As the threat from ISIS evolves, so must our counter approach

As the threat from ISIS evolves, so must our counter approach
© Getty Images

This spring, together with its Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS allies and local partners, the United States launched operations to liberate the final ISIS strongholds in Syria. With the fourth anniversary of the coalition’s formation in sight and the apparent military defeat of ISIS on the battlefield, it is an opportune time to consider whether a coalition put together with a relatively narrow, primarily military objective in 2014 remains a useful framework for sustaining international cooperation in a “post-Caliphate” environment.

The battlefield success against ISIS does not mean the end of the group or its brand of transnational terrorism. Even having lost territory, ISIS has continued to spread its violent extremist ideology and operational reach by transforming local insurgencies and aligning with terrorist groups in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, the Philippines, Libya and West Africa. U.S. government assessments judge ISIS to be “operational” in 18 countries, meaning the threat has become more geographically diffuse and localized.

Just as the threat from ISIS has evolved since the Global Coalition was established, so too has our understanding of the most effective ways to counter it. There is growing consensus among policymakers and practitioners that halting the re-emergence of ISIS and its durable influence requires much more than killing and capturing terrorists and countering their narratives. It requires a comprehensive, multifaceted approach, tailored to the local context and more focused on changing the conditions that make the extremists’ propaganda attractive to recruits.


Although we are at (or near) the end of the military effort to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria, we have not appreciably altered the political, social, economic and confessional conditions and grievances that originally caused thousands of mainly young people from dozens of countries to embrace ISIS and its violent ideology.

Over the past four years, formal mechanisms of international counterterrorism cooperation have become more robust, partly in response to ISIS’ rise. From the United Nations to Interpol to various multilateral development actors, including United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank, countering terrorism and violent extremism has been mainstreamed into the work of established multilateral bodies perhaps better suited to sustaining such efforts over the long term.

In light of the above, is it time for the coalition to declare “mission accomplished” and allow this expanded multilateral architecture to assume its responsibilities?  Here are three interrelated arguments in favor of doing so:

First, an international coalition framed around defeating ISIS may have diminishing returns in 2018 when dealing with regional and local manifestations of the threat. Numbering 74 countries and nearly a dozen multilateral members, the coalition may be too global in nature, given the different manifestations of the threat today.

For example, the drivers of violent extremism linked to ISIS-related phenomena in the Lake Chad Basin, Central Asia and Southeast Asia are quite different and the approach to addressing them needs to be as well. Viewing these diverse situations through a singular ISIS lens risks undermining the ability to appreciate the regional and local contexts and leverage existing, or build new, coalitions that can help reduce the threat.

Second, preventing the re-emergence and spread of ISIS requires a different set of tools and partnerships than defeating it on the battlefield in the Middle East; the coalition was formed almost entirely with the latter, rather than the former, in mind. The counterterrorism and related policies and practices of too many active members of the coalition violate human rights and fail to uphold the rule of law, thus helping to generate grievances that fuel terrorist recruitment.

Relatedly, too many such members are understandably reluctant to allow the coalition to focus on the structural, or “push,” factors that can make individuals more susceptible to recruitment, preferring to keep the focus on the violent extremists’ ideology and propaganda and other drivers that don’t center on the behavior of governments towards their citizens.

Moreover, despite the increased involvement in preventing and countering violent extremism of municipalities, civil society organizations, and other local actors and related networks such as the Strong Cities Network over the past few years, too many coalition members continue to champion an overly state-centric approach that views civil society and other local actors as adversaries rather than allies in the effort.  

Third, apart from the military and stabilization coordination related to Iraq and Syria, nearly all of the work undertaken by the coalition’s working groups could be absorbed by other multilateral bodies, whether at the international or regional level, creating a more streamlined and efficient international effort.

For starters, with the adoption of Security Council resolutions 2178 and 2396, the establishment of the U.N. Office of Counter-Terrorism, appointment of a counterterrorism under secretary general, and the launch of the more than $100 million UNDP global program to prevent violent extremism, the United Nations is better equipped than ever to coordinate and support much of the coalition’s non-military efforts. Interpol’s relevant work has expanded considerably, and the Trump administration continues to press NATO to expand its counterterrorism portfolio. Additionally, a number of coalition working groups, e.g., ones focused on foreign terrorist fighters and counter-messaging,  could be integrated into ongoing efforts of other entities, including the Global Counterterrorism Forum.    

Although coalitions, by definition, are supposed to be time-limited, winding down this one could be politically difficult given the perception that doing so would be de-prioritizing the fight against ISIS. However, the opposite would be true: it would demonstrate a willingness to ensure the international community’s response keeps pace with a threat that has evolved considerably since 2014.

Eric Rosand is the director and founder of the Prevention Project, a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and former senior counterterrorism official in the Obama administration’s State Department. Follow him on Twitter @RosandEric.