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Before the Next ISIS, We Need Nonviolent Counterterrorism Strategies


By Erin Niemela

A relatively new group engaging in non-state political violence, ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, recently called for the creation of an Islamic state in Iraq and Syria and a continuation and strengthening of jihad during Ramadan, according to a video that emerged through social media.  ISIS, born of Al Qaeda members in Iraq and matured in the Syrian civil war power vacuum, is so radical that Al Qaeda “disowned” it.  As if its goals of coerced dominance aren’t bad enough, Al Qaeda criticized ISIS for its brutality against civilians and Muslims.  Repeat: Al Qaeda criticized ISIS. For brutality.

Enough is enough. All violent counterterrorism-intervention policies have completely failed. We’re sowing and reaping perpetual tragedy with this violence machine and the only people benefitting are sitting on top of a mountain of cash in the conflict industry (I’m looking at you, Lockheed Martin.) It’s time for a major shift in conflict management strategies. Can we finally start listening to the numerous scholars and studies with scientifically supported strategies for nonviolent counterterrorism? Here is a three-step strategy all sensible persons (and politicians) should advocate:

First, immediately stop sending funds and weapons to all involved parties. This is the easiest of the three. Ten years of terrorism-making and we still think our guns aren’t going to fall into the “wrong” hands? The hands they fall into are already “wrong.” If you need a good example, take a look at our darlings, the Free Syrian Army, and their blatant human rights violations, such as using child soldiers, documented by Human Rights Watch in 2012 and2014.

Second, fully invest in social and economic development initiatives in any region in which terrorist groups are engaged. In his 2004 book, “Nonviolent Response to Terrorism,” Tom Hastings, Ed.D., professor of conflict resolution at Portland State University, questions: “What if the terrorists – or the population base from which they draw – had enough of life’s necessities? What if they had secure jobs, decent living standards, drinkable water and healthy food for their children? Do we seriously think they would provide a recruiting base for terrorism?” Harvard lecturer Louise Richardson, author of the 2007 book “What Terrorists Want” makes the same argument, and Kim Cragin and Peter Chalk of the Rand Corporation drew the same conclusion from their 2003 study on social and economic development to inhibit terrorism.  ISIS gained some of its current strength from economically providing for the families of fallen fighters, promising education to young boys (and then handing each a weapon), and capitalizing on grief and anger in Syrian communities. If we want to weaken ISIS and any other group engaging in terrorist activities, we have to start focusing on the needs they fill in those communities. Local communities in the region should be self-sustainable and civilians should feel empowered to provide for themselves and their families without taking up arms or using violence.

Third, fully support any and all nonviolent civil society resistance movements. Whoever is left – give them whatever support is needed the most. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephen, in their 2011 groundbreaking study on civil resistance, “Why Civil Resistance Works,” found that “between 1900 and 2006, nonviolent resistance campaigns were nearly twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as their violent counterparts.” In addition, successful nonviolent resistance campaigns are less likely to descend into civil war and more likely to achieve democratic goals. We should have fully supported the nonviolent Syrian revolution when we had the chance. Instead, we gave legitimacy to the violent rebel factions – those same groups now fighting alongside Al Qaeda and ISIS. If we send our unconditional support to whatever nonviolent civil society actors are left on the ground in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, we might just find that the best remedy for terroritis has been right in front of us the entire time – civil society.

These are three easy paths any rational politician could advocate that will decrease hostilities, prevent the emergence of new terrorism recruiting environments and empower local communities to engage in nonviolent conflict resolution strategies.  We’ve had centuries to discover that violence doesn’t work, hasn’t worked and won’t work. It’s time to try something different. Global leaders need to get on board the logic train and put some serious and sustained effort into nonviolent counterterrorism strategies. Otherwise, it’s only a matter of time before ISIS starts criticizing the next group for wanton violence and human rights abuses.

Erin Niemela (erinnpdx@gmail.com) is a Master’s Candidate in the Conflict Resolution program at Portland State University, PeaceVoice editor and PeaceVoiceTV channel manager.

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