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Giving ISIS too much credit doesn't at all serve our interests

  • Published in Letters

To The Daily Sun,

In the latest 007 film, the British secret agent faces a formidable adversary — a global crime syndicate with informants, agents and influence all over the world.

Given the string of violent attacks and discovery of cells in Egypt, Lebanon, Paris and Brussels, it might looks like ISIS is a real-life Spectre: a global, far-reaching, uniform movement with tentacles in every conflict, carefully managed by a small group of men.

The reality is very different, and what makes ISIS so dangerous, and so hard to track and disrupt. It is far from a centrally controlled hierarchy, and a good portion of the violence and terror in the last year has in fact been done by self-radicalized adherents, not foreign fighters. ISIS is not responsible for all insurrections and insurgencies we are seeing, but it does have a growing hand in many.

Some of the media narrative about the power of ISIS is not dissimilar from the narrative that developed around al-Qaida a decade ago. Anywhere an insurgency or insurrection emerged in the post-9/11 world, al-Qaida was seen to be the driving force.

Before 9/11 al-Qaida lobbied to bring organizations under the leadership of Osama bin Laden, but was unsuccessful. It was not until after 9/11 that al-Qaida had the terrorist cachet to draw multiple groups to its organization.

Al-Qaida began infiltrating local Islamic-oriented movements or at least through clever propaganda made it seem as though it was inspiring or connected to these movements. It did seek to engage in a franchise strategy, and encouraged organizations into joining its brand when it was unable to outright co-opt jihadist groups. But even at its height al-Qaida was more of a decentralized hierarchy that exercised only loose command of its affiliates.

However, this effort proved successful as al-Qaida was seen behind local movements and many of the local driving forces, like politics, were overlooked. When evaluating the power of ISIS, local inspirations and even false claims of influence must be taken into account. We should not be ascribing undue power to ISIS, even as we address this critical threat to our citizens and way of life. By giving ISIS undue credit and influence, we inadvertently make it stronger, a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy that helps it recruit.

While ISIS may claim responsibility for much of what happens in jihadi circles, policymakers and strategists must recognize the underlying causes influencing those people and regions. What is happening in the tribal areas of Pakistan is wholly different than the conflict in Indonesia, or violence in Egypt. Assigning the threat to a universal Spectre-like group, or basic Muslim extremism, will hide many of the on-the-ground realities that led to these local movements. Handling these issues as a bloc will lead to ineffective policy-making from our government and allies that seek to combat this violence.

By claiming, however tenuously, insurgencies and acts of terrorism, ISIS is seeking to enhance its credentials and expand its reach. ISIS is highly effective at social media, the mechanism of choice for cultivating new terrorists, as well as monitoring a terrorist group's influence.

If you are a new or little discussed Islamic terrorist organization seeking to get your cause on the international stage, flying the black flag of ISIS and claiming your attacks in its name is one way to get attention, recruits and possibly money and material from ISIS leaders in Syria. That does not mean the goals of ISIS and the new group are the same — their interests are just running parallel at the moment.

Policymakers must be wary not to see every problem as an ISIS nail to be hammered. Creating policies addressing issues that, for example, stem from the days of Egyptian strongman Mubarak will require a different focus than those in Iraq. Dealing with ISIS successfully requires an understanding of the environment and the selection of the appropriate tool of national power, rather than a blanket plan against violent extremism. Believing in a generic threat brings generic responses which do little to solve root causes, and giving ISIS too much credit does not serve our interests in defeating it.

Foreign policy requires complex analysis with nuanced plans of action. That is why I joined Americans for Peace, Prosperity and Security as a member of its state Advisory Board. APPS was started by former Congressman Mike Rogers, the past head of the House Intelligence Committee, and is working with citizens and 2016 presidential candidates to further the discussion of American security and foreign policies so that the next commander-in-chief is prepared for the threats we face on his or her first day in office.

Hillary Seeger
Meredith