Why the military will not defeat the Islamic State

Why the military will not defeat the Islamic State

If we solely pursue military objectives and do not consider different, and sometimes conflicting or difficult opinions – we will fail in the fight against the Islamic State.

Last month, the Dutch Defence Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert proposed to extend the country’s military engagement against the so-called ‘Islamic State’ group (IS) beyond the initial October 2015 deadline. While such calls for a shift in military strategy and sustained engagement are understandable, but it is not enough.
Her suggestion comes at a time when we receive daily news updates about the military achievements of coalition forces against IS as well as IS’ successes in taking over strategic towns. Last week, when it was reported that IS took control of Ramadi (yet another town of strategic importance close to Baghdad), there were increased calls internationally for a shift in military strategy against IS. There were also disagreements among those battling the terrorist group: US commander Ashton Carter questioned the Iraqi army’s 'will to fight'; in response, Iranian and Iraqi authorities harshly criticised the US’ own commitment to fight the group after the fall of Ramadi.
Yes, Hennis-Plasscheart is correct in asserting that the fight against IS requires a long-term commitment. And yes, that fight currently does include a military component to counter the capabilities and territorial advances of the group and to protect those directly suffering at the hands of IS. However, the notion that a military solution alone will solve the situation is naive. Examining the history of IS and tracing back its emergence to the Iraq war of 2003 might be a good indicator that a narrow focus on military action can have unintended consequences. A long-term commitment against IS cannot be exclusively a military one where foreign forces will once again be involved in a long war.
To the contrary: research has shown that terrorist groups are defeated by military force in less than 10% of the times and at this point, we have no reason to believe that IS would be among this small percentage. Decapitating their leadership – as has happened with the neutralisation of Osama Bin Laden in 2011 and as is being attempted through the serious injury of IS’ leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi earlier this year – is evidently not the way to defeat terrorist organisations either: The killing of earlier commanders of IS and the groups precursor Al Qaeda in Iraq, including Omar al Baghdadi and Musab al Zarqawi, have not led to the demise of the organisation.
Instead, we need to tackle what attracts individuals to support and join such groups. One of IS’ most important strengths is its public relations strategy, which includes the publication of glossy magazines and videos in different languages, twitter group-messaging strategies resulting in trending hashtags and highly active supporters on various other social media accounts. Through this sophisticated propaganda machine, IS does not only report on its battlefield successes, but also spreads its violent narrative and attracts new followers. Authorities around the world are rightly worried about the effect this has on individuals travelling as foreign fighters to Islamic fighting hotspots in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Libya and elsewhere, as well as the influence such propaganda can have for 'lone wolves' to perpetrate IS-inspired attacks. Fortunately, some initiatives are already on their way to counter this narrative and to debunk the warped messages and interpretations of Islam as promoted by IS.
If we almost solely pursue military objectives and do not consider different, and yes – sometimes conflicting or difficult opinions – we will fail.


Dan Slaby

I don't see IS as terrorism, but as an effort to fulfill the Koranic prophecies of the End Times battle. With the establishment of the State of Israel, Christian, Jew and Muslim millennialists have begun the countdown to the epic End Time war and the final battle for control of Jerusalem where in each of their Holy Books, there will be the establishment of a theocracy to govern the world. Efforts to mediate peace or end the violence is attributed to the antiChrist or false prophet acting to deceive the true believers. Most adherents of the three faiths are focused on personal piety and daily living, but the true believers have the violence and Israel as evidence for the unfolding of prophecy. Defeating IS will be a difficult task because it also means that efforts to curtail violence will be viewed as prophetic confirmation. Any external military intervention will also be seen as fulfillment of the End Time prophecy. It is not likely that religious leaders will counter the End Time movement because it will place them in opposition to the prophetic writings. There is a danger that the presence of the End Time beliefs in other Islamic countries will grow as movements within their own borders.

Millennial movements come to a dripping end when their prophetic claims fail and lose their immediate appeal, but the common faith millennial movements won't dissipate quickly. The difficulty lies in the common belief among Christians, Jews and Muslims that God acts through history which means that the violent actions of humans is evidence for the prophecy. The world is essential stuck in a self-fulfilling prophecy of End Time war.

Ultimately it is the disillusionment of the true believers that end the millennial movements, but this cannot be imposed from the outside of the movement by secular or religious rivals. In past violent religious outbursts, the claims of their prophetic leaders were discredited by legitimate religious leaders, and it will be necessary, but not sufficient, for religious leaders to question the certainty and legitimacy of prophetic leaders to interpret and act out the End Times agenda.

Sylvester Chirchir

This is closer to what a strategy on counterterrorism should focus on. Countering the narratives that perpetuate the vice through messaging to appeal against terrorism. Military efforts should equally be supported by other elements of power such as political/Diplomatic and economic. Community participation is a sure way of winning war against terror.