ISIL, the US, and curing our addiction to violence

By Erin Niemela and Tom H. Hastings

President Obama’s Wednesday night address on the Islamic State (ISIL) reintroduced a war weary nation to more violent intervention in Iraq, another war weary nation. The Obama administration claims that airstrikes, military advisors and a Muslim states-American military coalition are the most effective counterterrorism tactics, but that is demonstrably false for two major reasons.

One, the history of US military action in Iraq is a repeatedly failed strategy featuring extremely high costs and poor outcomes.

Two, scholarship in both terrorism and conflict transformation indicates this mix of strategies is a statistical loser.

The people in ISIL are not a “cancer,” as President Obama claims. The massive and multifaceted global public health problem is violence, which shares characteristics with many diseases, such as cancer, meth addiction, the Black Death and Ebola. Violence is the disease, not the cure.

This metaphor applies to the violence committed by ISIL and the US alike. Both claim to be using violence to eliminate injustice. Both ISIL and the US dehumanize entire swaths of people in order to justify that violence. Much like drug addicts, both armed groups alienate and indiscriminately harm others while claiming it’s in everyone’s best interest.

The disease of addiction isn’t eradicated when police raid the addict’s family home, accidentally gun down his brother and then shoot him in the head. An addiction–in this case, violence by militarists on all sides–is vanquished with an entirely different approach that scholars in counterterrorism and conflict transformation have found and recommended for years–continually ignored by successive US administrations despite the growing evidence. Here are eight scientifically supported treatments for the ISIL threat that both realists and idealists can and should advocate.

One, stop making more terrorists. Abandon all violent repression tactics. Violent repression, whether by airstrikes, torture or mass arrests, will only backfire. “Despite the conventional confidence in deterrence approaches, repressive actions have never led to decreases in terrorism and have sometimes led to increases in terrorism,” Erica Chenoweth and Laura Dugan stated in their 2012 study in American Sociological Review on 20 years of Israeli counterterrorism strategies. The authors found that indiscriminate repressive counterterrorism efforts – violence used against the entire population from which the terrorist cells operate, such as airstrikes, destruction of property, mass arrests, etc., were associated with increases in terror acts.

Two, stop transferring military arms and equipment to the region. Stop buying and selling the stuff, profitable to a few dealers and harmful to everyone else. We already know that U.S. military weapons sent to Syria, Libya and Iraq, among other Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) states, have been seized or purchased and used by ISIL against civilians.

Three, start generating real sympathy in the population that terrorists claim to “defend.” The 2012 Chenoweth and Dugan counterterrorism study also found that indiscriminate conciliatory counterterrorism efforts – positive rewards that benefit the entire identity group from which terrorists draw their support – were the most effective in reducing terror acts over time, particularly when those efforts were sustained over the long-term. Examples of these efforts include signaling negotiation intentions, withdrawing troops, earnestly investigating claims of abuses and admitting mistakes, among others.

Four, stop creating more terrorism targets. Anyone the US purports to protect with violence becomes a target. The Responsibility to Protect does not require violence, and a better policy would be to consult with and support unarmed nonviolent forces that have already succeeded in hot conflict zones. For example, Muslim Peacemaker Teams, located in Najaf, Iraq works with civil society organizations and international and local nongovernmental organizations in Iraq to decrease hostilities and serve civilian survivors. Another group is Nonviolent Peaceforce, a by-request unarmed peacekeeping team with successful fieldwork in South Sudan, Sri Lanka and other armed conflict arenas.

Five, ISIL’s violence is an addiction best treated with a humanitarian intervention by caring but firm stakeholders. A humanitarian intervention targets behavior, not the existence of the addict, and mandates collaboration with all on-the-ground stakeholders, including Sunni, Shi’a, Kurds, Christians, Yazidis, businesses, educators, healthcare providers, local politicians, and religious leaders to intervene on the destructive practices of the group. ISIL is entirely made up of ex-civilians – family members, friends and children of civil society; any true humanitarian intervention must include the work and support of the community – not foreign armed forces.

Six, look at the ISIL issue as a community policing problem, not a military problem. No one likes warplanes flying over their home or tanks rolling into their neighborhood, whether in Ferguson, Mo. or Mosul, Iraq. Terrorist activities in a region are best prevented or mitigated by community-based solutions that are culturally sensitive and subject to legitimate laws.

Seven, accept world law enforcement, not US global policing. It is time to strengthen the sovereignty of civil society of all humanity, not arrogate the power to those with war jets and missiles.

Eight, stop pretending to be a leader in MENA. Accept that the borders there will be redrawn by those who live there. This is their region and they resent a full millennium of the combination of crusades followed by colonialism capped off by imperial powers drawing their boundaries and extracting their resources. Stop feeding that long history of violent intervention and give the region a chance to heal. It will not be pretty but our ugly repeated adventures into Iraq have unleashed too much death and destruction too many times. Repeating those disastrous treatments and expecting different outcomes is a symptom of our affliction.

The addiction to violence is curable, but not by more violence. Starving any disease works better than feeding it and more violence produces the obvious–more violence. The Obama administration, and every US administration preceding it, should know better by now.


Erin Niemela (@erinniemela), PeaceVoice Editor and PeaceVoiceTV Channel Manager, is a Master’s Candidate in the Conflict Resolution program at Portland State University, specializing in media framing of violent and nonviolent conflict. Dr. Tom H. Hastings is PeaceVoice Director.

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