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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    well . . . (5.00 / 1) (#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.

    Fundamentalists of ALL stripes... (5.00 / 2) (#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.

    you forget (none / 0) (#4)
    by zaitztheunconvicted on Sat Nov 28, 2015 at 11:23:59 AM EST
    you forget that people change over time.

    People serve the nazis and then leave or desert . . .

    people have fought for ISIS and left after becoming disillusioned, discouraged, mistreated or appalled at the barbarity.

    Communism collapsed after dozens of years of seeing it not working, both on the level of society as well as seeing individual personal corruption by those who claimed to advocate it.


    j, conclusions & evidence not fit (5.00 / 1) (#6)
    by zaitztheunconvicted on Sat Nov 28, 2015 at 11:53:32 AM EST

    you write . . .

    >Military intervention will not defeat ISIS or stop >the recruits. We need to do a better job of >countering their ideology.

    You write this as if it were a reasonable conclusion from the study of an expert, an expert you are citing for evidence.

    Here is what the expert says at one of your sources:

    The New York-born anthropologist said the Islamic State group has a "revolutionary pull," as occurred in the French Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and the rise of Nazi Germany.

    This is at the source your site with the phrase
    "this media recap."

    You may recall that both Nazi Germany and Revolutionary France were defeated militarily.  The Russians were defeated in a "cold war" which was fought on a number of "fronts."  The military front by proxy was one of the fronts, but the other fronts were the general public perceptions of the moral goodness and practical effectiveness of the systems.  The USSR collapsed as such when millions of people had ceased to believe in its system . . . not because we had distributed lots of anti-Communist leaflets in Moscow but because, after 70 years, enough of them and enough of them in power gradually saw that the system was rotten and/or that it was not worth fighting for.

    Mr. Atran correctly compares the pull of ISIS to the appeal of the Nazis.  

    We defeated the Nazis and then we denazified Germany.  We removed from power and influence those who were Nazis.  We banned in Germany the publication and possession of literature and art promoting Naziism and racial hatred and/or Aryan superiority.

    Pro-Nazi and pro-neo-nazi attacks did not stop completely, but they went down greatly after Germany surrendered.

    One thing that you folks seem to be forgetting or of which you claim to not be aware is that Nazis, Communists, ISIS and other violent extremists generally have a belief in either God or destiny guiding and protecting them.  Numerical growth and victories in war and in battle are taken as evidence of God's (or nature or history) leading, blessing and favor, though in the case of Naziism and Communism, their victories are attributed in part to the outworking of history and/or destiny's choice of the Aryans, etc.

    Losses and reverses in the case of ISIS or other religious fundamentalism cause believers to doubt that God is behind the movement, generally speaking.  They may doubt it in part or leave it entirely or at least stop fighting for it . . .

    Destroying ISIS will not stop every Muslim from killing some people in a cafe, just as defeating the South did not prevent some white-supremacist from shooting people at Charlestown a few weeks ago or some KKK from bombing a church 50 years ago and killing kids in Sunday school.

    part of the appeal of ISIS and the Nazis and the communists is a more moral or more just world, with the morality and justice created by force and violence.  The West will never beat them at that game; the West will always have some vice, liquor, music videos, strip clubs, porn and some racial intolerance under the guise of free speech or which is not suppressed by having enough police.

    Leave them alone or defeat them . . . but if we leave them alone, they will plan, inspire and execute their versions of 9/11 and people will be upset.

    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.

    I Didn't Notice a Solution (none / 0) (#5)
    by RickyJim on Sat Nov 28, 2015 at 11:45:24 AM EST
    I went through all the links in the article and did not see a convincing suggestion for what to do with ISIS.  I think Jeralyn, who has been advocating ignoring them, may have the best thing the US can do as far as the safety of the homeland.  But what about our trillion dollar oil investment in Kurdish territory?

    I am wondering if it would be possible to mount a worldwide anti all religion campaign that would attract young people.  Unfortunately the US government wouldn't dare take part.  

    understanding some ISIS fighters . . . (none / 0) (#7)
    by zaitztheunconvicted on Sun Nov 29, 2015 at 07:55:37 PM EST
    You may recall that I wrote the following

    "Losses and reverses in the case of ISIS or other religious fundamentalism cause believers to doubt that God is behind the movement, generally speaking.  They may doubt it in part or leave it entirely or at least stop fighting for it . . ."

    Do you recall that I wrote that or must I point it out to you?

    Anyway, I am checking the local news this afternoon and there is this article about defections from ISIS  . .

    WASHINGTON -- Defections of Islamic State fighters -- a closely watched measure by officials of U.S.-led coalition -- have begun to thin the ranks of the militants in Iraq in the last month, intelligence reports and drone footage show.

    Wholesale defections, sparsely manned checkpoints and elite foreign fighters pressed into mundane duty indicate that the U.S.-led bombing campaign and advances by Kurdish forces are eroding the forces of the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, said Army Col. Steve Warren, the top spokesman for the counter-ISIL coalition in Baghdad.

    Yeah . . . what would I know . . .