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.