WASHINGTON - While terrorism experts around the globe knew of the Islamic State militants in Syria - also known as "ISIL" or "ISIS" - they were taken aback at its rapid success in Iraq in recent months. ISIL used savvy messaging and political deal brokering to gain partners and take over a large territory. Regional security analysts say unified efforts are needed to counter the militants' message and stop their momentum.
U.S. airstrikes against militant Islamic State fighters in Iraq have helped push them back from some areas. But many regional security experts say that airstrikes alone will not be enough to stop them.
“Air power can be disruptive, but then again it really relies on the quality of intelligence that you have,” said Kamran Bokhari, with the intelligence firm Stratfor.
Michael O’Hanlon, who specializes in security issues at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., said such intelligence can be hard to get.
“The only way to get that is with ground troops who are there to listen and talk to people. Get the information from the population," said O'Hanlon. "And then protect the population afterwards so that sources are not killed immediately in retaliation by the extremists.”
Both Bokhari and O'Hanlon say the ground troops should be Iraqi, not foreign. But Iraqi security forces seem to be in disarray. Iraqi units dissolved in the face of ISIL attacks, a failure blamed on the divisive politics of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
“You have to understand that IS did its homework here. They successfully exploited the Sunni grievances against the Shia-dominated government, as well as the Kurdish regional authority in the North,” said Bokhari.
Domestic and international pressure forced Maliki out. Now the biggest challenge for the new prime minister, Haidar al Abadi, is to form an inclusive government addresses these grievances. IS gained territory by making temporary alliances with local tribes. O’Hanlon fears the militants will use those alliances as leverage to solidify control.
“Can ISIS start to assassinate or otherwise marginalize some of these other power brokers to the point that it can hold on to power over the longer term?” asked O'Hanlon.
Bokhari said the other key to containing the Islamic State is to counter its propaganda. “What the other side needs to do, and this is again the job of mainstream Sunnis and their regional backers, is to reclaim the narrative, reclaim the discourse and basically tell people that this is not a caliphate and definitely not an Islamic State,” said Bokhari.
He says that ultimately, mainstream Sunnis must expand their hold on territory and persuade regional tribes to turn away from the Islamic State's ideology.