trump.
In Mr. Barrack’s approach I believe lies the ultimate long-term answer in the strategic fight against Islamic extremism in the Middle East. The issue is one of socio-economics in that same way that Communism, Anarchism and National Socialism were all driven by socio-economic discontent with the status quo. No historians would dispute that.
The same thing is ultimately true with Jihadist movements – which if you change the references to reflect their Muslim orientation are functionally the same as their predecessors in the 20th century (overthrow the establishment by force, replace with some kind of utopian state).
The economic pie in most Arab countries (with the exception of very small Gulf countries like Qatar or the UAE) is only large enough to provide purpose, meaning and a certain masculine status to about 20% of the population. The kinds of people embracing the appeal of radicalism and who are supportive of violent redistribution of power/status etc – with statistically rare exceptions are from that lower 80% class. Moreover, just because a few people here and there are “rich” – this doesn’t mean the movement isn’t about socio-economics. Plenty of the leading figures of Communism and Anarchism were born as aristocrats.
In a nutshell, unless the economic pie is enlarged so that somehow more – let’s say 40% or more – can achieve purpose, meaning and status, the appeal of violent Islamism is not going to decline. By the laws of human nature, it must grow.
On that note, here are several articles I have written that add more specifics to the big-picture strategy vision laid out by Mr. Barrack:
Not Just Tech Entrepreneurship in the Middle East
To beat ISIS focus on Economic reforms
Stop Sending So Many Young People to University
The potential of Saudi economic reform
Create Jobs or Kiss the Revolution in Egypt Goodbye
Sustained economic development policies in the Middle East are the most important way to have a reasonable effect in limiting the appeal of Islamic extremism long-term. There is no other way. Even if every single person currently taking up arms for ISIS is killed or arrested 3, years from now, 10 years from now, 3x more people will fill their slots.
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