After ISIS: Why President Trump’s CT approach has a chance to dent the long-term ideological appeal of Jihadism

images-1.jpeg

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.

My Take: 

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

screen-shot-2016-12-19-at-12-35-31-pm

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.

Do you want to get more content like this? Receive new posts via Twitter at @nathanrfield1 or by signing up via email in the upper right hand corner. 

7 thoughts on “After ISIS: Why President Trump’s CT approach has a chance to dent the long-term ideological appeal of Jihadism

    1. Nathan

      Paul,

      Thanks for your comment.

      As I’ve written many times on this blog and elsewhere, no I don’t see the link between specific Saudi Arabia’s government policies and the broader spread of radical Islam over the course of decades. Those problems would be happening even if Saudi Arabia never existed. For a very detailed explanation, see this interview I conduct with Greg Gause where we talked about this in detail and a post I wrote in 2015:

      https://realworldarabic.com/2016/08/28/catching-up-with-greg-gause-on-saudi-arabia/
      https://realworldarabic.com/2016/12/01/why-its-not-true-to-say-that-saudi-arabia-exported-radical-islam-2/

      Nathan

      Like

  1. War and interventionism are equally to blame

    I don’t really agree with your approach here. I think socio-economics is just a factor that widens the recruitment base of extremist groups. It makes it easier to recruit people, but it is not their “raison d’etre”.

    If the socio economic situation improves (which is good for the population in general), the recruitment base of Jihadist groups will shrink, but the groups will stay very strong regardless
    Jihadist scholars and organizations have existed for a long time but remained insignificant too, until foreign involvement happens (in many cases US involvement).

    I see the rise ISIS for example as a direct result of the American war on Iraq. It was pretty insignificant in Iraq before 2003 and the population despised Jihadists in general. Same thing in Syria with the exception of the Muslim brotherhood in Hama (which also grew because of foreign funding and support).

    Not to sound apologetic at all towards ISIS, but I think they would not have been as violent or radical if the circumstances were different.

    Even in Afghanistan, jihadism had no significant appeal before American and Saudi involvement.

    Frustration and the sense of oppression created by foreign occupation and involvement is the main trigger. Just looking at the timeline of events, jihadist movements always grow significantly after foreign occupation or involvement (such as the bombardment campaigns in Syria).
    The same happened in Libya.

    Take Lebanon as a counterexample. ISIS had many plans for Lebanon and at many points it would have been easy to make them come true (such as connecting Raqqah to the Mediterranean through Palmyra-Qusayr-Akkar). Of course Hezbollah’s role had a large part in stopping them, but the fact that ISIS had no significant grounds in Lebanon also helped. The Islamists and extremists in North Lebanon seem very benign compared to “neighboring” ISIS, despite the similarly terrible socio economic conditions. Why is that? Because there hasn’t been a trigger for them to grow as they did in Syria and Iraq after American and Saudi (and Russian, for that matter) involvement.

    If you want to see the demise of jihadism, the policy of pulling out completely from the Middle East and letting the people and regimes deal with them will make it happen.

    No one in the region support these lunatics except Saudi Arabia and some other gulf monarchies. And the only reason they managed to grow is because after foreign occupation, some segments of the population viewed them as retaliatory and resistance groups.

    It is a fact that many Baath cadres in Iraq joined ISIS and helped structure it as an act of frustration and resistance against American involvement.

    Without this sequence of events al Qaeda/ISIS would still be a totally insignificant group of fanatics in some remote cave.

    Like

    1. Nathan

      Ok here’s my response to several of your points:

      (1) “If you want to see the demise of jihadism, the policy of pulling out completely from the Middle East and letting the people and regimes deal with them will make it happen.”

      It comes down to the diagnosis of the cause of the underlying problem.

      In my reading of history, the rise of modern Jihadism, in it’s modern extreme, utopianism (aka very violent) anti-establishment form, is primarily a reflection of the trouble that most Arab countries have in accommodating with the modern, economic-industrial-global order. It is roughly the same pattern that happened with the rise of Communist, Anarchist and National Socialist movements a century ago. I call it a Middle Eastern variation of those movements. What they “say” are doing is couched in different terms due to their Islamic historical and cultural worldview. But when you look at what they “do” — it’s all functionally the same.

      I put the problem on the The Mid East going through those same phases of modernization, in the early part of the 21st century that the West went through a century ago. Every incident in the 40 year history of modern Jihadism, follows the same trajectory and path to incrementally increasing extremism, that happened in Europe and throughout the world with other violent reform movements.

      Whereas your contention is that foreign intervention caused or at least is main cause of the Jihadism problem. Whereas I would say that foreign interventions merely offered the opportunity for those movements to get practice, coordinate etc in the same way that the Spanish Civil War offered Communism/ Naziism in the late 1930s.

      If the US totally pulled out of the Middle East I definitely do not see the problem going away. I see it either staying the same or getting worse. It is hard to see how it would get better.

      (2) “I see the rise ISIS for example as a direct result of the American war on Iraq. It was pretty insignificant in Iraq before 2003 and the population despised Jihadists in general. Same thing in Syria with the exception of the Muslim brotherhood in Hama (which also grew because of foreign funding and support).”

      Yes the US invasion had an effect in leading to the conditions where ISIS could fill a vacuum.

      I’m not sure I would say “direct” and it’s really impossible to ever know for sure. The invasion of Iraq led to a situation where ISIS was able to emerge. Still — aside from those details, this post doesn’t contradict your broader point of ISIS the geographic entity being in some way a product of the US invasion of Iraq. I never said it wasn’t.

      However, that the second problem, the ideological of Radical Islam, doesn’t change the fact that the broader spread of “radical Islam” or whatever we want to call it, has been happening for decades. Since at least the 1960s. As I wrote, we can eliminate the geographic entity that in Syria/Iraq. It doesn’t address the 2nd issue at all – the rising appeal of Islamic extremism basically in nearly all Muslim countries. That is underlying caused by these broader socio-economic problems that Mr. Barrack address in his article.

      (3) “Frustration and the sense of oppression created by foreign occupation and involvement is the main trigger. Just looking at the timeline of events, jihadist movements always grow significantly after foreign occupation or involvement (such as the bombardment campaigns in Syria). The same happened in Libya.”

      Then how do we explain 9/11 and literally hundreds of other attacks over the last15 or so years that can’t be tied to the Iraq war or other interventions? How do we explain the surging appeal of Salafism in Egypt in the 2000s? The fact that Salafi television stations were statistically by far the most popular? Here is a study I did on this on 2009:

      http://www.arabmediasociety.com/?article=712

      I agree totally that interventions in Libya etc have stoked the flames of conflict and contributed to the problem. I don’t see them causing it.

      (4) “No one in the region support these lunatics except Saudi Arabia and some other gulf monarchies. And the only reason they managed to grow is because after foreign occupation, some segments of the population viewed them as retaliatory and resistance groups.”

      I just don’t think this is an accurate statement. I know you don’t like the Saudis, but much of this Jihadist ideology is closer to “mainstream” than to the margins. In Jordan, there are major hotbeds of support for the Islamic extremism worldview. In Lebanon, this is also true. What does Tripoli have to do with that? It existed long before the Syria or Iraq wars.

      So how does this explain the rise of this ideology in a place like Tunisia? What ties are there to Saudi Arabia? Or any kind of foreign occupation?

      I am not denying that foreign interventions play a role in creating the kind of incubators where these movements can grow, but it’s not the cause.

      (5) Even in Afghanistan, jihadism had no significant appeal before American and Saudi involvement.

      Let’s say that the US never intervened in Afghanistan in the 1980s (and its role was far less significant than some make it out to be). Do you really think there would be no 7,000 people in Tunisia joining jihadist groups in 2016? Or that Sadat wouldn’t have been assassinated? Or that some group adopting the radical ideas of Al-Qaeda never would have emerged?

      Like

  2. J.S.

    I really appreciate your writing style. A lot of good points here and although shifting away from military interventionism is welcomed in the ME (why many in the region support Trump when it comes to line of sight benefits) the US still needs to rethink its partnerships with all despotic and aggressive actors in the region. IT seems like this “Marshal plan” idea will not be extended to Palestine or Iran where it seems things will worsen.

    Like

    1. Nathan

      Jade,

      Thanks for your comment.

      Well, the US is not going to rethink its relationships with Middle Eastern governments in the way you and many hope for. In many countries- like Egypt – they will get closer under President Trump.

      However, the more important question is what makes them authoritarian in the first place? And here, this innovative Marshal Plan idea actually has I think a chance to lead to outcomes where regimes don’t need to be autocratic and to address the other security problems in the news – terrorism, the migration to Europe, and the breakdown of the Arab Spring.

      3 reasons:

      #1 – if the economic pie becomes bigger, politics fundamentally becomes less zero sum. Who cares if you lose an election – you still have a job etc and a reason to respect the system. Whereas if the pie is so small -as it is in countries like Egypt/ Tunisia – that only some can be accomodated and the losers of elections have no incentive to just accept the system. In that situation force and authoritarianism is the only way to govern.

      #2 – Mr. Barack’s Marshall Plan idea has a chance to make more people content at home and cut down on the economic migration to Europe. That’s the long term solution to the refugee problem. Not just in the Middle East – but in Central America too.

      #3 – And if the Arab Marshall Plan concept is even remotely successful,the appeal of Jihadism will be less. We have to address the causes of the problems — this is what is new about this new innovative approach.

      Nathan

      Like

  3. Pingback: Diagnosing the origins of Jihadism in the Trump era… continued – Real World Arabic

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s