The U.S. counter-ISIL strategy must recognize the long-term nature of the global violent jihadi threat, according to a new RAND analysis. Diplomatic and military actions should focus on reducing the appeal of ISIL, disrupting the trans-regional network that supports it, and addressing the underlying conditions that feed Sunni Arab grievances.
“Weak states, poor governance, a lack of security, and—in some situations—sectarianism abetted by the Iranian-Saudi rivalry sustain ISIL and other violent jihadi groups,” the report states. “The U.S. counter-ISIL strategy overseas should be designed to improve these conditions to the extent possible, but strategists must recognize that the United States has limited leverage to affect these conditions, and improvements will require years to accomplish.”
The ideological dimension of the ISIL threat encompasses the group’s critique and prescription of the current order. Between the two, the critique is more threatening in that it tracks with widely held beliefs among the populations that ISIL targets for recruitment, the report adds:
Similar to its violent jihadi predecessors, ISIL’s essential critique is that states are a Western construct that divide the umma (Muslim community) and elevate the judgment of men over the edicts of God. ISIL points to the oppression of Muslims by foreign powers and local leaders, the degradation of Islamic values within society, and infighting within the Muslim community as evidence of the deleterious effects of this arrangement. What makes ISIL dangerous is that this critique appeals to many, including Sunni Muslims, and by speaking to Sunni Muslims, ISIL is addressing the overwhelming majority of the Muslim world.
The appeal of ISIL’s critique, which is similar to critiques by other violent jihadi organizations it has superseded (including al Qaeda), suggests two important implications for the counter-ISIL campaign: RAND suggests:
- The first is that the threat posed by the jihadi movement is a long-term challenge that will exist so long as underlying conditions—insecurity, poor governance, sectarianism abetted by Iranian-Saudi rivalry, etc.—continue to provide fertile ground.
- The second implication is that ISIL, defined as a group that possesses a leadership structure and a self-proclaimed caliphate, is only the latest standard bearer of a broader violent jihadi movement that will continue to exist after ISIL is degraded.