A Better, Smarter Approach to Beating ISIS

It's not about overwhelming force. It's about staying power.

The ISIS threat looms large in the American psyche. Recent polling shows that strong percentages of Americans support sending ground troops to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Reflecting Americans’ deep concerns about the group, ISIS received even greater mention at the first two Republican presidential debates than the American economy.

That’s not necessarily to say that the average American thinks fearfully about ISIS on a daily basis. But it means that a substantial number of Americans are primed to do something about the group. Given their predisposition, a high-profile attack by ISIS-inspired terrorists could trigger unignorable pressure on our leaders to attack ISIS more aggressively.

But an overly aggressive reaction to ISIS would do little to address the real problem. Unfortunately, the threat posed by ISIS is the new normal and it will persist for the foreseeable future, even if the United States could crush the group. Any plan to fight ISIS must therefore fit within a broader strategy to counter Islamic extremism over the long haul. This strategy should emphasize avoiding high-profile military operations, cultivating likeminded international partners, and—critically—building Americans’ resilience to terrorist attacks.

The ISIS Threat:

The attention being devoted to ISIS by the American public isn’t without reason. The group has shown limited serious interest and ability to sponsor sophisticated attacks against the United States. However, reports that ISIS or an affiliate downed the Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 indicate that concerns about ISIS conducting a devastating attack against U.S. citizens, especially while abroad, are not unfounded. Moreover, ISIS-inspired lone wolf attackers have already conducted mass shootings on American soil. These attacks will likely continue, each killing anywhere from a few to dozens of American civilians. And while they are relatively low-level acts of violence when compared to the sophisticated 9/11 attacks, they will continue to seed fear in our communities.

ISIS further threatens the security and stability of American allies in Europe. As of last August, ISIS-inspired terrorists have attacked civilians in Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom. In addition, ISIS is an integral part of the Syrian civil war that is sending droves of refugees into eastern and central Europe, spurring ethno-nationalist reactions that accelerate the radicalization of vulnerable populations. This comes at a particularly bad time, when the United States needs its allies to show unified resolve in the face of Russian revanchism.

In addition, ISIS and its affiliates are fueling instability across the Middle East by exploiting ungoverned spaces and politically disenfranchised populations from Iraq to Libya. They are also placing enormous political pressure on U.S. partners in places like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey. This is not to mention the staggering humanitarian costs of ISIS’ actions.

The ISIS threat is thus real and deserving of a response. But the response must be proportionate to the threat and it must be sustainable. The United States must always be willing to take extraordinary measures to deal with extraordinary threats. But ISIS does not represent an extraordinary threat. It will not be the last Islamic extremist group—and in particular, Sunni Islamic extremist group—to send tremors through the Middle East, bring tumult to European shores, or threaten U.S. citizens at home.

Indeed, this type of threat is likely to persist for the foreseeable future as the Middle East political landscape reorganizes itself violently and Sunnis negotiate internal divisions over the proper relationship between Islam and modernity. In contrast, new challenges to U.S. interests in Europe and East Asia suggest that truly extraordinary threats completely unrelated to Islamic extremism may require serious U.S. attention in the coming years, further underscoring the need to see ISIS in strategic context and treat it proportionately.

A Better Way Forward:

A U.S. plan to combat ISIS must therefore fit within a long-term strategy to counter Islamic extremism. The strategy should deny sanctuary to extremist organizations in the physical and human terrain where they reside, and attack their transnational operations, especially in the cyber and financial realms. It should also seek to positively shape the sociopolitical environment that gives rise to these groups, especially by helping to create political space for moderate—though not necessarily pro-American—Islamic voices. And, it must do it all at a sustainable cost in American lives and resources over an indefinite period of time.