Security, Middle East
Here is why the West can no longer afford to ignore the roots of radicalization.
The Islamic State is in retreat and has been for a while. It has lost most of its holdings in Iraq and Syria and has just lost its capital, Raqqa. Its leaders and fighters are on the run. It is tempting to breathe a sigh of relief and tell ourselves that the nightmare of lightning conquests, mass executions and devastating attacks against European cities is finally over. But that would be a mistake. For one thing, the Islamic State still holds a small amount of territory, roughly the size of Lebanon, near the Iraqi-Syrian border. More importantly, the organization’s franchises in Africa and Asia are doing quite well. So are its training camps in Afghanistan. The group has probably implanted sleeper cells across the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. And we should remember that the Islamic State managed a spectacular comeback last time it was nearly defeated—when it was decimated in Iraq by the American “Surge” and the so called “Sunni Awakening.”
Even if the Islamic State in its current form is really gone, it is important that we learn some lessons from its rise rather than pat ourselves on the back for its disappearance. These lessons might help us predict and perhaps even control the next deadly mutation of this death cult. One obvious lesson is that we must limit ungoverned spaces in the Middle East. The Islamic State thrived on political vacuums; it looked for them, made them much worse, and then posited itself as an agency of order. Of course this lesson is going to be hard to act on. We have been badly burned by recent attempts to impose political order on Middle Eastern countries. The Russians and Iranians have now embarked on their own version of this quest, propping up a genocidal dictator in Syria on the argument that any authority is better than the lack of authority that allows organizations like the Islamic State to thrive. But this strategy merely buys temporary quiet at the price of even worse violence to come, sowing the seeds of the next civil war as it squashes the current one.