The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) will never be defeated if the US and its partners cannot undermine its message, which is central to its capacity to recruit. At present, they are failing miserably in this regard.
ISIS' influence extends well beyond the Middle East. This is true not only in terms of the terrorist organizations that have declared allegiance to it, but also its evident appeal to young people in countries across the world -- including the United States. Most of its fighters are between the ages of 18 and 29.
As long as ISIS can successfully connect with and persuade young people to leave their countries and join its ranks, it will continue to pose a threat.
The US and its allies might be killing a large number of ISIS fighters via relentless air strikes, but evidence suggests the terrorist group replaces fighters as fast as they are killed.
Accordingly, part of the fight against ISIS must include methods of preventing individuals from traveling to Syria to become jihadists.
A larger and more complicated question is what to do with them after they're caught or return home. Should they simply be imprisoned or be reintegrated into their communities?
It appears places like Minnesota, Denmark and Saudi Arabia may have found an answer to these questions, and it involves psychological counseling. All three have established rehabilitation programs aimed at de-radicalizing individuals and helping them feel less alienated from society.
To many, this might seem like an absurd concept. But consider the fact it's been 14 years since 9/11, and terrorism is still alive and well in many parts of the world.
The War on Terror has been a complete and utter debacle. In many ways, it's only served to increase enmity toward the US while inducing further paranoia and Islamophobia among the American populace.
Sending US ground troops to fight ISIS isn't a solution either, as this would only exacerbate an already convoluted situation. It would see America bogged down in yet another lengthy and costly war in the Middle East.
It's time for a new approach. Instead of bullets and bombs, perhaps we should try engagement and empathy.
Rohan Gunaratna, Head of International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, is an expert on extremist rehabilitation. As he puts it:
Terrorists are not born, but are products of circumstances. Therefore, it is necessary for governments to invest in soft countermeasures – delegitimizing the radical ideology and addressing roots of grievances – along with the kinetic response. To fight terrorism in the long-term, it is necessary to develop programs to both rehabilitate and reintegrate terrorists and extremists as well as community engagement initiatives to build societal resilience to prevent individuals from joining or supporting terrorist groups.
He makes a valid case. We are all products of our environments.
Imagine growing up in a country where you've felt hated, only to be presented with an opportunity to travel somewhere your existence would be celebrated. If you were young, naive, felt isolated and directionless, this could be very appealing.
As Preben Bertelsen, professor of psychology at the University or Aarhus, states:
What motivates these young people is not that far from the motivation the rest of us have: a decent life. For them, joining Isis is... fighting for a place where they're wanted. In that sense they're not that different from other young people.
Many of the young people attracted to ISIS are children of immigrants in societies where xenophobia is on the rise and Muslims face discrimination. This includes the United States.
Federal data shows anti-Muslim hate crimes are five times more common in the US today than before 9/11.
It's also no secret between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the use of drones and drone strikes in multiple countries, the US military has been extremely active in predominately Muslim countries for the past 14 years. All of this provides ample material for groups like ISIS to paint America and the Western world in a negative light, aiding its recruitment platform.
This is not to say people who have fought or plan to fight alongside ISIS are justified; it's an abhorrent entity already guilty of numerous crimes against humanity. This discussion, however, strikes at the heart of what is perhaps America's biggest weakness in combatting terrorism: We don't understand it.
If America truly wants to eradicate extremism, which is a lofty goal as is, it has to make an effort to understand what catalyzes such mentalities and urges people to commit acts of terror. Part of this process could involve rehabilitation programs and community engagement, the latter of which the Obama administration has endorsed.
In July, President Obama made a very important point in this regard while speaking from the Pentagon on ISIS:
This broader challenge of countering violent extremism is not simply a military effort. Ideologies are not defeated by guns. They're defeated with better ideas – a more attractive and more compelling vision. This larger battle for hearts and minds is going to be a generational struggle. It's ultimately not going to be won or lost by the United States alone. It will be decided by the countries and communities that terrorists like [ISIS] target.
Indeed, it's easy to kill people, it's much harder to destroy an ideology.
With that said, America and its partners are currently losing the propaganda war against ISIS. A US State Department document recently obtained by the New York Times admitted as much, highlighting the terrorist organization's sophisticated use of social media to spread its message.
ISIS has successfully presented an image of a socially inclusive Muslim utopia, which experts argue is very enticing to disillusioned youth looking for a sense of higher purpose. Along with its creative use of technology, this is precisely why it's been able to recruit thousands of people from outside of Syria and Iraq.
The majority of foreigners fighting with ISIS come from the Middle East, but there is still a significant number flowing in from other parts of the world.
One such individual is 19-year-old Abdullahi Yusuf, who was recently ordered by Minnesota Judge Michael Davis to leave jail and attend a rehabilitation program after pleading guilty to attempting to join ISIS. Last May, Yusuf was caught at an airport trying to fly to Turkey, where he would presumably have found his way into Syria.
The program Yusuf is enrolled in, which involves regular meetings with a counselor, is the first of its kind in the US and represents a novel approach to the unique challenge ISIS presents.
In May, Judge Davis also said he might allow five other Somali-Americans accused of attempting to join ISIS enter a similar program.
As noted above, Minnesota is not the only place that views rehab for extremists as a viable option.
Denmark, which has the second largest number of European jihadist fighters in Syria after Belgium, has also viewed rehabilitation as a feasible solution to this problem. The European nation has decided to give these individuals a second chance, providing both counseling and career advice.
Saudi Arabia has engaged in a rehabilitation program for extremists since 2004 and has reportedly experienced an 88 percent success rate. In other words, 12 percent of the individuals involved made their way back to activities related to terrorism.
But this does not suggest such efforts are fundamentally flawed. There is no single solution to ISIS or terrorism more generally.
What is clear is ISIS cannot be defeated solely via military means. Complex problems require comprehensive solutions.
Citations: 6000 Airstrikes in Iraq and Syria A Look At the Numbers (ABC News), ISIS Finances Are Strong (NYT), Map ISIS has lost 10 percent of its territory this year (Vox), ISIS Is Winning the Social Media War US Concludes (NYT), Mississippi Couple Accused Of Trying To Join ISIS (NPR), Judge Sends Terrorist Recruits To Rehabilitation Instead Of Jail (Think Progress), From Syria to Bosnia Isis and its affiliates around the world (The Guardian), Inside Denmarks Radical Jihadist Rehabilitation Programme (Newsweek), Barack Obama says fight against Isis will be generational struggle (The Guardian), Group With No Jihadi Experience Rehabs ISIS Recruit (Daily Beast), FACT SHEET The White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism (White House), Operation Inherent Resolve A year of fighting ISIL (Al Jazeera), Airstrikes Killing Thousands of Islamic State Fighters but It Just Recruits More (Foreign Policy), ISIS and the Foreign Fighter Phenomenon (The Atlantic), The Children of ISIS (Rolling Stone), How Many Americans Have Traveled To Syria To Join ISIS (Huffington Post), Mississippi Couple Accused Of Trying To Join ISIS (NPR), Anti Muslim hate crimes are still five times more common today than before 9 11 (Washington Post), Since 9 11 Weve Had 4 Wars in the Middle East Theyve All Been Disasters. (Mother Jones), Saudi Arabia says 12 percent of its rehabilitated terrorists have returned to terror (Washington Post)