Mattis plan must confront ISIS on and off the battlefield

This op-ed written by Search for Common Ground President & CEO Shamil Idriss originally appeared in The Hill on 2/27/17.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis today is presenting a draft of the Plan to Defeat ISIS to President Trump. The plan is the result of a broad effort to consider options and present the president with the best approach to a struggle that will shape U.S. security and relations with countries around the world.

The plan should recognize that ISIS cannot be defeated on the battlefield alone. Mattis should seize the chance to present a strategy and commitment to a whole-of-society approach which would match battlefield successes with measures to counteract the appeal of terrorist groups, and ultimately reduce the long-term burden on the American soldier, police officer, and taxpayer. ISIS must be defeated in such a way that it does not simply re-emerge in another form.

I lead Search for Common Ground, one of the world’s largest non-profit organizations dedicated to transforming conflict. In a dozen countries, we run programs tackling violence by extremist groups including ISIS.

Through our work, we have seen ISIS and its affiliates justify violence and attract supporters in three ways: 1) they provide an overarching vision and justify sacrifice through a mythology that selectively draws upon Islamic motifs; 2) they offer opportunities for leadership, adventure, and “heroism;” and 3) they promise to address perceived local and global injustices.

These factors cannot be addressed by security agencies alone.

The plan must not lower the military’s bar for protecting civilians in operations, and should urge and support allied powers to do the same. The way in which the U.S. government and its partners use force and power has direct implications on ISIS’s appeal. Injudicious use of force that yields civilian casualties backfires by feeding into a powerful “David vs. Goliath” narrative that is fertile ground for further radicalization.

In those truly devastated societies still in the midst of war such as Iraq and Syria, the plan should recommend ensuring civilian protection during military operations. In other settings, America and her allies must support societies that are grappling with the effects of ISIS violence to recover and acquire the ability to provide security, stability, and services.

The plan should recognize the unique capabilities of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development in supporting the civilian agencies of partner governments as well as community groups to prevent future violence, rebuild local trust, and establish basic services. This includes education systems and employment agencies, youth outreach programs, prison authorities, municipal and local authorities, traditional leaders, and religious and secular community service providers. The plan should acknowledge the need for effective and inclusive governance in the recovery process, and effective judiciary and prison systems responsible for managing convicted ISIS supporters and combatants.

At home and abroad, the plan must recognize the importance of preventing recruitment and undercutting the global appeal of ISIS and its ilk. “Counter”-messaging is ineffective when takes the form of reactive tit-for-tat argumentation or appears inauthentic in the eyes of those it aims to reach.

Messages designed to placate audiences and deny injustices are likely to backfire, while those that acknowledge legitimate aspirations and offer or model non-violent options are more likely to succeed. In this, the messenger is often as important as the message. Whether on social media, mass media, or face-to-face, it is families, peers, local leaders, and religious figures who can be the best allies. But ultimately, if the message does not meet the audience’s lived reality, it will fail: insecurity, lack of hope, and anger over ineffective or illegitimate governance are simply not marketing problems.

Critically, the plan – and wider strategy – must demonstrate an understanding of the role that religion plays in motivating adherence to ISIS. ISIS is especially attractive to individuals, particularly youth, who feel that their lives lack a higher purpose, who face an uncertain social future, and who seek opportunities for glory.

ISIS plays upon these needs by appealing to Islamic motifs and arguments, in the same way that Nazis employed Norse and Aryan mythology. The appeal to religious identity is not inherently theological, but emotive. Inarticulately representing the role of Islam risks alienating critical allies and inadvertently harming U.S. and global efforts.

Countering ISIS is not about Islam nor even about Islamism, but rather understanding and undercutting its specific appeal. The plan must recognize that governments – whether the U.S. or foreign – have limited influence in this sphere, and call for the engagement of influential and credible religious leaders, civilian agencies, youth leaders, and civil society who are best-placed to tackle these needs.

Secretary Mattis and President Trump have a unique opportunity to outline a strategy for success, but only if that plan reflects a whole-of-society approach which would not only defeat ISIS on the battlefield, but would also help ensure that such a victory is more than a mere precursor to the next war with ISIS off-shoots and successor movements.

Shamil Idriss is president and CEO of Search for Common Ground, one of the world’s largest non-profit organizations dedicated to transforming conflict. In a dozen countries, Search runs programs tackling violence by extremist groups including ISIS.


Shamil Idriss is the President & CEO of Search for Common Ground.