To defeat ISIS's widening reach: think global, act local

Countering the terrorist threat poses a massive challenge, including for the US to work with local governments that in some cases have abetted IS’s rise through repression, economic neglect, and corruption.

Bangladeshi social activists hold portraits of terrorism victims killed in the past few years, during a silent protest against killings in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on June 15. In the past two years most attacks have been claimed by transnational Islamist extremist groups, including the Islamic State and Al Qaeda affiliates.

After a spate of attacks that have revealed the Islamic State’s international reach and appeal, defeating the terrorist organization increasingly looks like a mission of painstaking global collaboration.

Some security experts even liken it to the Allied campaign that won World War II, not so much in resources and manpower as in the degree of coordination and focus required of a diverse set of nations.

The sense of urgency has risen in recent weeks due to a wave of deadly attacks unleashed by the group or its sympathizers – spanning from Orlando, Fla., to Turkey and Bangladesh.

Any truly global effort to take on IS, also known as ISIS, must go beyond the US-led international coalition focused on defeating IS in Iraq and Syria, experts say. Ramped-up military cooperation and engagement, as well as enhanced intelligence sharing and coordinated efforts to counter IS’s effective and global propaganda campaign will be needed.

“In addition to hardening targets and linking databases we need to stop the ISIS narrative of inevitable victory,” says Michael O’Hanlon, co-director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence in Washington. “That means more vigorous military strategies against them from Iraq to Syria to Libya to Nigeria, with allies and local partners in the lead but the US robustly in support.”

Indeed any worldwide war on IS will have to be global in its battle with the terrorist organization’s global messaging, yet nimble enough to address the specific local conditions feeding IS’s rise in each country. At the same time the effort is likely to be hampered by deep mistrusts among the very countries that would need to be involved and the schisms within the Islamic world that IS exploits.

Key challenge: don't feed ISIS narrative

One of the trickier yet most crucial tasks, some say, will be figuring out how to ramp up a global effort to defeat IS without feeding a key element of the fuel that fed Islamist extremism in the first place.

“The US and the countries it works with in this global battle will have to be careful not to fall into the ISIS narrative that it is the successor to Al Qaeda and the only true defender of Islam in a global war against the West and the West’s sycophants in Muslim countries,” says Nicholas Heras, Bacevich Fellow and Middle East security specialist at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

“The ISIS brand continues to appeal to a broader audience of salafist jihadists and others susceptible to the group’s narrative that it is leading an epic-making movement in Islam that cannot be stopped,” Mr. Heras says. “What makes a global strategy so difficult is that on one level it confirms the message of the West’s war on Islam while on another it obscures the need for a tailored strategy for each specific locale where ISIS is expanding,” he adds. “What might work in Nigeria or Southeast Asia might not work in Sinai.”

Spread of ISIS's ideological franchise

The ISIS-related terrorist attacks that spanned four continents and include the mass shooting at an Orlando night club last month have come in two forms: attacks that appear to have been directed by the group from the headquarters of its “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, and those inspired by its message and the appeal of the caliphate project.

The US-led international coalition seeking to defeat IS in Iraq and Syria aims ultimately to end the caliphate’s existence by uprooting IS from the territory it has held since 2014. Indeed the coalition and the local forces it is working with have pushed IS out of nearly half the territory it once held in Iraq and a lesser but still substantial chunk of territory in Syria. Indeed that loss of territory helps explain the rise in attacks across the globe as IS maneuvers to keep its narrative alive.

But some experts say the international community is now paying the price for a strategy that focused on defeating IS in its base without paying enough attention to the spread of ideological franchises around the world.

“At the beginning of the campaign against IS the assumption was that they could be confined within Iraq and Syria and ultimately defeated there,” says Sarhang Hamasaeed, senior program officer for the Middle East and North Africa at the US Institute of Peace in Washington. The problem is that IS’s potential for expansion was “seen too much in physical terms,” he adds.

“What many missed is that ISIS did not need to send fighters from Iraq and Syria to stage attacks elsewhere – it could inspire lone wolves or local groups that would rally to the ISIS banner,” Mr. Hamasaeed says. “And they misunderstood how quickly other terrorist organizations would pledge allegiance to ISIS” and to the caliphate.

Close cooperation with local powers

With extremist Islamist groups from Boko Haram in Nigeria to Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines pledging allegiance to ISIS, the global nature of the IS challenge is no longer in doubt, experts say. A key priority of any global effort to defeat IS must be to deny the group the ability to carve out any additional “proto-states” – as IS initially succeeded in doing in an ungoverned Libya – to eventually replace the caliphate’s capital in Raqqa, Syria.

But preventing the emergence of new IS havens will mean working more closely with local governments and militaries that in some cases have abetted IS’s rise through repression, systemic corruption, and neglect of social and economic conditions that IS could exploit.

“The greatest challenge to a successful global strategy against ISIS will be the local domestic political calculations of partner states whose actions are as much the problem as they are a part of the solution,” says Heras of CNAS.

As an example, he points to the emergence of an IS-affiliated “proto-state” in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula that has its roots not in any fervent desire for a hardcore Islamic state but in the local population’s long-festering grievances with the central government in Cairo.

“For the Egyptians there is a deep resistance to anybody calling the ISIS franchise in Sinai what it is – a local group with a whole set of grievances against the central government,” he says. Similar scenarios where central-government actions (or neglect) have fed IS’s appeal can be seen in places as diverse as Nigeria and Bangladesh, he adds.

“The US can do a lot more at the global level, like enhancing the sharing of intelligence and coordinating a global strategy to ensure that ISIS has no Plan B to resurrect itself elsewhere” once it loses its core operational headquarters in Syria, Heras says. “But a key challenge for the US will be to what extent it can influence its local partners to act more responsibly towards their local populations,” he adds. “That will be a necessary part of ending ISIS’s appeal and the attraction of its narrative of a global Islamic state that can’t be stopped.”

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