How Should Nations Respond to the ISIS Threat?

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Erwann Michel-Kerjan and Brendan O'Leary on the Paris Attacks

Following the terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday, many have called for sharper strategies to counter the Islamic State, or ISIS, that has claimed responsibility. According to some observers, the response must be a full-fledged war, with well-orchestrated international cooperation to destroy ISIS and demoralize its supporters. Others suggest that Western powers must reassess their allies, pressure Saudi Arabia to stop propagating its Wahhabi doctrine that sows the seeds of jihadist Islam, and plan carefully when reconfiguring Iraq and Syria after the defeat of ISIS.

“Why us?” is a question Parisians have been asking in despair since the attacks left at least 129 dead and 352 seriously injured. “If you are looking for a symbol, Paris is a great symbol just like New York was [during the 9/11 attacks],” said Erwann Michel-Kerjan, executive director of Wharton’s Risk Management and Decision Processes Center. He added that France is geographically closer to Syria – where the attackers are believed to have originated from — and has been experiencing mass immigration from Syria, Iraq and other conflict-ridden nations.

“France is also loud in terms of expressing itself on the international scene,” noted Michel-Kerjan. Finally, France has Europe’s largest populations of Muslims and Jews. The 6,000 Isis sympathizers in France are “very hard to track,” he said. He added that European leaders did not foresee the Isis attacks.

Brendan O’Leary, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, called for an all-out retaliation to obliterate ISIS. “In order for ISIS to be comprehensively defeated, it must be defeated first and foremost where it is territorially strong and where it has resources — not just communication resources but military resources, taxes, stolen oil wealth and so on – all of which help the various networks that they sponsor. It is essential that the Islamic State be destroyed and political care be given to what it is replaced with.”

O’Leary recalled France’s President Francois Hollande saying after the attacks that “France would be merciless” in its response against ISIS. “If the Islamic State says it is a state and a Caliphate and it declares war on the rest of the world, it shouldn’t be surprising if we respond in kind,” he said.

Michel-Kerjan and O’Leary discussed the strategies to counter ISIS on the Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

Plan of Action

Michel-Kerjan was apprehensive about ISIS scaling up its attacks. He noted that while ISIS was “sophisticated in terms of the coordination” in the Paris attacks, the weaponry it used was simple, such as rifles. “If ISIS starts playing with more dirty bombs and small nuclear devices, that would have a massive impact not just on the level of the threat, but also on business communities,” he said.

Michel-Kerjan suggested that a more accurate recognition of the threat the world faces from ISIS is needed. He noted that whereas the Paris attacks touched a chord in the U.S., many people think such events are far away when they occur in the Middle East. “For years, we’ve left ISIS to grow into what it has become,” he said. “ISIS has much more financial power than Al Qaeda ever had. When ISIS moves from where it is now to become a global terrorist organization, they will already have thousands of people positioned.” O’Leary added that the ability of ISIS to use the Internet for recruiting supporters and as part of its communications strategy distinguishes it from other groups.

“The current moment provides a wonderful opportunity for international and regional cooperation against [ISIS],” O’Leary noted. He called for actions “to squeeze those who have been soft on ISIS,” noting that “those that have particularly been soft are the Saudis, the Qataris and the Turks, who in other respects are our allies.” He expected the Paris attacks to persuade those in power to give priority to the defeat of ISIS over the removal of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.

“People think of these terrorists as poor, uneducated and all male, but in reality it is a very diverse group of individuals.” –Erwann Michel-Kerjan

O’Leary agreed with observers who believe the Paris attackers may have had Syrian identification to enter Europe as migrants or refugees. According to him, the sharp increase in the number of migrants is not just because of the Syrian civil war, but also because Turkey made it easy for migrants to enter Europe. “The U.S. and Europe need to consider how they bargain with President [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan in Turkey — he has shown an ability to switch that tap on and off,” said O’Leary. He added that the Paris attacks may compel Germany to reconsider its “generous response” to the current migrant-refugee crisis.

O’Leary also argued that the U.S. should increase its support for Kurdistan. “The Kurds are “the only fundamental, reliable allies [of the West] against the Islamic State,” he said. He was recently in Kurdistan meeting with its prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani. “It’s essential for the Kurdistan government to be successful in repulsing ISIS and go on to take Mosul, and for the Peshmerga forces (the military in Iraqi Kurdistan) to be properly and fully armed, as if they themselves were a sovereign state.”

Roots of Jihad

“People think of these terrorists as poor, uneducated and all male, but in reality it is a very diverse group of individuals,” said Michel-Kerjan. O’Leary agreed: “You should not assume that the reason somebody is a jihadist is that they personally are economically marginalized, exploited or deprived of opportunity. You have to focus on their convictions and their beliefs.”

O’Leary traced those beliefs to the rise of Salafist Islam (Salafi refers to those who died within the first 400 years after the Prophet), which in turn has flourished as a result of Saudi Arabia sponsoring Wahhabism (an orthodox branch of Sunni Islam that developed in the 18th century and advocates a return to early Islam). It doesn’t necessarily mean “that everybody becomes a militant Salafist, but enough of them do to create security problems for everybody else and problems of religious coexistence,” he pointed out.

“We need to get tough on Salafist Islam, get tough on the Saudi sponsorship” of the movement, “and we need to think of how we decompose, degrade and destroy the Islamic State,” said O’Leary. “Once you do that, you demoralize all those people who think they are reenacting the beginnings of early Islam [and] think they are part of a successful building of a new empire.”

“The current moment provides an opportunity for international and regional cooperation.” –Brendan O’Leary

O’Leary advised Western nations to avoid introspecting to see where they might have contributed to the rise of ISIS. “There are partial explanations to be found for the success of jihadism in Western policy,” he noted. “But it would be stupid and moronic on our part to spend our time engaged in extensive self-criticism of our imperial past when the relevant factors here are the active success of ISIS and our joint, strategic need to make sure it is effectively destroyed.”

Alongside, any inadvertent fallout among the Islamic population can be dealt with by “appropriate strategies” such as fair employment and non-discrimination, said O’Leary. “In return … they have to accept western, pluralistic, democratic standards, separation of religion from the state, no demands for special Muslim exceptions with respect to core values like female equality and so on,” he added.

Focus on War

With Washington, D.C., named as the next possible ISIS target, O’Leary said it doesn’t help to take positions for or against the Obama Administration, and advised a departure from previous foreign policy approaches. “In Western policy, on the one hand, we engaged in thoughtless, large-scale intervention and then decided that the best strategy is the converse of that — no significant presence, let everything be done by local allies and no intervening.” He saw a “sensible median” where the U.S. could help in reconfiguring Iraq and Syria and “do something” about the estrangement of Sunni Arabs from both regimes. “We have to make sure there is a future for them, which is preferable to life under ISIS.”

Drawing upon his experience in risk management, Michel-Kerjan said, “We’ve learned the hard way that it typically takes a big event for a reaction to happen.” But now, the world owes it to the victims of the Paris attacks to act strongly against ISIS. “Let’s go beyond just declaring war — let’s put manpower, energy, international coordination and military capability into it.”

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