The brutality of the extremist militants who call themselves “The Islamic State” is a strategy in itself and must be met by powerful counter-measures that address the core causes of the conflict, said Manal Omar, USIP’s associate vice president for the Middle East and Africa, at the recent launch of the U.S. Senate’s Human Rights Caucus.
Senators Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, and Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, introduced the new caucus on Sept. 10 with a keynote address by Tom Malinowski, the U.S. assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor, and a panel of five experts and activists. The discussion focused on the threat of the militant group, also known as the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS for an alternate acronym), which now controls swaths of territory in both countries and has killed or terrorized millions of men, women and children.
In addition to Omar, the panel included Bishop Mar Paulus Benjamin from the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, representing some of the persecuted religious minorities targeted by ISIS; Katrina Lantos Swett from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; and Sarah Margon, Washington director for Human Rights Watch. "The strength of ISIS in the Middle East is based on the fear and abuse of innocents," Kirk said. Coons said he and Kirk established the caucus “to defend and advocate for human rights around the world.” The forum is intended to complement the work of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the U.S. House of Representatives, a panel named after Swett’s father, a longtime champion of human rights in Congress who died in 2008.
“We must support religious freedom and related rights, not just for humanitarian purposes, but for the sake of our security,” Swett told the caucus. “The stakes have never been higher.”
The following represent Omar’s remarks after introductory acknowledgements. The presentation has been edited for clarity.
What I would like to do is focus on some pitfalls in identifying strategies used by ISIS and some potential strategies to counter the group’s impact. One of the first pitfalls that I would highlight is looking at ISIS as something that’s completely new. The level of brutality, I believe, is something that has emerged recently. But ISIS has existed since 2006, and for those of us who have been on the ground in Iraq and Syria, we’ve been highlighting the potential emergence and the trend of an ideology that continues to mutate and become more and more violent.
The fear is that, even in dealing with ISIS today, we could create another mutation that even ISIS would then feel is too brutal. So really going to the root causes that have emerged that led to this type of ideology having traction, is essential. And part of that is understanding that it isn’t just random, barbarian actions or cruelty that we’re witnessing, but it is actually a strategy of cruelty that we’ve seen coming from ISIS. There is an intent of waging psychological warfare -- for pushing this ideology, forcing it -- that is actually frightfully strategic.
ISIS identifies a vacuum of power and then attempts to step in and fill that vacuum. We’ve seen that, not only through the type of mass atrocities, but also in the way that they have been able to target areas of accruing wealth. This is one of the things that distinguishes ISIS from the past, when you might have had one or two financial supporters or some major source of funding. Now, ISIS has managed to actually seize lands, seize territory, create some type of income-generating model that creates some sustainability. They’ve been able to use some of their crimes not only for the sake of cruelty, but also for extortion and ransom, again looking at trying to bring in money.
I would agree that the issue of religious freedom -- and particularly because the minorities are more vulnerable than other groups -- is something that is causing alarm. But the frightening thing about ISIS is that the monolithic interpretation of Islam that they introduced has pretty much made 98 percent of the population infidels. So even those within their territories who would be considered mainstream Sunni Muslims are living in fear and have been forced from their homes.
The second pitfall I would say, beyond ISIS being new, is being very careful who we see as allies. In our deep interest -- and I would maybe even say our desperation -- to find a way to stop ISIS, we may start having some blurred lines with some new allies. In particular I think of Jabhat al Nusra. As you know, [ISIS leader Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi was the one who formed [Syrian extremist group] Jabhat al-Nusra [also known as al-Nusra Front] and left for ISIS. There is a joke in the region that identifies your label depending on what side of the border you are: Iif you’re in Iraq you’re a terrorist; if you’re in Syria, you’re a freedom fighter. And I think that we have to be very careful not to blur those lines and to be very consistent in terms of the core principles that we will support -- and not support -- to make sure that we don’t have a new mutation in the region.
The other final element in the theory with the blurred lines is illustrated with another joke -- despite the tragedies, the region seems to survive on being able to use dark humor. When you’re talking about the difference between ISIS, ISIL, IS, al-Qaeda, you’re really talking about the difference between the heat of 110 degrees and 115 degrees. It’s all scorching hot and it all must be stopped. So there is a concern in our focus on ISIS, we’ll forget some of the other groups that are continuing to emerge. There’s a need to identify the core issues of the vacuums that they’re stepping into and why this message, even with a religious or ethnic minority group, is resonating and creating grounds for recruitment.
That leads me to some of the strategies. I think one of the things that we’ve seen is ISIS is more of a federation; there is no centralized control. They’ve taken advantage of that system, by approaching the very groups that they are also targeting militarily for recruitment, particularly the militias on the ground.
We need to support those who are pushing back, support those who we’ve seen coming out of Anbar, coming out of Tikrit, coming out of Syria -- a very strong pushback. But they don’t have the strength to be able to muster the real power. As I mentioned, I think another issue is really being able to be consistent with our core principles and who we’ll ally with, and identifying the ideology we’re fighting rather than the most recent incarnation.
The third area is to really be able to pull on our allies, and I would say specifically our Gulf allies, to identify the source of the streams of funding, as difficult as it may be. We need to put more effort into trying to dry up the funds, at least from the external elements that the group has been able to rely on.
And the final area of focus is one that Assistant Secretary Malinowski alluded to -- that a lot of emphasis has been to ensure that the solution is from the region and that it’s a regional strategy. That means pushing on some of our allies in the Gulf but also recognizing that countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Yemen are also very vulnerable and could potentially fall to some of the instability that we’ve seen in Iraq and Syria. And we need to look at ways of preventing it by assisting some of those allies.