The terrorist attacks in Brussels, claimed by the Islamic State (IS), stoked fear, anger, and confusion about how Europe – and the world – should respond. As hardened fighters facing divided opponents, these jihadists are unlikely to be defeated decisively on the battlefield. However, since they aspire to overthrow the global order, they cannot be accommodated by a political settlement. Further complicating these dilemmas is the fact that spectacular violence by IS tends to provoke reactions – xenophobia, curtailing of civil liberties, selective policing at home or military adventurism abroad – that aggravate the conditions that enabled its rise in the first place. Jihadists are looking for an even bigger fight. We must not give it to them.
Just days before the latest attacks, the International Crisis Group published a landmark report that shows how the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and affiliated groups are "Exploiting Disorder." The report details the ways these groups have exploited wars, state collapse and geopolitical upheaval in the Middle East, gained new footholds in Africa, and pose an evolving threat elsewhere. Key findings are that jihadist expansion is more a product than a driver of instability and owes more to fighting between the jihadists' enemies than to their own strength.
Any effort to counter the IS and its competitors requires avoiding the mistakes that enabled their rise. This means that policymakers should distinguish between different groups with different goals – and attempt to pick apart the various strands within movements. Even the most radical groups tend to have a dedicated core with transnational goals but a rank-and-file with diverse, often local, motives whose loyalties may be shifted.
Governments should not be so quick to go to war, particularly if they don't have a political strategy for the day after. Military action alone will not do the job, and in some cases risks driving support toward extremist groups. A classic example is the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which prepared the way for the rise of IS. Jihadists profited from the sense of victimization and alienation among Sunnis, who were largely left out of Shia-dominated political and military power structures. This is why taking territory but losing the trust of the people is a poor bet – it only reinforces the dynamics that brought the jihadists to power in the first place. Yet even today, the strategy to root out the Islamic State in Iraq seems to involve mainly the use of overwhelming military power. U.S. and Iraqi forces are literally destroying cities and towns in the name of saving them, at the risk of further antagonizing Sunni communities.
Governments should focus on containment strategies where no better option yet exists – slowing down military operations to enable political strategies to catch up. In Libya – with three rival governments, fragmented security forces and contested financial institutions – a heavy Western bombardment or deployment of troops against IS without a wider political settlement seems likely to deepen the chaos. While IS undoubtedly poses a threat, rushing into a military campaign, particularly in cooperation with regional and non-state actors that have their own agendas, complicates the ability to arrive at a durable political solution at the end.
States must uphold international human rights and humanitarian law, even and especially during times of crisis. Jihadists' ability to offer people protection against abuses by regimes, other militias or foreign powers is among their greatest assets, and is usually more central to their success than ideology. In Nigeria, for example, the government's initial response to Boko Haram veered from initial denial to brutal crackdowns and to military operations, including air assaults that killed civilians. Many youths were executed or imprisoned without trial. Even now, more competent Nigerian and Chadian operations that have reversed Boko Haram's gains tend to be heavy-handed and indiscriminate, paving the way for radicalization. They may not drive communities to support Boko Haram, but they make them less likely to offer government cooperation.
The use of targeted killings should also be curbed. In addition to concerns about legality, accountability, and transparency, there is little evidence that targeted killings decisively weaken jihadist movements or end the conflicts they fight in. Drone strikes can disrupt extremist networks, but they can also cause civilian casualties, fuel anger and destabilize local political conditions. In a number of cases documented by Crisis Group – including in Somalia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq – assassinated leaders have been replaced by even more hardline commanders.
Amidst all the uncertainties, one thing we do know is that while IS, al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups are typically too weak to themselves provoke wars, they are quick to profit from them. Any escalation in conflict, particularly along the belt running from West Africa to South Asia, is likely to open new theatres from which it will be difficult to eject them later. With that in mind, regional governments and international powers should urgently redouble conflict prevention efforts and shore up vulnerable states – such as Chad, an important partner of the West in the fight against jihadists in the Sahel.
World leaders face enormous pressure to act and to step up the fight against the vaguely defined threat of "violent extremism." However, they should learn from past missteps and avoid playing into jihadists' hands.
Jean-Marie Guéhenno has been president and CEO of International Crisis Group since August 2014. He served as the United Nation’s under-secretary general for peacekeeping operations from 2000 to August 2008 and headed President François Hollande’s review of French defence and security policies in 2012-13.