For months, the world’s attention has been on a group called the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). It also has been known and reported on through various names and acronyms – the Islamic State (IS), the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL). Terminology related to the group changes depending on the news agency, defense analyst, and politician.
The relatively short history of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, since it morphed from Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (JTJ) and subsequently rebranded from al-Qaeda Iraq (AQI) to the group brandishing black flags decorated with the slogan, “There is No God but Allah [God],” has harvested a staggering amount of attention around the world.
In Arabic, ISIS is translated as al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham or Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham. According to the Associated Press, “al-Sham refers to a region stretching from southern Turkey through Syria to Egypt (also including Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian territories, and Jordan).” The English word for this area is “Levant,” hence the ISIL translation.
Naturally, these varied translations and applications have some defense analysts fuming, as it is difficult to gain a wider and nuanced perspective of what is occurring, and what the international response may be, should be, or will be to counter the wanton violence of this well-organized and highly-skilled terrorist group.
ISIS’ imposition of ruthless strictures and untenable conceptions of self-claimed Islamic devotion, driven by its proud and illegitimate use of violence, has disordered the West and its principle partners concerning an appropriate strategy to confront the group. As recently as September, the US had no tenable strategy to combat ISIS and Washington came under increasing fire that it consistently fails to understand ISIS, Iraq, and security need throughout the Middle East.
Syrian Kurds, including those trapped in Kobani desperately trying to hold-off ISIS fighters, have stated outright that US airstrikes, as part of a coalition strategy against ISIS, fail to produce desirable outcomes. US-led forces have conducted over 20 airstrikes near Kobani in the last few days. The US’ air strategy (part of a larger and increasingly ubiquitous plan to defeat the group) is “in tatters as militants march on,” states The Independent’s Patrick Cockburn.
Pressed tightly against the border of Turkey and inching its way towards Baghdad, ISIS faces a US-led coalition that has yet to formulate an official strategy. It has taken weeks of airstrikes for the US to simply come up with a name for its operation – “Inherent Resolve.”
As American officials have pondered and debated what their operation name should be, ISIS, proving irrepressible, quickly illustrated its willingness to replace suicide bombers with fighters to seize and control territory. It has a relatively healthy recruitment campaign from the very states it targets, and yet the dearth of attention given to the group in terms of its social identity is even more deficient.
The US has brought into question ISIS’ caliphate claims, and it is now treating it, not as an insurgency, but as an interstate conflict using weapons and applying logic associated with regular warfare. Robert Spencer, author of Arab Winter Comes to America: The Truth about the War We’re In, wrote about the US’ misunderstanding of “the problem they are dealing with facing and thus choose the wrong remedies to deal with it.”
Far from achieving success, ISIS, rather than scaling back its attacks and relinquishing control of territory, has intensified and expanded its control. Senior US officials have made unsettling intimations about the US’ strategy, capability, and understanding of the situation and their enemy.
A decisive defeat of Syrian Kurds in Kobani is not inevitable. Yet, even prior to a possible defeat of Syrian Kurds in the Syria’s northern city by ISIS, the US is attempting to contain the fallout associated to the battle (and possible Kurdish defeat).
“Our focus,” said US Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken, “in Syria is in degrading the capacity of [ISIS] at its core to project power, to command itself, to sustain itself, to resource itself.” He further stated that, “[t]he tragic reality is that in the course of doing that there are going to be places like Kobani where we may or may not be able to fight effectively” (The Independent).
The media makes considerable contributions to the obfuscation and manipulation of the identity of the enemy, not just by using the different translations and the various acronyms. The Washington Post, Central News Network (CNN), Daily Mail, and Arutz Sheva (Israel National News) have reported widely on ISIS as “Islamists” and ISIS as an “Islamic” group. Newsweek and Russia Today (RT) have referred to ISIS as “radicals,” The Huffington Post has regularly used the terms “radical hardline militants.” Express, the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC), and Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), frequently employ the term “extremist(s)” when reporting on ISIS. “Fundamentalist(s)” often appears in ISIS stories told by all of these media sources in addition to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and The Guardian.
These terms have formed part of the profound security discourse on ISIS and the radicalization of its followers. Radicalization is a critical yet consistently sidelined aspect of this conflict, and Western attention to the critical issue of radicalization has not kept pace with the processes underlying terrorism and the field of terrorism studies more broadly.
“Islamophobia” coupled with states’ tendency to randomly apply the terms “fundamentalist,” “extremist,” “radical,” and Islamist/Islamic,” as well as Islamic Extremism (IE) and Violent Islamic Extremism (VIE), has likely encumbered the capacity of states to appropriately formulate and act on strategies and policy to address these issues.
Identity has been a conspicuously missing element in West’s ISIS strategy even though identity plays a pivotal role in luring individual (including youth) to join groups like ISIS. Since 2008, it is estimated that dozens of young Somalis living in the west (i.e., the US, Canada, the United Kingdom [UK], the Netherlands, and Australia, among other countries) have participated either directly or indirectly in Somalia’s al-Shabaab insurgency.
Dina Al Raffie explains, “[s]tudies on radicalization find identity to stand at the fore of the radicalization process. Success partially lies in the radical’s ability to provide the radical-to-be with a distinctive identity.” A 2011 report on youth radicalization, identity, and support for al-Shabaab, funded by the International Development Research Center (IDRC) in Ottawa, highlights the centrality of identity to radicalization, which emerged as a theory.
Michael King and Ali Mohamed, in the report, wrote about the idea being “rooted in the educated supposition of academics, the professional insights of security officials, and the personal experiences of Somali diaspora members.” Participants of the Promoting Peace and Preventing Youth Radicalization conference connected to the report emphasized the importance of identity, describing it as reflecting “the growing consensus among many terrorism researchers about identity as having a role in the radicalization process leading to violence.”
How these matters of identity and radicalization are linked to the media and the media’s treatment of both requires renewed gauging. While attendees of the Promoting Peace and Preventing Youth Radicalization conference were discussing expedients of radicalization, studies elsewhere have been looking at radicalization and the media. Pakistan has been on the front lines of the US-led “War on Terror” (WoT) for years but radicalism has confronted the state of Pakistan and its society throughout its history. While the media has played a role in the radicalization of people, communities, and organizations, the media itself been affected by radicalization.
Thus, a two-way process can be observed, which adds further exigency to the situation of focusing and therefore countering radicalization and radicalism with the aim of addressing violent terrorism. The cases are linked to ISIS and the US-led coalition strategy to address the group, and it’s following. Perhaps the greatest threat posed by ISIS is its capacity to connect with populations in nearly every region of the world, irrespective of their social class and economic position in a given society.
ISIS’ campaign, which the radicalization of Muslims and non-Muslims in many different countries fuels, is a strong indication that states determined to stop a group like ISIS continue to lose the war. Intense violence witnessed over recent months reinvigorates a puzzle that emerges from matters associated with ideologies, communication (part of the security discourse propagated by the media), and radicalization, as cited in a report published by the US Department of Defense Advisory Committee (DODAC) as far back as 2004.
Christian Leuprecht, Todd Hataley, Sophia Moskalenko, and Clark McCauley discussed the importance of addressing radical ideologies in 2009, referring to the DODAC, that “in the marketplace of ideas, the West is losing market-share.” The need for countering radical ideologies, despite having been recognized by the DODAC roughly a decade ago, further ground has since been lost,” according to Leuprecht, Hataley, Moskalenko, and McCauley.
As with the US-led coalition against ISIS, which operates without a baseline strategy, the most unfortunate and expensive failure in addressing radical ideology was the “failure of strategy.” There is much to be gained by countries well beyond the West by addressing such questions as: What are the values that currently support jihadist violence? What audience currently accepts these values?
Troubled by states ignoring such questions, Leuprecht, Hataley, Moskalenko, and McCauley underscore the importance of producing counter-narratives. With a narrow task, counter-narratives should respond to “narratives with the clearest link to violence,” according to Leuprecht, Hataley, Moskalenko, and McCauley, but can also offset the media’s misguided portrayal of groups like ISIS that continue to be labeled inaccurately and are arbitrarily marked in one way or another.
Irrespective of the territorial power and willingness to actually control territory as ISIS has shown, recent violence illustrates the circuitous nature of the terrorist threat and the opportunities that still exist for states to address the largely ignored issues of radicalization, radical ideologies, and their role in countering them in ways that might prove far more effective than bombs.
*This op-ed piece was co-authored with Stewart Webb.
Stewart Webb is the editor of DefenceReport. He holds an MScEcon in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University (UK) and a BA in Political Science from Acadia University (Canada). He is the co-editor of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Modern War (2015), Taylor & Francis