Foreign Fighters and ISIS: What the West Should be Doing

Tuesday, the U.N. Security Council’s counter-terrorism committee held a conference at which several experts spoke about ISIS and foreign fighters. I found this media recap of the presentation of Scott Atran from the Centre for Resolution of Intractable Conflict at Oxford University very interesting. (He is highly credentialed, and his research in the field includes interviews with captured ISIS fighters and still fighting al Nusra fighters.)

He debunks several of the memes currently making the rounds as to ISIS' intentions and strategy, and the reasons young Western recruits find ISIS so attractive. He also explains why the U.S. counter-messaging campaign has been such a failure.[More...]

Here is the link to his presentation -- it's less than 15 minutes and very informative. He begins at 4 minutes in (right after the introductory remarks from the Committee Chair.)

As Atran wrote in the Guardian a few weeks ago, ISIS is not a bunch of mindless terrorists. They work from a script. In order to defeat ISIS, and particularly its attraction and ideology, first we must understand it.

The first step to combating Isis is to understand it. We have yet to do so. That failure costs us dear.

.... what inspires the most uncompromisingly lethal actors in the world today is not so much the Qur’an or religious teachings. It’s a thrilling cause that promises glory and esteem. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: fraternal, fast-breaking, glorious, cool – and persuasive.

Their playbook is called the Management of Savagery and was written by a pseudonymous author, Abu Bakr Naji, for the section of al-Qaida that later became Isis. You can read the English translation by Will McCants, a Fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point)here. Atran outlines the main points in the Guardian article.

He also writes about the current strength of ISIS:

Radical Arab Sunni revivalism, which Isis now spearheads, is a dynamic, revolutionary countercultural movement of world historic proportions, with the largest and most diverse volunteer fighting force since the second world war. In less than two years, it has created a dominion over hundreds of thousands of square kilometres and millions of people. Despite being attacked on all sides by internal and external foes, it has not been degraded to any appreciable degree, while rooting ever stronger in areas it controls and expanding its influence in deepening pockets throughout Eurasia.

Simply treating Isis as a form of “terrorism” or “violent extremism” masks the menace. Merely dismissing it as “nihilistic” reflects a wilful and dangerous avoidance of trying to comprehend, and deal with, its profoundly alluring moral mission to change and save the world. And the constant refrain that Isis seeks to turn back history to the Middle Ages is no more compelling than a claim that the Tea Party movement wants everything the way it was in 1776.

Isis is reaching out to fill the void wherever a state of “chaos” or “savagery” (at-tawahoush) exists, as in central Asia and Africa. And where there is insufficient chaos in the lands of the infidel, called “The House of War”, it seeks to create it, as in Europe.

It conscientiously exploits the disheartening dynamic between the rise of radical Islamism and the revival of the xenophobic ethno-nationalist movements that are beginning to seriously undermine the middle class – the mainstay of stability and democracy – in Europe in ways reminiscent of the hatchet job that the communists and fascists did on European democracy in the 1920s and 30s.

Atran told the U.N. last week:

the 9/11 attacks in the United States in 2001 cost al-Qaida between $400,000 and $500,000 — and “we’ve spent between $4 trillion and $5 trillion” in the military and security response.

“Thus far, we are worse off than before and if we continue in this way we will be worse off still.”

Military intervention will not defeat ISIS or stop the recruits. We need to do a better job of countering their ideology. And we will never do that unless we first understand their beliefs, motivations, intentions, strategies and allure.

Also from Atran recently in the New York Review of Books (co-written with Nafees Hamid): Paris: The War ISIS Wants

Some other recent articles on countering ISIS ideology and its allure to western, Asian and African recruits.

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  • Display: Sort:
    Fundamentalists of ALL stripes... (5.00 / 1) (#3)
    by Dadler on Fri Nov 27, 2015 at 06:11:44 PM EST
    ...be they theological, political, economic, whatever, all fundamentalists lack the ability to be self-critical, to be self-aware in any honest sense, because if they held these traits to a genuine degree, uh....they would no longer be fundamentalists, but normal skeptical humans. I am amazed so much of their self-boasting, adulation and description is taken at face value. Should I believe all the bullsh*t the American military and soldiers offer up? Nobody has a clue here. No one. Not even ISIS. They're a death cult, in operational function. And the world is simply a wildly violent dysfunctional sh*thole right now. The wall to wall global proliferation of murderous weaponry renders good people, everywhere, nothing but steaming piles of mush whenever the powerful or the "powerless" want to make some mush. We have nothing but what Martin Luther King called the capacity to die. For Americans, that means we need to be willing to die right here at home, on the streets of America, for American freedom, be the threat from our own government, or police, or from foreign terrorists. Our malevolent military follies abroad have damaged us and endangered us enough. And they have sent millions of fine Americans to fight for everything BUT freedom.

    well . . . (none / 0) (#1)
    by zaitztheunconvicted on Fri Nov 27, 2015 at 02:41:35 AM EST
    I was LDS (Mormon) for 12 years and some of my better friends are or were fundamentalist Christians.  I had one or more acquaintances while Mormon who were fundamentalist, polygamous Mormons.

    I left the LDS for a independent fundamentalist apocalyptic Christian group that no longer exists by its original name. For a number of years I subscribed to a variety of newsletters of various radical orientations.  Our ushers were combined with armed security.  When I was LDS I read and mostly believed the literature of the JBS.  While I was a fundamentalist or near-fundamentalist Christian, I read literature by a variety of white-supremacist,  Identity, JBS and related groups.  The church I attended veered at times into law-breaking, encouraged by example and doctrine taught by the leadership.

    Now, I don't mean to boast, but as for this idea that what we need to do is understand ISIS better--it is not hard to do. There are little white supremacist and neo-nazi camps in Idaho and there are fundamentalist, polygamous LDS groups scattered from Utah to Mexico.  "Understanding ISIS" is not hard to do; just find a modern version of the Aryan nations . . .  There are probably several . . .  It can't be hard to figure them out, though you might have to spend some time in Idaho or Eastern Washington or whereever some of the newer ones are.

    Aryan Nations is a white supremacist[1] (self described White Christian Separatist) religious organization originally based in Hayden Lake, Idaho. Richard Girnt Butler founded the group in the 1970s, as an arm of the Christian Identity organization Church of Jesus Christ-Christian. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has called Aryan Nations a "terrorist threat",[2] and the RAND Corporation has called it the "first truly nationwide terrorist network" in the US.[3]

    >Military intervention will not defeat ISIS or >stop the recruits. We need to do a better job of >countering their ideology. And we will never do >that unless we first understand their beliefs, >motivations, intentions, strategies and allure.

    OK, since you don't wish to spend a few months with white supremacists in Idaho and hearing about ZOG, among other things, you could simply get and watch a copy of Triumph of the Will for a start.  I assume that it will be easier for you to watch that than to go to church in certain parts of Idaho, which it appears that you and Atran have not done.

    Of course, maybe I am wrong . . .  maybe Atran has seen Triumph of the Will . . . or has at least a basic understanding of the Nazis . . .

    You can defeat ISIS now or later.  CNN today had a brief segment in which some person had spoken with a number of leaders and fighters for ISIS, and they uniformly said that one of their main desires was to fight US soldiers on the ground.  Either someone defeats them, or we defeat them or we wait till they do some attack in the USA and there is a demand to go to war.

    >.... what inspires the most uncompromisingly >lethal actors in the world today is not so much >the Qur'an or religious teachings. It's a >thrilling cause that promises glory and esteem. >Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity >employer: fraternal, fast-breaking, glorious, >cool - and persuasive.

    OK, so Islamic jihad is really like hip hop and after school basketball or professional basketball . . .  Islamic jihad is like being in the Harlem Globetrotters! . . .  I knew it would be more simple once "we" understood it better .  . .

    Islamic jihad isn't like the white supremacists in Idaho; Jihad is like professional basketball with guns!

    Atran is creating a false dichotomy . . . Islam contains within itself the offers of glory, honor, esteem, egalitarianism, fraternity, etc.  So does Christianity in different ways . . .  the diff is that Islam repeatedly and explicitly says that one of the main ways to achieve the glory and honor being offered and promised is to kill others for the faith.

    The triumph of the Will . . .
     The film's overriding theme is the return of Germany as a great power, with Hitler as the leader who will bring glory to the nation

    Or, Islamic jihad is like the Nazis, except that we could and did defeat the Nazis militarily and we can't for some reason defeat ISIS militarily.

    Sure we can defeat ISIS and sure there will still be occasional persons and groups who act with the ideology of Islamic jihad afterwards.  So?

    We'd rather have fewer than more of such attacks.

    hmmmm (none / 0) (#2)
    by jimakaPPJ on Fri Nov 27, 2015 at 03:44:19 PM EST
    He said some Islamic State recruits come from Christian families "and they happen to be the fiercest of all the fighters we find."

    If true then it is obvious that the Christian families did not produce Christians.