On February 18th, the Obama administration will hold a Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. The summit is designed to address the growing problem of religious extremism, especially in the Middle East. Since 2011, radical Islamist groups have flourished in the civil wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. The al Nusra Front had no real presence in Syria until civil war broke out in 2011. The same is true of ISIS. In fact, since 2007, the number of violent Islamist groups in the Middle East and Africa has significantly increased and has spread to include most of North Africa, the DRC, Tanzania, Kenya and South Sudan.
Currently, the administration has no clear strategy for dealing with this problem. Experts in the Pentagon, State Department and intelligence agencies have admitted that they do not understand why these extremist groups have emerged at this time or why they have flourished. According to Major General Michael Nagata, commander of American Special Operations forces in the Middle East, “We do not understand the movement [ISIS], and until we do, we are not going to defeat it.”
Key to an effective counter-strategy is the ability to identify when, where and how extremism helps groups mobilize local support and gain external financing. To do this one must first identify the three strategic incentives rebel groups face to adopt an extreme ideology.
- First, adopting an extremist ideology can give rebel organizations a recruiting advantage. The ideological extreme is where individuals are more likely to be willing to fight and die for a cause making them easier to recruit as soldiers.
- Second, adopting an extremist ideology can serve as a credible commitment to a set of principles that make the group appear more trustworthy than the competition. Fundamentalist Islam is a way for rebel organizations to credibly promise to remain true to their ideals and not “sell out” once in power. Even moderate citizens might be willing to support Islamists if they believe they will be less corrupt once in office.
- Third, adopting an extremist ideology helps rebel organizations positively differentiate themselves from competing rebel groups. Extreme ideology creates what could be considered a “market niche” for a rebel group, causing a particular population to remain loyal regardless of what other groups do. Few potential recruits motivated by a desire to protect Islam will be excited about joining the second most Islamic group, just like few ethnic nationalists will eagerly sign up for the third most patriotic organization.
Not all civil wars, however, are likely to create equally hospitable conditions for the success of extremist groups. This is why radical Islam thrives in some contexts but not others. Extremist groups are more likely to form and prosper in three types of conflict environments: (1) countries with ethnically or religiously polarized societies, (2) countries with a history of bad governance and corruption, and (3) countries with civil wars with multiple competing rebel groups. These countries are already divided along ethnic or sectarian lines and their citizens are keen for credible commitments to better behavior after years of bad government. It’s also where rebel groups have incentives to differentiate themselves from similar looking factions. All of these conditions currently exist in the Middle East.
So what should the U.S. do to counter extremism? First and foremost , eliminate the underlying conditions that favor its success. Challenging the values of an extremist group head on is likely to be counterproductive. A “war on ISIS” will have no more success than our “war on al-Qaida” has had. A better strategy is to provide hard evidence to local populations that the radical groups that hope to represent them are not as honorable as they try to appear: they will not rule as fairly and benevolently as they claim. Outsiders can also help moderate groups devise their own costly signals that they are trustworthy and have an attractive and credible product that they will deliver should they come to power. Enhancing the credibility of these moderate groups should help recruit the support of those citizens whose beliefs are more aligned with them and undercut the support of extremists. Moderate groups will also require more practical, material assistance to compete effectively with extremist groups that draw funding from wealthy like-minded donors from abroad.
General Nagata was right that we will not be able to stop ISIS or any of the extremist groups that have emerged in the Middle East until we understand why they are succeeding in this context. They are succeeding because the Middle East is home to some of the most corrupt, ineffective and exclusionary governments in the world and their populations are looking for new, more trustworthy leaders. The key to countering extremists will be to help moderate groups communicate their ability and desire to govern more effectively than past incumbents while providing evidence that extremists will not.