Engaging the ISIS Threat

IN FOCUS, 1 Feb 2016

Marc Pilisuk – TRANSCEND Media Service

We find widespread agreement that the methods chosen by ISIS and other groups espousing indiscriminate acts of terror are abhorrent. The recommended responses that I have heard suggested cross a political spectrum and are summarized as follows:

  • Wipe them out militarily;
  • Mobilize an international coalition of nation states to battle them;
  • Target their identified leaders and assassinate them with drones;
  • Increase international and domestic surveillance;
  • Deny them the ability to control territory;
  • Isolate them;
  • Get Muslim leaders to denounce them;
  • Stop referring to them as ISIS;
  • Deny refuge to Arabs or Muslims who are trying to avoid displacement by war and exploitation.

Rarely is “them” described other with the names of suspected organizers of specific acts of terror.

None of these responses appears to hold any promise for undoing the threat. In times of threat, we typically find a demonization of an evil enemy that must be checked at all costs before its influence grows to destroy us. That condition is shared with most previous heightened conflicts. But there is an additional factor now. The most militant factions of the dissident extremists are not governed by a state – or even by a clearly identified revolutionary identity. They are organized and dangerous, but they are not ISIS.

The major strength of the militants, however, lies in the widespread appeal of their anti-colonial message. The militants employ soldiers and weapons strewn over the Middle East over the course of decades, largely by US interventions. Trafficking in weapons is now well established. Their horrendous acts of terror are most frequently the work of men and women ready to engage in suicidal missions. Acts of retribution and the suppression of humanitarian aid serve to advance the recruitment of increasing numbers of such people.

One cannot fully understand this recruitment without recognizing the widespread sympathy with some of their core beliefs. They believe that Western colonial powers, particularly the US, have through modern history:

  • Exploited their natural resources;
  • Created and supported repressive regimes more responsive to transnational corporations than to public needs;
  • Bombed mosques and medical facilities;
  • Assassinated journalists;
  • Disdained the culture, religion, and the historical contributions of their region;
  • Fanned anti-Arab hatred.

None of this justifies indiscriminate acts of terror, but the beliefs have a sufficient validity to be reflected among larger numbers of the Middle-Eastern population and diaspora, some small percentage of whom will be recruited to engage in acts of terror. This process completes the cycle of escalating military violence on all sides and apparently without end. All of the options described initially contribute to the recruitment of extremists ready to engage in suicidal acts.

In order to break the cycle of endless war against never-ending terrorist attacks, we may have to take more seriously what is often acknowledged: There is no military solution.

Political leaders and the media vie for who will mount the strongest denunciation and call for military responses that will send more weapons into an unstable area and sacrifice lives of both civilians and soldiers on all sides. These military threats and actions are presented as courageous. But I contend that sending other people’s children to fight in an unwinnable war would be among the core cowardly responses. The courageous step needed to engage ISIS and other organized groups planning acts of terror is to talk to them.

Always in times of escalating rhetoric of war, reasonable discourse is not considered. The enemy is considered vicious, culpable of violent and criminal activity, and not to be trusted. The idea of talking with ISIS sounds preposterous. What would we say? With whom would we meet? What security assurances would be needed? What ground rules would have to be set?

As one of the founders of the first teach-in on the Vietnam war and planners of both a national teach-in in Washington and a cross-national teach-in in Toronto, I have sad memories of our efforts. In Washington, invited guests from the State Department and White House advisors did not show up for a dialogue with highly qualified opponents to the war. In Toronto, we tried to get lower level officials of the South Vietnamese puppet government to meet with Viet Cong officials. We were not successful in initiating talks.

It was far easier for government officials to generate demonizing accusations, to plan strategies for winning, to bomb military targets and rice fields, to send soldiers into the black hole of war. Fifty-eight thousand did not return from their battles that killed two million Vietnamese and led to the Cambodian genocide. The returned soldiers, beset with trauma, still account for disproportionate numbers of suicides, homeless, jobless, and mentally ill people. Surely dialogue could have addressed false charges of a single US ship being attacked and the reality of Vietnamese nationalism rather than mythical fears of dominos falling into a Communist orbit.

We speak of preserving the value of the dignity of all lives. When the International Atomic Energy Agency was engaged in dialogue with Iraqi officials to gain sufficient access to determine whether Iraq had bomb-producing facilities, and when the largest anti-war demonstrations around the world asked for this time, US and British authorities instead initiated a war with Iraq, the consequences of which include the emergence of armed, angry people whose influence continues to grow. Talks with Saddam Hussein would surely have been preferable. Talks have occurred between nuclear powers with expressed concerns that they would be annihilated but for the threat of massive retaliation. It is time now to talk directly with ISIS.

With whom would we speak?

The US already retains an extensive list of suspects, many already on watch lists with data on their interactions with colleagues. Many already are targeted for assassination. They can just as easily be targeted with invitations to talk. When targeted assassinations, guided by insufficient signal intelligence, are not precise, the consequences are horrific. The costs of inaccuracy in targeting influentials in ISIS with offers to talk and much smaller, and such talks can be effective in weakening the demonization of the West. Citizen diplomacy could use personal contacts to initiate interest. Surely elaborate security guarantees would need to be arranged. Perhaps a unanimous Security Council resolution might help with such guarantees. Many overtures will need to be secret, some by organizations wise in conflict resolution. But knowledge that such efforts are occurring can introduce the idea, on all sides, that something other than blind force is possible.

What would we say?

“You are angry with those who have mistreated your lands and your culture. You have made your point in how strongly you wish to strike back. We may disagree on many things but do agree that outright destruction of all groups espousing terror or military violence is neither a possible nor a desirable outcome, nor would it be in keeping with any spiritual faith. We are prepared to listen to your message and try to better understand it. We ask only that you do the same. We start with a belief that colonial powers hold a share of the blame for unrest and owe a debt for past and continuing exploitation. The path to a more just world may be difficult but the attack and counter attack in place now is too disrespectful of human dignity and devoid of hope to continue. Let us begin with small, safe talks to try to find something better.”

Years back, at the height of the Cold War, psychologist Charles Osgood proposed a strategy of GRIT – graduated reduction in tension-reduction – in which small conciliatory unilateral initiatives would be announced and followed through upon, regardless of the adversary’s response. Successive efforts would summon both curiosity and small reciprocal efforts. Evidence from both lab studies and analyses of gestures in the Kennedy-Khrushchev era are promising.

It is difficult to engage in direct violence against those whom you have met face-to-face, even if they have been identified as enemies. Sprinkling doubt among present ISIS followers and potential recruits may reduce killing while promoting hope. Given the alternative, this is a time to test our beliefs in the power of creative non-violence.


Marc Pilisuk, Ph.D. – Professor Emeritus, University of California. Faculty, Saybrook University, Berkeley, CA. Author (with Jennifer Rountree), of The Hidden Structure of Violence: Who Benefits from Global Violence and War. NY: Monthly Review Press (2015). mpilisuk@saybrook.edu


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 1 Feb 2016.

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6 Responses to “Engaging the ISIS Threat”

  1. Stefanie says:

    Thank you for this article. I was just about to interrupt my regular articles to teachers and parents in order to talk about this. You have summarized my thoughts beautifully. I plan to bring these very ideas to audiences of youth educators because I believe that too many of us believe in a one-directinal ‘villain-hero’ story : where the villain is purely evil, with no hope of change – and therefore the only solution is to ‘destroy’ them. And the hero was ‘born good’, blameless for the world of inequality that leads to the desperation of the ‘villains’.
    We see this in almost every hollywood story line. We see this virtually every news story where crime or violence is involved. Children are surrounded by this villain-hero storyline everywhere they go. We need a new story. This article gives us ideas of how to begin that new story. Thank you

  2. Jason says:

    The idea seem good but, if they were to actually sit at a table to discuss, that would mean that their power over the region they control is legitimate and so, if they were to demand recognition of their power over a territory they seized by force is it something that can be given them? Can we realistically give them anything for that matter, legally speaking? Even if we put the ideology aside, they are still criminals in the way they acted so i don’t think that would be possible to concede things to them. But if we can’t concede anything to them, is it really a conversation we want to have with them or do we just want them to sit and list to us?

  3. Constanza says:

    The first step is in listening, and in admitting to our, the West’s, responsiblity in how things turned out.

    I would hope there are always people who would acknowledge, even among ISIL, that there is no future to their tactics, none where anybody ever gets a chance to thrive.

    Thanks for this article.

  4. Fred Arm says:

    I applaud the creativity and detail this message has presented to remedy the global scourge of terror and violence; however, I seriously doubt whether this effort will significantly impact the majority of people who still are hardwired into the stone age paradigm of death and destruction. Human beings have slaughtered, maimed, raped, and pillaged since the dawn of mankind. Man has rationalized this behavior and fixed the blame on various fanatics, religions, prejudices, etc. We are fortunate that the extent of the violence has diminished somewhat over the decades. One might even say its somewhat manageable. In terms of deaths, the medical profession in the US is responsible through their negligence for about 225,000 people per year. Cars, about 33,000. So death by terrorists in the US averages about 25 per year. What’s the big deal?! Your doctor is much more dangerous than any terrorist ever could be.

  5. alan haber says:

    Thank you, Mark, the obvious is excellently said. I will pass on the article further.

    If killing all the enemy is not to be the outcome, nor permeant war accepted as acceptable, then some agreements and shiftings toward mutuality must be accomplished. This requires talking, and listening, and talking, back and forth. Of course.

    There is however a newly emergent jihadist ideology, of killing the infidel extending a particularist universality, trumpeted as the true Islam, recruiting to the killing cause. This needs to be challenged, The politics of peace needs to support the “reformation” in Islam, and the reformer clerics, and to argue with the false-fundamentalists. Mohamed and Quran are allies in this …that Islam is a religion of peace, or can be, and the choice is human. The same debate and challenging is needed with Jewish Greater-Israel fundamentalists whose Zionist ideology leads them to violate the very Jewishness of the Israeli State endeavor. Add the Hindu fundamentalists too. But you are writing about engaging the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and its extensions.

    I continue to see the image we need as “the Peace Table”… No peace without a meeting, No meeting without a table Put aside the gun, (at least provisionally) and come to the table to talk. The peace table is receptive to all outstanding questions. There is place for everyone at the peace table. Many sittings will be needed in different arrangements. And make peace personal: everyone can contribute. What questions do you put on the table? What ideas and practices do you have to offer? I think we need citizen initiatives from below for convening a world peace meeting that calls the powers that be to account.

    We just had a meeting in Ann Arbor …which you know is one of the nodal points on the acupuncture map of the global body politic. Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, WILPF, hosted a symposium, which Odile organized, seeking to reinvigorate the Campaign for a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the doomsday clock hands 2 minutes forward, to 3 minutes before midnight. The situation has not been more dangerous in decades. Nukes and their threats bristle. Nuclear Winter is no answer to global warming.

    Jackie Cabasso international coordinator of Abolition 2000 had just returned from The Hague, and Annabelle Dwyer, international lawyer, gave legal and movement background and reported on the Marshall Islands World Court case against the nuclear weapons states for violating Article 6 of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. David Dwyer offered an outline on institutional analysis, how structures created for serve people become corrupted and resistant to change, and subject to change.

    Great presentations, (with a good video, soon on YouTube) and, as ever, too small an audience. Activists were busy in separated silos. Some of our conversations searched for bridges between the silos, …one struggle on many fronts of mutual solidarity..

    I considered this a “keystone campaign” in projecting a framework toward Middle East regional peace …and ultimately a world beyond war. Conflicts and tensions embracing and separating Israeli and Palestinian, Jew and Muslim, Arab and Persian, Sunni and Shia, fundamentalist and modernizer, terrorist and diplomat, including pipeline politics and imperialism, all surround this call “that mass destruction should not be an option in war.” A small start affirming a new direction. Pressing to reschedule the oft postponed Helsinki conference allows connecting many of the dots toward a mutual security oriented reshaping of Middle East and global politics. The discussion did not get too far in the bigger vision…being blocked by the United States government, continuing to support the Israeli government, and refusing even to allow a United Nations Conference to talk about a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone, as provided in Article 4 of the Non-Proliferation treaty. International legalities and necessities confront apparently immovable “political realities.”

    Action proposals ranged from writings to the President and Presidential Candidates pressing for commitments to convene the Helsinki meeting; engaging Congressional Representatives to join in sponsoring HR 1976 pressing for US nuclear weapons elimination; engaging City Councils where we live to join Mayors for Peace, supporting the 2020 initiative for elimination of nuclear weapons, highlighting the imposed local austerity from the bleeding the city tax bases for support of nuclear weapons programs ($84 million a year from Ann Arbor, at last count); taking the question into the Jewish community, J-Street, Jewish Voice for Peace, Open Federation/OpenHillel, etc., to rise debate in this country and create Diaspora calls to the Israeli Government; and to give support to the embattled Israeli Peace Movement…and more ideas that will appear in a report..

    While all good ideas, there was a kind of fatalistic futility…we’ve been doing this for years and years, pushing on different parts of the oversize elephant in the room, but not yet having the means to move it. How do we create a better media among us all and for the public? What are films to inform and inspire? How do we bring forward art and images to help see ways in the wilderness…the peace table, and bridges among the silos is the best I could offer. One person offered a quotation from the last living veteran of the First World War: “War is nothing more than organized murder.”

    I hope it is appropriate, in the cc. copies of this message, to ask beside yourself, those whom you asked to consider the importance of talking, better than shooting, to consider more specifically, on a different front, how we can advance talk and new diplomacy on Weapons of Mass Destruction, Nuclear Weapons in the Middle East. At sometime we must mark the shift from the system of war to the system of peace and peacemaking. Nuclear weapons, and their like, are doomsday. The Middle East is the apocalyptic hot spot, …foretold Armageddon…It is the place now to begin turning back from the endless war…where better to focus?

    We also considered: from where do we begin, what is the compendium of agreements that is already on the table with which to start . People mentioned the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 2030 sustainability goals, the Paris COP 21 agreements, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Haifa declaration, WILPF resolution, and what else? … What is the best “civilization” has done so far, that we can affirm as a framework?

    WILPF did a recent pamphlet advocating for “Hamas at the Middle East Peace Table. Why?” (on the WILPFUS.org web site) calling on the United States to drop the designation of “terrorist”… dehumanized and objectified as beyond persuasion, ..and of ourselves as beyond learning and seeing with a wider lens…. This moves in the direction you urge…but how does the public get engaged, and how does communication get to the places of power…which seem to have other objectives altogether,

    All thoughts appreciated. Odile and WILPF placed a needle into the Ann Arbor Acupuncture point, and we gave it a few good turns and hope the energy and intention can radiate out. Berkeley is another point, and friends on your cc list are at other points. I call it an effort better to be connected, better to be a “we.” The meeting was on the 51st Anniversary of the First Teach-In Against the War in Vietnam,

  6. Faruque Malik says:

    The Middle East trouble is more than 70 years old. And it all began when US started supporting the religiously-radical sponsored Saudi kingdom. The house of Saud was hand in glove with Wahaab to get total control of Arabia.

    The US did all this for oil. It wanted to use oil as a ploy to control the world. Is there a doubt that why Electric Vehicles, (invented in 1903) still do not have a large share in the car market. It is all oil.

    The Capitalist powers promoted radical religion-based politics to serve as a double edge sword. One edge would help them take and retain control of oil resources, and the other edge would create a radical Islamist base for fighting Communism. And it will be the local populations of the Middle East and South Asia that would suffer, and are still suffering and will continue to suffer.

    If you want to control DAESH etc and prevent terrorism, then please create some platforms which would create awareness amongst the local populations that the religious-sponsored War for Paradise is in fact a biggest falsehood created by the Petro-Riyals-Dollars.

    The most ruthless propaganda of all Islamist-Political parties must be equally ruthlessly exposed and condemned in all those countries where these political parties exist, and also the US & Allies must stop sponsoring and funding these religio-political parties.

    The US must also stop supporting their own created “Guns hungry / commission hungry” armies, the generals of which are simply stooges of CIA etc. (Remember old Ike, (general Eisenhower) had warned the world about the pernicious growth of the military-industrial complex.