Last week, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi declared that Daesh had been driven out of Mosul, the city where the group first announced its self-styled caliphate three years ago. Before long, Daesh is expected also to lose Raqqa, its last stronghold, on which its grip is already slipping. But it would be a mistake to assume that these defeats will spell the demise of Daesh or similar violent extremist groups.
A group like Daesh relies on its ability to attract young people to join its ranks by offering frustrated individuals an ideologically charged sense of purpose. Daesh has proven adept at that, drawing fighters from all over the world who are willing to die for its cause — to create a caliphate spanning the Arab world — and inspiring many more to carry out attacks in their home countries.
Recapturing territory from Daesh — particularly the cities that have served as “capitals” of its self-proclaimed caliphate — goes a long way toward weakening it by sending the message that it cannot translate its religious ideology into a real geopolitical force.
US intelligence estimates indicate that by last September, the flow of foreign recruits crossing from Turkey into Syria to join groups such as Daesh had dropped from a high of 2,000 per month to as few as 50.
But the experience of other terrorist groups — most notably Al-Qaeda — shows that even without anything resembling a state, radical ideologies can survive. Their sponsors must change their tactics, building their ranks and plotting attacks underground. But they can still wreak havoc, destabilizing countries and carrying out deadly assaults on civilians near and far.
Moreover, there are plenty of like-minded groups operating in the same areas. Consider Al-Nusra Front, a former branch of Al-Qaeda and one of the most powerful militant groups in Syria. Like Daesh, Al-Nusra nurtures state-building aspirations. That effort is supported on the religious side by leaders who are largely non-Syrian Arabs, and whose religious edicts are not questioned by the largely Syrian fighters.
Al-Nusra also benefits from its links with groups that share its desire to rid Syria of Bashar Assad’s regime. Al-Nusra dominates a coalition called Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), which comprises 64 factions, some more moderate than others. Against this background, the notion that reclaiming territory from Daesh will amount to freeing the region of extremist groups is clearly naive.
Preventing such groups from acquiring the power they seek will require not just military defeats, but also a concerted effort to bring order to the political arena, strengthen the rule of law and ensure broad representation.
Preventing such groups from acquiring the power they seek will require not just military defeats, but also a concerted effort to bring order to the political arena, strengthen the rule of law and ensure broad representation. In Syria and Iraq, this may require a closer look at the Muslim Brotherhood, an international political movement that many believe has infiltrated various Sunni radical groups, despite its public insistence that it is a nonviolent movement.
More crucial for Iraq, the central government in Baghdad, led by Al-Abadi, must overcome the sectarianism that has divided the country for decades, and that intensified in the aftermath of the US-led invasion to oust President Saddam Hussein. Sectarianism is an even bigger issue in Iraq than it is in Syria, a Sunni-majority country where the ruling Assad family belongs to the minority Shiite-affiliated Alawite sect.
Rooting out extremism in Iraq and Syria will also require a more nuanced reckoning with the role of external powers. Qatar’s Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani has denied that his country funds the group, but also publicly called on its leaders to distance themselves from Al-Qaeda, reinforcing the view that Doha retains influence over Al-Nusra.
As complex and fluid as the situation is, the key to resolving it may be rather straightforward. First, national and regional governments and non-governmental players need to find ways to cut militant groups’ financial lifelines. Second, the hateful and violent ideology fueling these radical movements needs to be confronted head-on, regardless of who might be offended.
As Daesh’s dreams of a caliphate slip away, its hold over the hearts and minds of frustrated young potential fighters may be weakening. But unless a concerted and comprehensive effort is made to discredit radicals and strengthen political systems, the cycle of violence in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East will remain unbroken.
• Daoud Kuttab, a former professor at Princeton University and the founder and former director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al-Quds University in Ramallah, is a leading activist for media freedom in the Middle East.
© Project Syndicate