ISIS and the Politics of Radicalization

Last week, Brookings scholars Michael O’Hanlon, research director of Foreign Policy at Brookings and acting director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, and Shadi Hamid, fellow at the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, analyzed the rising strength of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), debated the Obama administration’s response, and offered recommendations for combatting extremism and advancing regional security. The event, hosted by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, featured what was described as a “powerhouse panel,” including O’Hanlon and Hamid as well as Georgetown University’s John Esposito and Michelle Dunne from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.  

The panel detailed numerous policy failures following the Arab uprisings of 2011 and beyond that have facilitated the emergence of ISIS. According to the speakers, Bashar al-Asad’s ruthless response to domestic protests and the opposition’s inability to form a united front created an opening for ISIS in Syria. They faulted the international community for failing to provide sufficient support to moderate Syrian oppositionists in the early months of the conflict, despite warnings that the vacuum would foster extremism. As Hamid phrased it, the rise of ISIS “…was not inevitable. [It] was not only predictable, it was predicted.”

He and Dunne criticized the region-wide crackdown against even moderate Islamists, particularly in Egypt, for blocking legitimate channels of political participation and facilitating the rise of more extreme alternatives such as ISIS. O’Hanlon noted that outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki’s Shi’a-dominated government alienated Sunnis and heightened sectarian tensions, generating sympathy for ISIS’ narrative. As a result, even those Iraqis hostile toward ISIS may be equally unwilling to cooperate with the government to combat the jihadi group.

Esposito argued that religion is not the primary motivator for ISIS recruitment; in fact, the group tends to attract religious novices. Islam helps legitimize their cause, but the fighters’ primary motivation derives from other social and political grievances. Many living under ISIS control despise their brutal behavior and extreme ideology, but the group’s governance capabilities in chaotic environments bolster local support. Hamid warned that thinking of ISIS as “inexplicably evil,” and ignoring the power of grievances to drive support for them, underestimates the nature of the threat.

The panelists were vocal in criticizing the Obama administration’s policies, asserting that Washington and its allies should have provided more support for peaceful democratic transitions – including the participation of moderate Islamists – in the early phases of the ‘Arab spring.’ Moving forward, Dunne and Hamid urged U.S. policymakers to put pressure on allies that suppress their citizens’ democratic aspirations, notably the Arab authoritarian regimes.

O’Hanlon commended Obama’s recent strategy, stating that U.S. military assistance to the Kurds and efforts to shape a national unity government in Iraq represent steps in the right direction. In addition to continuing to assist the new Iraqi government as its forces prepare a surge against ISIS-held territory, O’Hanlon advocated that the administration do considerably more, such as sending advising teams to the field with the Iraqi army, and to consider the temporary deployment of U.S. commandos to help Iraqi Special Forces with raids. In regards to Syria, O’Hanlon advised serious U.S. aid be utilized for training and equipping the moderate opposition, and deploying American operatives in the field to do so.