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To Fight IS, West Needs to Better Understand Foe

  • Catherine Maddux

Fighters with the militant group Islamic State wave flags as they hold a military parade along the streets of Raqqa in northern Syria, June 30, 2014.

Fighters with the militant group Islamic State wave flags as they hold a military parade along the streets of Raqqa in northern Syria, June 30, 2014.

As the United States and its allies continue to battle Islamic State militants, analysts say Westerners are struggling to understand IS ideology and motivations.

That understanding is key, they say, to winning the hearts and minds of potential IS recruits in the West and figuring out how to best fight IS on the ground.

The Obama administration’s military strategy is a combination of airstrikes and training local fighters – to defeat IS in Iraq and Syria.

The United States is also conducting a “soft power” campaign – an effort to deter potential IS recruits and supporters of the militant group. Projects are being aimed at the young, who have joined IS in alarming numbers from around the world.

But some experts say that Western minds are struggling to grasp what drives IS and its followers.

The United States does “not understand the movement…we do not even understand the idea,” said Major General Michael Nagata, U.S. Special Operations commander in the Middle East, according to details of a confidential conference call published by the New York Times.

The United States’ record countering radical Islamic groups like IS isn’t encouraging, said author Tawfik Hamid, a longtime proponent of moderate Islam and a scholar at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.

"I don't think anyone in the West knows how to approach this mindset, this is a complex mindset that needs a specific way," he said.

“The main motive is theological,” he said. “It is to subjugate and subdue the world [for] the better of Islam.”

Western nations approach counternarrative campaigns from their own models of thinking, Hamid said.

"They try to solve it from their way of understanding, which can sometimes aggravate things rather than decrease them,” he said.

But “this is a new problem of a different kind that does not fit in the traditional kind of Western thinking,” he said.

One way to understand IS is to look at its relationship to al-Qaida, said Robert McFadden, a veteran intelligence analyst and currently a vice president for the Soufan Group, a New York-based security and research group.

“It’s a very, very vicious cycle within this kind of extremism. Many of the al-Qaida members I talk to, it’s as if they are coming from the same script about how the true path of Islam – as they practice it – is more narrow than the width of a razor blade," he said. “It’s almost as if they are in a competition to be more Islamic than everyone else. They are constantly accusing others of not following the laws of God and being un-Islamic.”

Analysts say IS militants justify their brutal campaign on an understanding of the Quran and prophecies from the 7th century.

IS propaganda includes videos of militants meting out violent punishments, including mass beheadings of Christians, burning a Jordanian pilot alive, and enslaving women the group has captured.

The group’s brazen violence is, in part, intended to bait the West into an ultimate battle, said Peter Bergen, national security analyst for CNN and author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden."

“They have this kind of apocalyptic view that they are part of the end times,” he said. “There's a cosmic fight between good and evil, and they are on the side of good.”

And that’s why, analysts say, IS leaders appear to want to draw the West into a wider battle.

"Islamic State is hungering, thirsting for the United States and non-Muslim countries to come in a forceful way [to] Iraq and Syria," analyst McFadden said.

But McFadden says that strategy may backfire.

“It wants that but it better be careful of what it's begging for because it's going to get it in various forms," he said.

Still, obersers say the West will need help from within the region.

"I think the United States can play a role in this, but ultimately, the most credible voices are going to be within the Islamic world,” said Philip “P.J.” Crowley, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for public affairs.

“It starts with major authority figures in the Middle East,” he said, pointing out that there have already been strong statements from Egypt’s President and Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti.

And, as Bergen points out, the United States faces a dilemma in its fight against IS.

“I think we have a kind of ‘kiss of death’ problem, which is that we're the U.S. government,” he said. “We can push back on IS as a murderous group of people, which is factually true, but we can't really debate in a theological debate with them. This is the responsibility of the Islamic world, not ours.”

VOA's Mohamed Elshinnawi contributed to this report.

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