Possible Counterterrorism Policies Against ISIS

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Islamic State, ISIS or ISIL started as a splinter group of Al-Qaeda after the war in Iraq. In 2012 and 2013 ISIS troops quickly seized vast areas of Eastern Syria, establishing control in Western Iraq in 2014. (CNN Library, 2019). “The world watched in shock as the group claimed cities, seizing numerous oil fields and dozens of millions of American currencies in the banks” with all this recorded on high resolutions video and broadcasted in the rest of the world (Dimov, 2016). The onslaughts against Russia, Tunisia and Paris led to the establishment of a world coalition for the destruction of ISIL (Dimov, 2016). The group is implementing Sharia Law, rooted in eight-century Islam, and aims to create a global caliphate and bring to an end the Western rule (Tyner, 2019). Paradoxically, ISIS uses modern tools like social media to promote reactionary politics and religious fundamentalism, and most of its revenue comes from oil production and smuggling, taxes, ransoms from kidnappings, selling stolen artifacts, extortion and controlling crops (CNN Library, 2019).

Terrorism does more than just kill people – it undermines western democracies by consolidating debates and bringing to power radical groups which could potentially lead to radical changes in politics and ideologies therefore terrorism should be stopped (Byman, 2019). In this essay I will discuss counterterrorism and counterinsurgency theories and analyze why they are not effective in the fights against ISIS. Also, I will present my own policy for fighting ISIS and discuss why it would be successful and what the possible limitations of my policy are.

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Counterterrorism has changed over the past four decades ad its operations are subject to change according to the nature of the terrorism threat, which proves to be persistent and adaptive (Rineheart, 2010). The direct approach would be an enemy-centric doctrine consisting of primarily offensive hard power tactics such as drone strikes, special forces operations, increased policing and intelligence operations. These are useful tools if the goal is to isolate and destroy groups like AL-Qaeda or ISIS (Rineheart, 2010). The indirect soft power approach would consist of population-centric methods, and would contain features such as capacity building, economic development, and counter-radicalization focusing on the underlying causes that allow terrorism to thrive (Rineheart, 2010). Although the direct approach seems straightforward, it raises moral questions against the use of military power, and it did not work with ISIS because the group responded with different type of power by organizing terror acts. Also, military power alone might demolish building and kill people, but can turn local population against the ‘enemy’ even more, which was evident in the case of ISIL, when Muslims from around the world were invited to come and fight in the war. Regarding soft power, it is yet to be seen if it is effective (Rineheart, 2010). We cannot point to any solid evidence that doing so would make much difference. Both soft and hard power should bring the best results, however, US and its allies should keep in mind that counterterrorism operations with high civilian casualties allow terrorists to exploit its actions and to strengthen their own position from propaganda perspective (Rineheart, 2010).

Counterinsurgency is an all-encompassing approach to countering irregular insurgent warfare – an approach which recognizes that a military solution to a conflict is not feasible and only a combined military, political, and civilian solution is possible, therefore the process is long (Rineheart, 2010). Rineheart (2010) explains that in order to counter an insurgency, it was essential for the counterterrorism to win the support and legitimacy of the local population, promote good governance and keep a sufficient number of troops in an area to provide security after the government’s forces have taken over. Classical counterinsurgency theory is associated with a struggle within one state, with a possible safe haven in a bordering state, while modern theory takes a more international approach (Rineheart, 2010). Counterinsurgency cannot deliver quick results. It takes time, even 14 years, for the changes to take place and for mindsets of local population to change (Rineheart, 2010). When people are scared for their lives and are afraid of more terrorism attacks, they want the atrocities to stop and demand quick solutions and punishments, therefore counterinsurgency policy has not had enough time to produce effective results yet.

For counterterrorism policy makers, practitioners and politicians defeating groups like ISIS that call themselves rebels or jihadis is not an easy task, and no one formula applies, because the groups change, evolve and adapt to different circumstances. First of all, in order to defeat Islamic State, America and its allies should declare a cyber war and take over the control of ISIS’s internet and digital media communications. “Without digital technology it is highly unlikely that Islamic state would ever have come into existence, let alone been able to survive and expand,” (Atwan, 2015). “From recruitment to propaganda to directing and coordinating military actions, ISIS has used digital communications with great skill and inventiveness” (Atwan, 2015). Although it seems paradoxical that a group whose expressed aim is to take the world back to the days of “Righteous Caliphs” depend on modern technology so much, it is worth remembering that most of its recruits are young, tech-savy people, who’ve been used to smart phones since their birth and advanced coding is their native language (Atwan, 2015). Therefore, anyone fighting ISIS should first and foremost attack its digital stronghold: shut down internet servers, disrupting recruitment and propaganda machine, taking down its social media channels and telecommunications.

Another important thing to do while fighting ISIS is to bring down its economic empire. ”The group remains a financial powerhouse: It still has access to hundreds of millions of dollars, according to expert’s estimates, and can rely on a battle-tested playbook to keep money flowing into its coffers.” (Kenner, 2019). In order to take down the financial power of the group, US and its allies should rely on “soft power”: sanctioning ISIS related businesses, charities or NGOs, denying them access to international fund and financial operations, cooperating with governments across the world in order to control financial funds and money laundering coming into ISIS accounts. (Kenner, 2019). “The Islamic State is also still sitting on the massive windfall that it build up during the height of its power” (Kenner, 2019), therefore its crucially important to deny access for ISIS to its financial sources.

Although ISIS proclaims its vision of a global caliphate, in reality it is an opportunist movement, which appeared in the voids and power vacuum left by extraneous conflicts in the neighboring regions (Tyner, 2019.) It has successfully exploited lawlessness in Iraq and Syria but has been losing its ground since meeting organized resistance (Tyner, 2019). Therefore, fighting ISIS should involve strengthening the rule of law in the neighboring areas in order to prevent the re-birth of ISIS in the future.

Soft power should be used more effectively, even though the results would take more time be seen. American and the European Union should work together with other countries, especially Arabic countries in the region to share intelligence, sanctioning ISIS related businesses and isolating the groups and digital media should be used effectively in order to promote the non-violent way of life (Rineheart, 2010). Hard power, or military power, should be used when necessary in order to ensure the safety of peaceful civilians of all countries.

My policy, which I believe would be successful, has some limitations. Internet is not easy to control, let alone to shut down, and it requires a lot of qualified human intelligence in order to do so. Even then, ISIS skilled computer specialists might find another way to outsmart the allies. Secondly, taking control over ISIS finances requires a lot of international cooperation and trust in allies, which can be difficult to achieve due to different interests or history. Soft power appears powerful in theory, but in practice it takes long time and finances and results are not guaranteed, therefore it can cause dissatisfactions among people (Rineheart, 2010). Hard power or military actions bring quickest short-term results, but cause havoc and leave everything in ruins and takes lives of military men and civilians. Having said that, I strongly believe that even with all aforementioned limitations, my policy would help effective destroy ISIS.

Although military victory against ISIS is a cause for celebration, it allows Islamic State to regroup by relying on its vast financial resources and replace the fallen fighters with new blood-thirsty recruits by using its highly effective recruitment network on social media (Kenner, 2019). In order to successfully defeat ISIS, a new theory should be used, when the group is targeted by all possible means ad methods. Internet, digital communications, ISIS -related international operations and businesses should be taken down and banned or controlled, soft power should be used to its full potential in order to share intelligence quickly and efficiently with as many allies as possible and most importantly, mindsets of people should be changed in the long run. Only then allies can expect ISIS to be effectively defeated, instead of being transformed into another horror provoking organization in the future.


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