“Defeating” ISIS: The Real Threats and Challenges

Terrorism is all too real a threat, and the brutal series mass attacks in Europe and Middle East is causing a special kind of fear. Terrorist movements like ISIS kill the innocent for the worst of causes and the worst of reasons. They seek to use fear to separate the West from the Muslim world, and to divide the Muslim world and dominate it. They try to use alienated Muslims in the West to create a growing climate of anger and distrust with Europe and the United States. They deliberately seek to get the West to overreact and lash out against all Muslims and Islam, just as they try to use extremism and violence to try to get the populations of Muslim countries to attack their own governments.

They also feed on Western ignorance of Islam, and the fear of new and unfamiliar risks. Americans and others in the West have learned to live with most forms of mortality. We accept the fact that life has a wide range of risks, almost all of which are far more serious than terrorism: Lightning, suicide, traffic, disease, home accidents produce far more deaths.

The fact remains, however, that Americans, Europeans, and others inside and outside the Islamic world, must learn a grim reality at the popular and political level that many security and counterterrorism experts have known for years. Even the most effective counterterrorism efforts can contain and limit terrorism, but cannot “defeat” it. Moreover ISIS is only one threat among many, and many of its fighters will survive and continue to pose a threat.

No attacks of “wars” on ISIS or any other mix of extremist movements can address the deep causes of alienation and unrest in any Islamic world that has the most rapidly growing portion of the world’s population. These causes are complex, and no one cause dominates the motives of the small minority in Islam that is responsible for terrorism. They are, however, so serious that it will be a decade or more before they can be fully addressed in largely Islamic countries, and intolerance and alienation act as a separate series of motives for Muslims living in the West.

Weakening ISIS and denying it sanctuaries is already a key strategic priority for the United States, Europe, and every government in the Middle East and North Africa. We all, however, are going to have to learn to live with a continuing low-level risk of sporadic terrorist attacks, and well as the violent consequences of political upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa. In spite of political posturing to the contrary, we going to have to learn to keep our fear of terrorism in proportion with the real world risk. Terrorism is only one threat among many, and the fear of a single threat cannot be allowed to trigger measures that are out of proportion to the threat, encourage religious hatred, or divide Islam from the rest of the world.

More broadly, we need to accept the reality that it is Muslim governments that are now our key allies in the fight against terrorism, and that creating bridges between Muslims and non-Muslims—rather than barriers and walls—is critical to containing and limiting the terrorist threat. In simple terms, trying to divide a world in which Muslims are increasing at roughly twice the rate of Christians and Hindus, and will be a total population that will be over 70% larger in 2050 that in 2010 requires cooperation and understanding instead of lines in the sand.

A new report by the CSIS Burke Chair provides a comprehensive analysis of these issues – along with detailed graphs and tables that show the trends in terrorism, populations, and unrest in the nations that have the key sources of terrorism, This report is entitledDefeating” ISIS: The Real Threats and Challenges, and is available on the CSIS website at https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/160804_Defeating_ISIS_Report.pdf.


Other recent Burke Chair studies that address these issues include:

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