Defeating Daesh means more than air campaigns and counter-extremism: it means understanding, and working to counter their strategy and their resonance.
The recent calls by Prime Minister David Cameron and Defence Secretary Michael Fallon to extend British air strikes beyond Iraq into Daesh heartlands in Syria is long overdue, tactically logical, and a bandaid over a deep, gushing wound. While there is a great deal of stock put into the multi-national coalition against Daesh, there is a growing realisation in the British Government, especially in the wake of last week’s atrocity in Sousse, that Daesh’s threat is growing with each passing day, and they have momentum behind them.
Too Little, Too Late
The problem with this current effort is that it is too little, and unlikely to deliver the needed effects. As an entity, Daesh is strategic, able and adaptable. It has shown over and over again an ability to think at least three steps ahead, and has demonstrated clear resilience in the face of defeat on the battlefield. Daesh is so strong that it has even managed to retake ground it has lost through battles in Syria and Iraq, with the recent massacres in Kobane being a prime example. Similarly, its brand, though tarnished in the eyes of Western audience, horrified at the multitude of examples of severe brutality and barbarity throughout the world, still resonates with huge active and latent audiences.
Air strikes, whether in Iraq, Syria or beyond are completely inadequate. The main issue hinges on the confusion between degrading Daesh’s tactical capability (which has had mixed results thus far), and providing a credible alternative. While it is understandable why many wish to attack Daesh as being un-Islamic, it is something that is not only likely to be ineffective, but fits with the same strategy as other extremist Islamic groups, like the Taliban in Pakistan (TTP) and Al-Qa’ida of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Daesh’s ambitions are now growing, rather than diminishing. The recent attacks and clashes in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula are an indication of Daesh’s intention to hitch their cause to one of the most emotional in the pantheon of Islamic symbolism – Palestine. If they manage to successfully graft their cause to the Palestinian situation, then it will only serve to further boost their legitimacy, authenticity and power amongst their target audiences.
Furthermore, Daesh’s expansion into North Africa is evidence of wider regional ambition. Daesh’s efforts in Libya (despite its recent setback in Derna), represent strategic adaptation and expansion. The Bardo Museum Attacks, the ‘insider’ barrack attach in Bouchoucha in May, and the Sousse attack in Tunisia demonstrate its intent to destabilise Tunisia in order to shape the conditions that underpin ‘radicalising’ new supporters. These efforts are made easier by the chaos in Libya and the large cohort of Tunisians who are likely to have been indoctrinated into an Daesh view of the world while participating as foreign fighters in Syria.
Daesh’s narrative strength is in its appeal to the heart and the stomach: it effectively exploits the perception of say-do gaps of states that fail their citizens by providing tangible security, stability, and welfare for populations that feel isolated, unrecognised, and desperate. Its visceral appeal is not least because it knows how to make videos that look like video games. It fills empty stomachs and its propaganda argues (however inaccurately) that it alone can bring meaningful stability security to war-torn streets while looking, what Marc Sageman calls, ‘jihadi cool’.
There are those who claim that bombing Daesh in Syria will only lead to increased support. Such arguments miss the point. Bombing Daesh in Syria may or may not increase its capability, or popularity, but it doesn’t really matter. Daesh already knows what’s coming, and are making alternative plans. Squeeze Daesh in the Levant, and they’ll move to their beachhead in North Africa via the Mediterranean. Should Libya begin to stabilise, it will destabilise Tunisia to create base of operations there and potentially move southward in the Sahel. Should it lose all territory, Daesh has already thought to attach its brand to the Palestinian cause – thereby giving it an existential base in the minds of active and latent supporters around the globe.
The outlook is bleak, because we have, so far, failed to appreciate Daesh’s strategic skill. They are more than nihilistic extremists, hell bent on causing suffering on their enemies. The game has changed, yet our responses have not – it as though we cannot move beyond fighting Al-Qa’ida in the early 2000’s. Daesh’s analysis is that Western responses are weak, inadequate, and without direction – constantly reactive rather than proactive and they are exploiting this. Until we fully appreciate Daesh’s strategic skill and rationale (and negate it), we will continue to be on the back foot in our efforts to effectively and permanently stymie them.