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Expert Comment: Can Islamic State (ISIS) be Defeated?

CASI expert comment 150x150 Monday 6 October 2014

American President Barack Obama has stated that the US military campaign in Syria and Iraq is designed “to defeat” IS. But is this realistic? And is ISIS really a threat to West? Anno Bunnik, PhD Fellow at the Centre for Applied Research in Security Innovation (CASI) offers his opinion in his latest expert comment.

The self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has gained notoriety in recent months, due to several factors. Firstly, they have been engaged in vicious military campaign against the Syrian rebels on the one hand and against the Iraqi state on the other. On both sides of the border, ISIS’s violence has been surprisingly ‘successful’ seizing vast territories, including major cities such as Mosul in North Iraq with its longstanding Christian and Assyrian history. This ancient city has more inhabitants than Merseyside, and is completely under ISIS control.

Secondly, the recent beheadings of Western hostages has broadcast their violence to Western viewers. Its estimated 20,000 to 31,500 fighters have been murdering and executing its enemies on a large scale for years, including setting off car bombs against civilians. Their violence, therefore, is nothing new and is largely targeted against Arabs and Muslims. When British and American journalists and aid-workers were killed in this brutal fashion the threat of ISIS suddenly became a global issue.

Thirdly, in an age increasingly defined by globalisation and digital developments – notably Social Media – images of conflicts are shared with a global audience. In the past, journalists had to travel to conflict zones to report what had happened days or weeks ago; nowadays news is shared by fighters, activists and citizen-journalists in near-real time. Media covering Syria, and future conflicts, have to collect and interpret a tsunami of violent images – a clear indication that journalism is undergoing a process of change, and our students interested in a career in this field should take note. 

But it is not just our students in Media and Communication and International Relations who should be paying attention to what is happening in the Middle East. Many of the nearly 3,000 British and European fighters for the Islamic State and the Syrian al Qaeda branch have public profiles on Facebook and Twitter. At an EU-funded Network of Excellence that I attended this summer at Kings’ College London, several researchers presented case-studies of how these networks can be traced, visualised and interpreted through Big Data techniques.

Various researchers present at the conference also directly engaged with these foreign fighters through social media as part of their field work. Is it compliant with university standards to engage with them in order to further the understanding why young men can be attracted to extreme movements? Should researchers refrain from ‘liking’ or ‘retweeting’ their posts even if it contains highly valuable data that deserves to be shared with a community of researchers?

Finally, the million dollar question: is ISIS an existential security threat and can it be defeated? Other than al Qaeda, which seeks to strike the United States, ISIS has a completely different modus operandi. They are taking advantage of the power vacuum in Syria and Iraq to seize land and build their own state. They might call it a Caliphate but in essence it is very similar to how states have been created throughout history. Therefore, ISIS is predominantly a threat to the people and governments in the Middle East. 

Now that the UK parliament has approved British involvement it should be understood that this conflict will likely continue for years to come. Yes, ISIS will certainly be affected but air strikes can only contain the group, as they are now deeply entrenched in urban areas. ISIS can only be defeated militarily by troops on the ground and, more importantly, politically by having inclusive governments in Baghdad and Damascus. Without a clear strategy and political solution any military campaign will likely only produce more extremists.

Anno Bunnik is PhD Fellow at the Centre for Applied Research in Security Innovation (CASI). CASI delivers world class solutions for intelligence organisations seeking to adapt to the fundamental changes being brought about by Big Data. Anno’s blog can be found here

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