To fight ISIS, US must understand them, not chalk up actions to pure evil

By Benjamin Clabault

(Michell Prothero/MCT)
(Michell Prothero/MCT)

In the past months, the terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has forced its way into the American collective consciousness with a slew of shocking and horrifying acts. Since the Al-Qaeda offspring began seizing large swaths of territory, its merciless zeal and shameless promotion of its own brutal tactics has left our mouths agape.

The plight of the stranded Yazidis, besieged on Iraq’s Mt. Sinjar after losing hundreds of their kin in a precursor to potential genocide, finally prompted action in the form of U.S. airstrikes and aid to Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. This involvement in turn brought about the executions of captured American journalists James Foley and Stuart Sotloff, with accompanying video footage befitting ISIS’s social media campaign.

The reaction of the American citizenry was predictable. We are appalled, disgusted, and angry. Every fiber in our moral conscious is repulsed. We cannot even begin to fathom how any human being could perpetrate such atrocities. All we know is that ISIS is evil and must be destroyed.

But while we are certainly justified in our moral condemnation of the terrorist group, we must be careful not to let our indignation and the pure shock value of the crimes committed blind us from the true reality of the problem. Yes, ISIS is evil and yes, their forces must be defeated.

But the fact that their brutality surpasses anything most Americans can even begin to imagine in their everyday lives does not mean that their actions are inherently unexplainable. To suggest that ISIS embodies pure evil that simply cannot be accounted for represents a dangerous delusion that could mislead Americans in handling the problem.

The idea of the intrinsically evil terrorist became fully cemented after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The perpetrators were cast as psychopaths, their motives revolving around destruction.

Politicians are applying the same label now to the members of ISIS, with nihilism an oft-touted term. But ISIS is not nihilistic. Its work is not without meaning, and, in its mind, the destruction and devastation is not violence just for the sake of it, but rather a justified means to an end.

Furthermore, it is vital to recognize that ISIS is not composed of one body of individuals that we must combat and destroy. It has no set population to draw from. Instead, it systematically attract disenfranchised Muslims from around the world, utilizing the Internet to transmit its propaganda. That many Westerners have joined ISIS’ ranks has brought even more head scratching and teeth gnashing from the American populace.

“How,” asks the typical newsroom anchor, “could any American be attracted to such a despicable group?” The question itself is legitimate. What a pity, then, that it is asked not in seriousness, but as an exasperated expression of complete consternation.

On Wednesday, Sept. 10, President Obama announced plans to “degrade, and ultimately destroy” ISIS through coordinated airstrikes and support for local opposition forces on the ground, both in Iraq and Syria. Talking heads and politicians reacted to the speech with varying degrees of enthusiasm, some questioning the president’s sincerity, others unsure of his plan’s plausibility.

But beyond the potential utility of an American aerial campaign, we must also recognize that the problem at hand requires more than a military solution. The horror of ISIS does not embody itself in an enemy force, but in a churning cauldron of ideological vitriol. This is no hornet’s nest, where, once we’ve taken care of each and every hornet, the problem is resolved.

Clearly, the history of the Middle East, fraught with meddling Western powers and internal strife (which was mainly precipitated by the aforementioned meddling), has culminated in the volatile situation plaguing the world. Disaffected Arab Muslims have seen their world ripped asunder, and, rightly or wrongly, blame the Western world. Extreme Islamic fundamentalism, espousing a cynical interpretation of the Koran and obsessing with the creation of an Islamic State, has worked its way into their mentalities and engendered a widespread, unrelenting narrow-mindedness.

Now, with sufficient instability to allow a group like ISIS to gain such eminence, this hateful ideology has gained relevance and will appeal to even more lost souls throughout the Muslim world. It is this pattern, not the specific military activity of the ISIS fighters that should truly frighten Americans. The problem, however, is that it is a lot easier to combat an enemy force with bombs and gunfire than it is to thwart the spread of toxic ideas.

The fact is that an estimated 30,000 fighters, including many Westerners, are waging violent jihad in Iraq and Syria, and are doing it for a reason. If we want to truly suppress the horrors of this movement, we cannot simply fight back militarily while chalking the motives of our opponents up to baseless malevolence. We must try, as difficult as it might be, to understand them, thus giving us the opportunity to use our global influence to amend the conditions that have allowed them to thrive.

Benjamin Clabault is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]