With his most decisive foreign policy decision to date, President Donald Trump’s targeted missile strike into Syria has quickly shown that all options are on the table when it comes to restoring peace and security in the Middle East. While Obama remained steadfast in his commitment to non-military means to solving the Syrian crisis, Trump has quickly shown that all options are on the table. However, this approach should be viewed with cautious optimism.
Critics have quickly pointed out that hard power alone cannot solve the crises in Syria and Iraq. This is the case in not only Syria but the Middle East as a whole. In combating ISIS, hard military power coupled with cyber capabilities that fight ISIS’ extreme Islamist ideology are both necessary to truly defeat ISIS and the ideology that inspires so many to engage in terrorist activities across the globe.
Since reaching its peak in 2014, increased international military action against ISIS across all fronts has thrown into peril the terrorist group’s ability to maintain control over territory. Without territory, ISIS’ overall message – the creation of the Caliphate – will be greatly damaged. However, premature declarations of victory over the extremists, while politically convenient, would be misguided, as the radical ideology continues to spread rapidly through the digital world and into homes in the physical world.
The violent and destructive power in the name of political Islam, has thrived in a complex interconnected world. Those pursuing agendas of political Islam, including the violence of ISIS and other means adopted by groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and affiliates, use the religion of Islam to achieve political objectives, rejecting any distinction between religion and politics, imposing their will and beliefs on the entirety of a state’s population, dividing right and wrong between believers and non-believers.
In all of this, the Caliphate has a strong symbolic pull for both violent and non-violent extremists. The Caliphate concept, most notably advanced by ISIS today, is where these organization attempt to impose their political will upon everyone, which is Incompatible with America’s fundamental tenets of freedom. Even after the defeat of ISIS on the battlefield, political Islam will continue to remain more than a thorn in the U.S.’ side, spurring radical ideological politics and anti-Americanism across the world.
The internet has been instrumental in the spread of all ideas from all parts of the globe, but most notably radical ones, inspiring lone-wolf attacks, most recently witnessed in Westminster. Rather than town halls and local gatherings, today it is through the internet that many exchange and promote ideas. It is here that the U.S. must direct its capabilities in order to combat radical and political Islam.
Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, recently talked of ISIS’ “extraordinarily savvy” cyber capabilities, including its ability to recruit followers and spread propaganda through social media and direct messaging. ISIS also employs what the George Washington University’s Center for Cyber & Homeland Security calls “virtual entrepreneurs.” These are individuals that employ social media to connect people in the West to larger extremist communities, encourage radical beliefs, and suggest violent or illegal actions against the non-believer.
Votel stressed the need to do more in the cyber domain. How so? The U.S. State Department and UAE’s launch and deployment of the Sawab Center in 2015 is a step in the right direction. The Twitter account regularly denunciates and exposes ISIS’ atrocities, while promoting messages of positivity, inclusion, and inspiration, most recently running a campaign with the hashtag #InHerStory, which coincided with Mother’s Day in March, “highlighting women who surmounted obstacles to achieve the extraordinary & advance humanity.”
While President Trump’s willingness to deploy physical force in the Middle East is welcoming, soft capabilities in the cyber domain must be sustained and increased to attack the root cause of groups like ISIS – their ideology. The recommendation by Trump to scale back the already limited State Department’s budget is a worrying sign. Afghanistan and Iraq remain evidence of what happens when the focus is placed exclusively on military measures, declaring operations complete and victorious, only then to encounter an exponential growth in radicalism followed by massive instability.
Rather than to only confront Islamism when it crosses the “radical” threshold, the U.S. and its partners should also address some of the root causes of extremism grounded in Islam, such as groups like the Muslim Brotherhood who seek the imposition of their view of Islamic law on society. Increasing joint efforts like the Sawab Center with Muslim partners that work towards inclusive and tolerant societies will maximize the U.S.’ hard and soft capabilities across the Middle East, before and after the military defeat of ISIS.
Ahmed Al-Hamli is the president of TRENDS Research and Advisory, an independent and progressive research center based in Abu Dhabi.