Defense Secretary Mattis has presented the White House with his plan to defeat Daesh (also known as ISIS). That President Trump requested and received this plan so quickly is important.
Daesh remains a serious threat to American, regional, and international security. While the group has lost land in Iraq and Syria, geographic territory is not the key to Daesh’s strength. Rather, it is the territory of human minds. And the death cult remains strong, whether in the many capable terrorist groups now pledged to Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, or in the fighters Daesh has recruited and inspired.
It’s a strength with reach. As Rukmini Callimachi has recently reported in the New York Times, and as a senior European government official recently confirmed to me, a key danger in Europe is that of undetected, compartmentalized Daesh facilitation officers. These men provide weapons and support for attack cells. Some are known to the authorities, but others are not. Their existence means that attacks remain likely, (including the U.K.) — whether truck attacks, as in Berlin and Nice, or massacres in the style of the Bataclan strike. Daesh’s quick destruction is obviously a strategic priority.
But what does defeating Daesh mean? Defeating Daesh will take years, but when it comes, their downfall will probably have three identifying characteristics. First, they must be rendered incapable of credibly threatening to bring down national governments (as in Iraq). Second, Daesh’s transnational attack capability must be essentially destroyed. Third, Daesh must be disabused of its claims to a righteous, ordained cause.
So how do we achieve these ends? We must start at the heart of the issue, the third concern: ideology. Because here, Daesh is just one symptom of a broader problem: the rot in political Islam (that which manipulates Muslims in service of political violence). Until this rot is excised, Salafi-Jihadist terrorist groups will continue to thrive.
America must do more to support Muslims who would like better governance in Muslim-majority nations. Saudi Arabia and Iran are the primary ideological progenitors of Sunni and Shia Islamist extremism, respectively, so the U.S. must use our influence on these countries. We must focus on long-term efforts to displace political sectarianism in favor of democratic pluralities. Some, perhaps even President Trump, might say this is a distraction from defeating Daesh, but nothing could be further from the truth. As I’ve explained, in Iraq and in Syria, America’s failure to challenge Iranian political sectarianism has empowered Daesh. That’s because every time Iran acts prejudicially towards Sunnis, Daesh’s image as a Sunni defense force grows more compelling.
It’s not just about the Saudis and Iranians. In semi-functioning states such as Lebanon, the U.S. must do more to support independent government institutions and the rule of law. Where opportunities for social mobility grow, those who sell death as a tonic for misery lose power. We should have confidence here: American Muslims prove that Islam can be compatible with Western values.
Fighting Daesh globally also means we must destroy their safe havens, including those in the west.
So that’s the political side. But as I argued in 2015, defeating Daesh will also requires the robust use of military force. President Obama slowly increased U.S. Special Operations deployments against Daesh in 2016, but he did too little. Specifically, Obama prioritized keeping troops safe above other concerns, and that meant that U.S. forces were often too distant from the fight, and too-strict rules of engagement restricted them from efficiently responding to the opportunities that did arise. Now, we need more frontline combat-authorized Special Operations forces embedded with Iraqi and allied Syrian-Kurdish rebel formations. These embeds would provide allied troops with more intelligence and increased logistical and lethal capabilities (such as air strikes).
Yet this escalation in the use of force must reach beyond Iraq and Syria. American counterterrorism forces must be able to act aggressively and expediently against Daesh networks whenever and wherever they appear. This isn’t just about removing jihadist who are plotting attacks. It would also degrade the appeal of Daesh’s banner. As I’ve noted before, if a Daesh sympathizer believes that joining the group is a ticket to pointless death rather than a holy one, he will be less inclined to join in the first place. At present, the group’s black flag too often inspires its sympathizers to take up arms.
Fighting Daesh globally also means we must destroy their safe havens, including those in the west. Daesh recruiters should face treason prosecutions. The legal requirements for such convictions are high, but to show the power of citizenship, we must show it carries expectations of loyalty under the law. Those who send young Muslims to die for Daesh while they themselves revel in Western comfort are cowards. We must highlight their dishonor. And when other nations refuse to prosecute those who threaten our interests, we make our enemies face justice in America.
Again, defeating Daesh will take time. Daesh leaders, the heirs of al-Qaeda in Iraq, have a nasty habit of surviving. They will adjust to new challenges with new maneuvers. We will have to adjust in kind. But by patiently and relentlessly attacking Daesh’s political and military centers, our eventual victory is certain.