International Crisis Group (2017), Counter-terrorism Pitfalls: What the U.S. Fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda Should Avoid, Special Report no. 3, 22 March.
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In pledging to destroy the Islamic State (ISIS), U.S. President Donald J. Trump looks set to make counter-terrorism a centrepiece of his foreign policy. His administration’s determination against groups that plot to kill Americans is understandable, but it should be careful when fighting jihadists not to play into their hands. The risks include angering local populations whose support is critical, picking untimely or counter-productive fights and neglecting the vital role diplomacy and foreign aid must play in national security policy. Most importantly, aggressive counter-terrorism operations should not inadvertently fuel other conflicts and deepen the disorder that both ISIS and al-Qaeda exploit.
The new U.S. administration has inherited military campaigns that are eating deep into ISIS’s self-proclaimed caliphate. Much of Mosul, its last urban stronghold in Iraq, has been recaptured; Raqqa, its capital in Syria, is encircled. Its decisive defeat is still a remote prospect while the Syrian war rages and Sunnis’ place in Iraqi politics is uncertain. The threat it poses will evolve in its heartlands and elsewhere, as fighters disperse. But ISIS is in retreat, its brand diminished. For many adherents, its allure was its territorial expansion; with that gone, its leaders are struggling to redefine success. Al-Qaeda could prove harder to suppress. Its affiliates fight across numerous war zones in coalitions with other armed groups, its operatives are embedded in local militias, and it shows more pragmatic adaptability to local conditions.
Though the roots of ISIS’s rise and al-Qaeda’s resurgence are complex and varied, the primary catalyst has been the turmoil across parts of the Muslim world. Both movements grow when things fall apart, less because their ideology inspires wide appeal than by offering protection or firepower against enemies, rough law and order where no one else can or by occupying a vacuum and forcing communities to acquiesce. The U.S. can do only so much to reboot Arab politics, remake regional orders or repair cracked fault lines, but its counter-terrorism strategy cannot ignore the upheaval. So long as wars continue and chaos persists, jihadism will thrive, whatever ISIS’s immediate fate. In particular, the new administration should avoid:
- Angering communities. Campaigns against jihadists hinge on winning over the population in which they operate. Offensives against Mosul, Raqqa or elsewhere need to avoid destruction but also need plans to preserve gains, prevent reprisals, stabilise liberated cities and rebuild them; as yet, no such plan for Raqqa seems to exist. “Targeted” strikes that kill civilians and alienate communities, as appears to have been the case in the January Yemen raid and the 16 March strike in Syria’s Aleppo province, are counterproductive, regardless of immediate yield. Loosening rules and oversight designed to protect civilians, as has been suggested, would be a mistake.
- Aggravating other fronts. The new administration’s fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda intersects a tinderbox of wars and regional rivalries. No regional state’s interests dovetail precisely with those of the U.S.; few consider jihadists their top priority; most are more intent on strengthening their hand against traditional rivals. The U.S. should be careful that the Raqqa campaign does not stimulate fighting elsewhere, particularly among Turkish and Kurdish forces and their respective allies. Success in Mosul hinges on preventing the forces involved (the Iraqi army, Kurdish peshmerga units, Shiite militias and Sunni tribes; Turkey and Iran) battling for turf after ousting ISIS. Likewise, support for Gulf allies should not mean a blank check for the Saudi-led Yemen campaign, which – if wrongly prosecuted – would play further into al-Qaeda’s hands.
- Picking other fights. Confronting Iran, which the administration identifies as a priority alongside the fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda, requires careful consideration. Militarily battling Tehran in Iraq, Yemen or Syria, questioning the nuclear deal’s validity or imposing sanctions that flout its spirit could provoke asymmetric responses via non-state allies and put Iraq’s government in an untenable position. Iran’s behaviour across the region is often destabilising and, by aggravating sectarian tensions, provides fodder to jihadist groups; as with similar conduct by others, it calls for a calibrated U.S. response. But the answer ultimately lies in dampening the Iranian-Saudi rivalry, not stimulating it with the attendant risk of escalating proxy wars across the region and reinforcing sectarian currents that buoy jihadists. Similarly, sabre-rattling with China hinders diplomacy with Pakistan and thus efforts to stabilise Afghanistan; effective counter-terrorism in South Asia requires cooperation with Beijing.
- Defining the enemy too broadly. ISIS and al-Qaeda thrive on confusion generated by how the U.S. defines its foe: violent jihadists, political Islam or Muslims as a whole. Designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group would be a self-inflicted wound, alienating an ideological and political counterweight to jihadism. Similarly, many armed groups fight beside al-Qaeda in alliances that are tactical and do not signal support for jihadists’ goals of attacking the West or establishing a caliphate. Prising them away from al-Qaeda would be wiser than fighting them all.
- Neglecting peace processes. From Libya to Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan, no country where ISIS or al-Qaeda branches hold territory has a single force strong enough to secure the whole country. Without accommodation, factions will either ally with jihadists against rivals or use the fight against them for other ends. Backing forces for counter-terrorism while neglecting efforts to promote compromise will deepen instability.
- Fighting terrorism without diplomacy. Navigating allies’ rivalries, preventing a free-for-all in Mosul, managing the fallout from Raqqa, mediating between Afghan, Iraqi or Libyan factions – all are diplomats’ work. Multilateral engagement matters too, whether to back UN mediation, enlist its help for reconstruction and stabilisation or use UN and other multilateral frameworks for counter-terrorism cooperation. Staffing the State Department’s top levels and sustaining its expertise are priorities. The cuts proposed to U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance, including to the UN’s budget, would damage U.S. security.
That the new administration wants to prioritise operations against groups that plot against the U.S. is understandable, but counter-terrorism does not exist in a vacuum. The U.S. administration’s executive order banning entry from certain Muslim countries; the troubling rhetoric of some of its officials; the calling into question of some of the restraints imposed on military operations; and the proposed slashing of the State Department and development budgets all undermine its goal of protecting Americans from terrorism. More broadly, it should be cautious not to overlook or aggravate other sources of instability even as it takes steps to defeat jihadists. The big winners from any new disorder in the Muslim world would be groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda – whatever guise they ultimately assume.