Eastern Aleppo’s last traumatized residents waited prayerfully this weekend for bus rides to join the most massive refugee population ever recorded—about 65 million people on the planet, most uprooted by war. If those forced from their homes formed a nation, it would rank about 20th most populous in the world. At the core of this unprecedented upheaval are nine civil wars, from Libya to Afghanistan, exploited by groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda. Less than a month before President-elect Donald Trump is to inherit U.S. policymaking on this meta-crisis, a score of Middle East analysts from 17 think tanks and universities has published basic guidelines for improving America’s spotty success in countering violent Islamist extremism.

Aleppo, Syria. Photo Courtesy of the New York Times/Tyler Hicks
Aleppo, Syria. Photo Courtesy of the New York Times/Tyler Hicks

The 20 analysts hold a spectrum of views on foreign policy and the Middle East, and did not agree on every point they discussed while drafting the report. But their 40-page document, The Jihadi Threat, offers broad areas of consensus on strategy to counter the proliferation of violent Islamist movements. It urges U.S. policymakers to plan for the long term, and to put political solutions at the center of counterterrorist campaigns, even where U.S. or U.S.-backed military force is being applied. It made several more specific recommendations.

Mideast Wars: The Next Phase

While many Muslims and Islamic theologians define jihad primarily as a personal, spiritual struggle, extremist groups emphasize it as warfare against perceived enemies of Islam. Such “jihadist” movements, now in a third generation since their emergence in the 1970s, are morphing into “ever more complex variations” and are changing their strategies after the quick rise and recent decline of ISIS, or the Islamic State, the report says.

ISIS “has now lost almost 30 percent of its territory in Syria and around 60 percent in Iraq,” noted Robin Wright, the journalist and Middle East specialist who was the report’s principal writer. “U.S. officials said in December that 50,000 ISIS fighters, including senior leaders, have been removed from the battlefield. Between 15,000 and 18,000 are now believed to still be fighting,” according to Wright, a joint fellow at USIP and the Woodrow Wilson International Center, which backed the report’s publication.

“The contraction of the Islamic State does not mean an end to the jihadi threat, however,” Wright wrote in response to questions on the latest events in Syria. “ISIS has openly publicized its Plan B. One part is to locally relocate in the desert and more remote towns to launch an insurgency against the Iraq and Syrian governments. The other part is to increase attacks on the West, notably the United States and Europe, as well as their regional allies. As ISIS loses territory, al Qaeda is also gaming for a comeback by embedding with local militias and opposition groups. The end of the conflicts in either Syria or Iraq is still a long way off.”

“Syria is the most complex war of the 21st century,” Wright wrote. This month’s capture of Aleppo by forces backing Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, his biggest gain in the six-year war, is “a major boon for Assad’s military allies—Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah,” Wright wrote. “It represents a major setback for U.S.-led efforts to broker a peaceful political transition.”

Policies for a Long Struggle

Violent Islamist groups are part of nine conflicts in collapsed or fragile states: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and northwestern Pakistan. Some of these have spilled into neighboring countries. And just three civil wars—in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan—have driven the bulk of the recent years’ refugee flood into Europe, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency.

“Defeating jihadi extremism and preventing its return requires a long-term policy that not only eliminates fighters but also undermines the legitimacy of violence as a means of obtaining political ends,” according to  The Jihadi Threat. “Reconstruction, rehabilitation and particularly reconciliation are just as important as any military counterterrorism campaign,” it says, and “failure to carry out these steps has been a recurrent problem.” Other recommendations, with citations from the report, include these:

  1. Collaborate, carefully, with allies. “The United States cannot protect its interests … by acting alone.” But it must collaborate with care. Allies will use the terrorist threat to seek U.S. help, including equipment or intelligence, “to address tangential issues that may not always be in U.S. interests.”
  2. Work with legitimate local partners. The United States sometimes has worked with local partners that lacked broad national support in their countries. The U.S. partnership in Iraq with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki “demonstrated the dangers of supporting a leader who alienated a significant sector of society.” Al-Maliki, a Shia Muslim, failed to build working relationships with Iraq’s Sunni Muslims and ethnic Kurds
  3. Even in a military fight, seek a political solution from the start. “Terrorism is an inherently political form of violence,” so counterterrorism is inherently political as well. Military success, in the 2007 surge in Iraq, has been squandered because the Iraqi government’s “botched political program … only further alienated Sunnis and led to the emergence of a reinvigorated ISIS.”
  4. Measure the response; don’t be provoked. ISIS and al-Qaeda have “tried to lure the United States into a wider military confrontation,” and into “actions that are costly, messy, deadly, and in the long term, ineffective. Successful provocations further polarize societies, in turn helping jihadi movements recruit and rally wider support.”
  5. To curb terrorism from jumping to new generations, offer refugees a future. Extremist groups can recruit, especially among youth, where communities of people are displaced and “cut off from traditional modes of authority, whether tribes, local governments” or others. Amid the stress and shock of displacement and the struggle to survive, “individuals who are unmoored look for an authority, a sense of purpose and a way to escape their harsh circumstances.”
  6. Fix the problem that Middle Eastern prisons breed radicalism. Just as U.S. military-run detention centers were venues for the emergence of violent, militant leaders after 2003, prisons run by governments in Syria, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia “have been incubators of extremism.”
  7. How America treats its own Muslim citizens will make a difference. “Increased hostility towards Muslims in the United States, including refugees fleeing wars in Muslim countries, could fuel radicalization or push those who are already radicalized to act violently.”

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