Posts Tagged ‘Islamic State’

Munich_Eye_05_15_49_00In a recent testimony to the House Committee on Homeland Security, National Counterterrorism Center Director Nicholas Rasmussen estimated that over 20,000 fighters from across Europe, North America, or elsewhere in the Arab world had left their homes to join militant groups operating inside Iraq and Syria. This figure is striking given global outrage over widely publicized executions, the depth of the US-led coalition, and extensive barriers to entry resulting from European legislation targeting would-be militants traveling to Syria. The common narrative is that despite these deterrents, potential fighters decide to join groups such as the Islamic State (IS) due to a shared religious ideology. However, this explanation is likely more convenient than accurate. Militants do not join IS because they adhere to the group’s specific interpretation or brand of Islam, but rather because of a secular combination of personal and environmental factors pushing and pulling them to the Levant.

Interviews, testimonies, and social media analyses of militants operating inside Syria and Iraq indicate that “pull” factors comraderiesuch as the yearning for adventure, seeking camaraderie, and search for purpose serve as greater internal motivators to join IS than one’s religious fervor. Within many Arab countries, youth seek to fill the “purpose void” in their lives that is the product of a lack of desirable career opportunities or social integration. Coupled with the inherent sense of adventure that most youth, regardless of faith or nationality, grapple with, a militant life in Syria can be as alluring as backpacking through Europe is for many western college graduates. Referring to fighters that had already left for Syria, several Jordanian men in a recent Foreign Policy article called IS militants “our friends and neighbors” – alluding to a pseudo-fraternal perspective of IS.

A bevy of environmental factors also provide the “push” that many militants consider in making the decision to join. An unemp;aforementioned lack of career prospects and youth unemployment rates over 29% region-wide portray IS as “a potential employer more than an ideological kinsmen” said one Jordanian man interviewed by Foreign Policy. Injustices at home in the wake of the 2011 Arab Uprisings, whether in the form of police brutality or community ostracism, perpetuate the “us versus them” mentality at the heart of many regional conflicts. Finally, a lack of faith in the West, particularly the US, to act leads many to think that they alone must turn the tide of the battle against Hezbollah, Bashar al-Assad, and/or creeping Iranian influence.

Rather than the common “shared ideology” narrative used to explain why militants decide to join jihadist groups such as the Islamic State, it is more appropriate to attribute such a decision to a complex and secular blend of personal “pull” and environmental “push” factors. However, given that each potential jihadist’s motivations are inherently unique and multifaceted, perhaps a greater focus on the “how” versus the “why” would succeed in stemming the flow of foreign fighters to Syria. While significantly more expensive and intrusive, “how” factors are easier to diagnose, address, and measure. Increased scrutiny of social media, communication surveillance, social network mapping, and enhanced airport security protocols all have the ability to impede the “how” why remaining applicable to all potential militants despite their elaborate spectrum of “whys.”

Despite an uptick in effective military strikes against IS targets in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere, the problem of eliminating IS cannot be completely solved with the barrel of a gun or any number of “how” remedies. Insurgencies, by their nature, focus on hearts and minds to appeal to recruits. Therefore governments and societies from which foreign fighters flow must take a critical and introspective look at the conditions they are fostering at home and realize these circumstances are far more likely to send young men and women to the battlefields of Iraq and Syria than any radicalized interpretation of Islam.

In response to a friend’s recent question pertaining to current events in Iraq and Syria: What are your feelings on the situation [ISIS’ recent land-grab and subsequent US-led coalition strikes]? And why aren’t more Middle East countries involved in the coalition? I wish Iran would step up and show they are not as crazy as they use to be… and “for once” Israel has a legitimate reason to conduct air strikes, why don’t they take advantage of it?”

isis-ten-arab-nations-join-us-led-coalition-against-islamic-stateRegarding the question of why more Middle Eastern countries aren’t involved in the coalition, I would say it’s because the Middle East isn’t a unified, solitary actor/participant in regional or international affairs any longer. Countries throughout the region all have different goals and desired outcomes not only for Iraq/Syria, but for the new balance of power in the region at-large. Gone are the days were the Arab League, and even the GCC, spoke for everyone represented in their respective regional groups. Qatar/Kuwait are believed to be supporting non-ISIS Islamists – both political and militant varities – in places like Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and Iraq with money, supplies, and even weapons. All the while, the UAE/Saudi Arabia are opposing, by means of arming and financing the competitors of, the very forces that Doha and Kuwait City are supporting. We saw this struggle occur very overtly in the recent Tunisian parliamentary elections (where the UAE-support secularist Nidaa Tounes party outgained the Qatar-backed Islamist Ennahda party), and we are seeing this on the battlefields of Syria each day. While I think there’s pretty unanimous animosity towards ISIS at the state-level, there are plenty of individual donors in all the above-mentioned countries who are supportive of the group. These donors all likely have some amount of political or economic leverage and leeway within their homelands. Granted, experts agree that private donations make up a tiny percentage of the money ISIS is sustaining itself on (oil sales and extortion being the chief methods and whole other cans of worms); it goes to show the level of disagreement alive in the Middle East at the state and individual-level right now-even on the most pressing issues. I also think Arab regimes have a legitimate concern that if they directly participate in the killing, whether collateral or deliberate, of other Arab tribesmen and militias sympathetic to ISIS, then uproar at home may result.

iran-historic-nuclear-deal.siAdding to the internal differences of opinion within Arab countries, Iran is an equally-looming issue for our Middle Eastern partners with respect to their cooperation with U.S.-led coalition efforts. As long as the U.S. refuses to deliberately target Assad’s forces, a puppet of Iran, Middle Eastern countries do not see the U.S. as supportive of one of their chief foreign policy interests (degrading Iran’s regional influence), and therefore they are hesitant to play bigger roles in the coalition. This is now coupled with/exacerbated by the U.S. and Iran coming closer and closer to a nuclear deal. I think Iran isn’t stepping up to do more unilaterally in Iraq because they know such action will fan the flames among their Arab neighbors/Israel more than they can tolerate politically at the moment. There are most definitely Iranian advisers (intel, military, political) at work in both Syria and Iraq, but unfortunately Iran is held to a different standard when it comes to a physical military presence in the region. They have many decades of suspicion and distrust to dispel among their Arab neighbors, and I don’t think seeing Saudi and Iranian jets flying side by side would end well.

syriaarabisiscoalitionRegarding Israel, we’ve actually seen Netanyahu paint Hamas in a similar light as ISIS recently. By drawing similarities between the two, he is retroactively legitimizing the bombardment of Gaza a few months back. Regardless of that political maneuver, I do not think ISIS poses a credible and existential threat to Israel- hence Jerusalem’s lack of involvement. It’s one thing for ISIS to challenge the territorial integrity of places like Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey where sympathetic radical Sunnis and widespread government resentment exist (albeit as a vast minority in terms of the former). However, history has shown us time and time again that in moments of crisis the Israeli population rallies behind their government’s choice to confront existential threats with massive shows of force. There also does not exist mobilized radical Sunni organization operating inside Israel* willing to cooperate with ISIS (*not to be confused with inside the West Bank or Gaza). I believe Israel would handily suppress, and repel, any maneuver ISIS attempts against their country. Geographically/tactically, ISIS would have to make HUGE gains in Jordan, Lebanon, and/or Western Syria before posing any kind of potential threat to Israel’s borders. Long before ISIS gets within 100 miles of an Israeli border, we’ll be seeing Israeli jets pounding their positions in Jordan, Lebanon, or Syria. I think Israel is also in a similar boat as Iran politically-speaking. Many of the Arab coalition members are participating in a limited fashion in an attempt to save face among their populations at home who want to see the Muslim communities in Iraq and Syria defended by Muslims. Mix in pictures of IDF forces collaborating with Emirati pilots, and you may see public support for the coalition effort wane. The West knows this, and therefore has probably told the Israelis to sit on the sidelines despite their probable desire to participate.

More on Israeli participation in the coalition effort here