Decades into an ill-conceived war on terror, the United States still hasn’t learned to focus on the long-term policy problems that fuel violent groups like the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). Military action will never be enough to contain ISIS and its imitators. The United States needs to take the lead in rebuilding the cities it bombed in the war against the extremist group. Then, it can promote good governance and rights for the millions of people in the communities that supply the extremist group’s core supporters—as well as most of its victims.
Last week, two incidents returned the American public’s attention to ISIS. First, an uprising of ISIS detainees at an improvised, ramshackle prison in al-Hasakeh, in northeastern Syria, led to hundreds of deaths and drew in U.S. troops. Then, on February 3, American Special Forces killed the leader of ISIS, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. An Iraqi by birth, he had taken shelter in Idlib, a governorate in northwestern Syria that is nominally under the control of Turkish soldiers and a Syrian former jihadist group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, that is at war with ISIS. (My Century International colleague Aron Lund explains why we shouldn’t attach too much importance to the killing of the ISIS leader.)
If history is any guide, attention from American policymakers and the public will quickly shift away from ISIS. The U.S. government is great at marshalling military resources against frontline terrorist operatives, but has proven chronically inept at the long-term task of addressing the bedrock conditions that have given rise to cycle after cycle of violence from the ungoverned and marginalized regions of Iraq and the Levant.
Until and unless the United States invests the same effort into the peace as it does into the tactical war against terrorist groups, it will face predictable new waves of violence. My Century International report from October goes into depth about the long-term prospects for ISIS in Mosul, and the policies that would deter the group over the long term. I spoke to survivors, ISIS supporters in camps, unemployed youth, and local officials struggling to rebuild and provide security. Time and again, their stories revealed that the problem of ISIS is much bigger than a few savvy leaders or even a single faction of fighters. As I wrote in the fall:
Better governance is also probably the surest way to forestall a resurgence of ISIS: jihadist groups continue to find new footing in parts of Iraq that experience nothing but military occupation or grinding marginalization. A credible counterterrorism policy must revolve around good governance, rights, and human dignity. Military action against jihadist groups is only a precursor to better rule, not its foundation. To prevent a future incarnation of the caliphate, the United States and its partners need to invest as vigorously in the peace as in the counterterrorist war.
Terrorist groups like ISIS will always persist on the margins; but they can only gain enough strength to cause widespread harm and pose a strategic threat if they can draw support from a wider community. In recent decades, extremist groups in the Levant have found a constituency among the dispossessed—among communities that suffer eroded governance and estrangement from their human and civil rights. The areas where ISIS once thrived (and before it, al-Qaeda) are likely to provide the bedrock for the next jihadist iteration, whether it’s the next generation of ISIS or a new group with the same ideology and violent program—unless something happens to end the cycle of neglect and marginalization.
Where does America come in? As a prime mover and convener of resources, the United States was the indispensable linchpin in the military campaign against the territorial caliphate of ISIS. It should also be the linchpin of a postwar campaign to rebuild destroyed cities, safely detain captured ISIS fighters and repatriate foreigner fighters, resolve the limbo in which a generation of ISIS sympathizers is trapped, and finally, bring rule of law to the ungoverned areas in which extremist groups thrive.
From 2014 to 2017, the United States coordinated a complex war, in Syria and Iraq, that involved bewildering bedfellows. U.S. Special Forces fought alongside Iraqi peshmerga, the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (the PKK), the Iraqi government, and a range of Iraqi militias, including extremist factions supported by Iran.
When ISIS approached the outskirts of Baghdad in 2014, the United States and that panoply of other groups were able, with the short-lived motivation of an emergency, to work together on their shared goal of containing ISIS. But as soon as the military campaign ended, so too did Washington’s interest. The United States was all too willing to spend huge sums of money bombing Iraqi and Syrian cities to smithereens to rout out ISIS fighters, but not a dime to rebuild those cities so that their inhabitants—most of whom were victims, not supporters, of ISIS—could return and rebuild their lives.
ISIS detainees represent another dark blot on the postwar phase of the campaign against the extremist group. The United States and its European allies have repatriated only a few dozen of the thousands of their nationals who joined ISIS. Many thousands more suspected fighters languish in makeshift prisons in the part of Syria that the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) control, or in Iraqi prisons. It’s a no-brainer that Western countries should take their own criminals back, and should pay for purpose-built, secure prisons for the Syrian and Iraqi detainees. The same goes for the upgrades necessary to implement effective oversight and humane conditions at the sprawling al-Hol camp in northern Syria, and others like it. Western funds and initiative are needed to find a safer and more sustainable place for the camps’ 60,000-plus women and children, including Iraqis, Syrians, and foreigners, some of them ISIS supporters who have participated in violent attacks in camps and detention centers.
Even more complex is the problem of the men, women, and children adjacent to ISIS, sometimes referred to as “ISIS families.” In Iraq, 1–1.5 million people linger in some kind of limbo because of their perceived sympathy or connections to ISIS. These people have been vetted by the Iraqi government or by one or another security force, and did not meet the standard for criminal detention, despite evidence of active support or sympathy for ISIS. In many cases, officials will not restore the identity cards of these ISIS-adjacent people, so that they can seek official employment or enroll their children in schools. And in some cases, because of their ISIS connections, these marginalized people fear reprisals from neighbors or relatives if they return home. The status of ISIS sympathizers and the ISIS-adjacent is hard to resolve. Understandably, some victims of ISIS don’t want to see the rehabilitation of ISIS supporters. But the alternative—indefinitely barring people from society because of ISIS links—creates a lost generation, a breeding ground for future insurgencies.
The final, long-term goal of any serious policy that supports stability requires basic rule of law. In the parts of Iraq and Syria where ISIS established its caliphate, that means, at a minimum, curbing the excesses and violence of militia rule—no matter the ideological or sectarian background. Right now, in the areas liberated from ISIS, a constellation of militias hold sway. In Syria, the SDF is predominant. In Iraq, the national government is supposedly the authority, but the reality is somewhat different: every area is effectively controlled by a militia or a branch of the splintered official security services. The gunmen rule with a mix of rough justice and predation: some are worse than others, but none are responsible for governing—and none are held accountable for their abuses. This sort of unstable and capricious violent rule creates an opening for groups like ISIS that promise consistency and central authority.
In the long-term, good governance, built on rights, citizenship, and accountability, is the only antidote to violence. Terrorist groups and militias garner public support when there is no effective rule of law. In such a vacuum, they predictably expand their zone of violence and misrule until it threatens international interests. Time and again, the United States is drawn into the conflict in the hinterlands of Iraq and Syria when jihadist groups grow strong enough to threaten Americans or American interests. If the U.S. government won’t put its money and resources into governance and rights, it will eventually find itself compelled to intervene against another spike of militancy.
header photo: An American soldier stands guard while on patrol with local allied forces on May 25, 2021 near the Turkish border in northeastern Syria. Source: John Moore/Getty Images