By Hassan Hassan
While the extremist group might have lost the main territorial battles, the ideological ones are far from over, writes Hassan Hassan, senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington DC
When ISIL (Daesh) swept through large swathes of northwestern Iraq and eastern Syria in the summer of 2014, its ideology was quickly identified as a vital aspect of the effort to permanently defeat the group. The idea of a caliphate, in particular, was consistently cited as the major driving factor behind young Muslims travelling to join the organisation.
In a briefing in June 2016, Brett McGurk, the US envoy to the global anti-ISIL coalition, made this observation: “When I asked leaders in various capitals what is it that’s driving your young people to this movement, the common denominator is this notion of a historic caliphate.”
That has now all but crumbled; of all the territories ISIL once controlled, only small and scattered pockets remain in eastern, central and southern Syria. The militants continue to have sanctuaries and operate in multiple countries, but they no longer control a viable “caliphate” anywhere.
Against the backdrop of its territorial demise, then, the latest findings of the Arab Youth Survey provide timely insights into how young Arabs view the organisation and its future today.
While ideology was once cited as a driving factor behind ISIL's rise, the majority of young Arabs believe the group and its ideology will be fully defeated (58 percent). This telling finding reflects how ISIL and its appeal are perceived at this critical juncture of the group’s existence. Still, a quick examination of the circumstances relating to the appeal of ISIL over the past four years could offer cautionary tales for governments in the Middle East and beyond.
To start off, ISIL does not require a majority supporting it to continue to exist as a destructive force. Before policymakers and observers woke up to the news that ISIL had taken over Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, people from across the region had already turned against it.
The group that called itself the ISIL in Iraq and Syria had already been ridiculed as ISIL, a pejorative acronym that denoted barbarism and savagery. Countless clerics and individuals also used an ancient Islamic label for extremists, khawarij, meaning “outliers” or “rebels”, to describe the group. Critically, the label implied the extremists could be fought and killed without hesitation.
And yet, the group was still able to control approximately one third of Iraq and half of Syria during the summer of 2014. The lesson was that there is more to such groups than just popular appeal or the lack thereof. They also feed on power vacuums, grievances and indifference.
When ISIL made those military gains, it counted not just on the existence of a minority of supporters but also on the fact that the local majority did not feel they had a stake in the fight against it. In other words, for ISIL and like-minded groups, local indifference to them is no less important than active support for their cause. People at the time tended to see it as an extremist group, but most also refrained from resisting it when it rolled into their areas.
The world came to the fight against ISIL several months late in 2014, after the militants had already taken over large swathes of Iraq and Syria.
Before that, in 2008, American and Iraqi officials also proclaimed that ISIL failed to convince Iraqis of its ideology after the group was defeated, arguably more thoroughly than now.
But the group came back, stronger than before. Indeed, a small number of respondents in the survey believe ISIL will regain its territory and establish its caliphate in the future (six percent), and a larger number believe the group will nonetheless remain a significant terrorist threat (18 percent).
ISIL is already recovering in much of Iraq and Syria, not long after its territorial defeat. Instead of holding territories as before, ISIL has reverted to old insurgency tactics to maintain its ability to fight and inflict damage.
These tactics, such as targeted killings and hit-and-run attacks, had a proven record of effectiveness in weakening local police and military forces and preventing residents from joining these institutions from 2008 to 2014. In one of its recent publications, ISIL even claimed that the rates of its attacks have come close to those that preceded its takeover of Mosul in 2014.
ISIL'scontinued attacks are especially effective if they are not met with military and political counter-measures to strengthen security institutions and encourage locals to feel they have a stake in maintaining them.
The optimism that many young Arabs project in the Survey’s findings is betrayed by numerous indications that countries like the US and its allies in the region have little to no interest in rebuilding Iraq and Syria, for instance. It is thus hard to be upbeat about the lasting defeat of extremists when governments are not willing to do what it takes to help keep them defeated.
Similar patterns in 2008 and 2014 of false hopes should not be allowed to happen today. Most young Arabs believe ISIL and its ideology could be fully defeated, but that merely provides an opening for governments in the region and internationally to engage these young people and address grievances that could enable ISIL and other extremists to make a comeback.