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The day after ISIS: the Middle East after Islamic State | An interview with Max Abrahms

In this conversation on the future of the Middle East after the Islamic State (IS), we bring together experts to debate the prospects for reconstruction and governance in IS-held territory, the future of the Jihadi movement, how to mitigate against the return of IS fighters, and the future regional security framework. We ask the experts what policymakers need to start thinking and planning after the territorial defeat of the most dangerous terrorist group to date.

BICOM research analyst Samuel Nurding spoke with Max Abrahms, assistant professor of political science and public policy at Northeastern University and board member at the Center for the Study of Terrorism in Rome, on what lessons are to be learnt from the rise and fall of ISIS from a counter-terrorism perspective.

Samuel NurdingLet’s imagine a future to when Islamic State (IS) is territorially defeated; its Caliphate is no more and most of its fighters have dissipated. How does the overall security framework now look in the Middle East?

Max Abrahms: In a way there has been too much focus on the Islamic State. Huge numbers of other kinds of terrorist groups have streamed into the Middle East, in Syria in particular. The bigger concern in Syria, from a terrorism perspective, is al-Qaeda aligned rebels. Islamic State did itself a huge disservice by being as extreme as it was in terms of its ideology and its tactics. As my research predicted from Day 1, IS’s extremeness led to the group becoming a pariah – it has no external support and doesn’t have any local support either as the local populations didn’t like the coercive tactics of the group. Other groups like the Salafi rebels are less extreme and therefore have been able to attract the support of the international community, particularly from the US, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey as well as from a lot of local support. The al-Qaeda bloc in Syria is unquestionably the strongest part of the Opposition.

Islamic State and its Caliphate has imploded yet we’re left with tens of thousands of terrorists in Iraq and Syria. The terrorism threat since 2014 has focused predominately on IS yet what is more troubling are the slightly more moderate groups who are actually a lot stronger because they have a lot more local support. For over a decade, I have been publishing studies on the determinants of militant group success. This research has allowed me to predict the plight of IS years before pundits on places like Twitter, who don’t have real research as I understand the term.

SN:  At the moment the western-backed coalition is primarily focused on defeating IS, yet for the Middle East this is only half the battle. Once IS is defeated territorially it will leave behind ungoverned spaces. What lessons should be taken from the mistakes that led to the re-emerging of al-Qaeda in Iraq, IS’s predecessor, following the Anbar Awakening and US troop surge in 2006-8?

MA: The one main lesson about Western foreign policy is that regime change in the Muslim is very bad for counter-terrorism. Despite what ideologues may say, toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003, removing Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and supporting the al-Qaeda-led rebels to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are the three main reasons for the emergence of IS. The removal of Hussein essentially gave al-Qaeda in Iraq room to grow, and that movement morphed into a couple of groups that ultimately resulted in IS. When the 2003 Iraq War went so badly, a lot of people concluded the problem was that we didn’t work multilaterally. Thus, the problem wasn’t regime change in and of itself, but the method in which George W. Bush removed Hussein. When the West removed Gaddafi, a lot of people thought it would be different – because it was under the banner of NATO with strong EU leadership. But those people misdiagnosed the problem. The problem didn’t have to do with multilateralism (because even when it was carried out multilaterally, it was still a massive disaster) but rather with regime change itself in the Muslim world.

When we were removing Gaddafi, terrorists from all over the world were encouraged to return to help in this effort, and many of these weapons and fighters eventually found their way into Syria. The Manchester and London terrorists are just the latest examples of how teaming up with jihadists for the sake of regime change abroad can lead to blowback.

Political scientists have established that civil wars generally end when one side displays military superiority over the other. The early Syrian unrest would have been put down relatively quickly had it not been for the international community’s decision to back-up the weaker side. To this end, the Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey etc. encouraged all sorts of radicalised people to go into Syria to topple al-Assad. To a large extent, the massive numbers of fighters we see in the Middle East today are a result of our prioritising regime change over counter-terrorism. This is because many analysts secretly prioritize the Iran threat over radical Sunni terrorist groups like IS and al-Qaeda.

SNAs a counter, if you had the ear of the US President today would you be advocating for the strengthening of the Syrian or Iraqi regimes, using them as ways to enforce more counter-terrorism, because lots of the people fighting these regimes are the very same Sunnis who have been disenfranchised by those governments?

MA: This is the conventional wisdom – that the Sunnis after 2003 were underrepresented, disenfranchised and therefore gravitated towards radical groups. There are two main schools of thought on the conditions in which terrorist groups are more or less likely to emerge. The first is the grievance model of terrorism and essentially your question is an extension of that model. This model posits that people become terrorists in response to sectarianism or other grievances mentioned above. Analysts made that argument in Iraq and then in Syria where they say that because al-Assad is dictatorial the Sunnis are rising up against him in the form of the rebels and IS.

The other model is the opportunity model of terrorism which posits that terrorist tends to migrate to places where the conditions are more propitious to congregate with other terrorists and to plan and mount attacks. I think it’s a mistake to understand IS as a response to grievances because IS attacks places even where it has no grievances. The leadership calls upon supporters to attack anywhere in the world. What are the IS grievances for them to attack targets in Libya, or Yemen, or Belgium or Bangladesh?  It’s not a requirement for them to have grievances. As a predictive model of IS target selection, the grievance model fails.

Of course, people can always manufacture some sort of grievance but in reality IS reacts less to grievances than to an opportunity to thrive. For IS, the main opportunity has arisen due to the international community in the form of regime change in Iraq, Libya, and radically weakening the government in Syria, allowing not only IS but other terrorist groups to thrive. I predicted this very early on when analysts were using the grievance model to predict the attack patterns of the group, again with no data, just musings. So, I am going to make the same prediction now that I’ve been making for years — that the terrorists will continue to gravitate to areas which offer them the best chance to attract other radicals and mount operations.

SN: In terms of the opportunity to thrive, all of our contributors to the series have argued that the situation today is arguably more favourable for terrorist groups to thrive than back in 2004-6 at the birth of IS’s predecessor group al-Qaeda in Iraq. Do you agree?

MA: That sort of comment is not research-based. Terrorists are rational actors that try to adjust their behaviour based on their perception on what worked and what failed. So a key question becomes what will be the perceived lesson from the history of Islamic State? Some people will conclude IS was successful, at least for a time, so future terrorists will attempt to emulate the group’s behaviour, but smarter people who want political change will recognise that IS imploded because of its extremism and that more moderate groups have longer staying power, so they will try to emulate groups like Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat Fatah al-Nusra and possibly the Taliban.

This blog is part of the BICOM research series The day after ISIS: the Middle East after Islamic State. You can read the other entries in the series here.

Max Abrahms is assistant professor of political science and public policy at Northeastern University and a board member at the Center for the Study of Terrorism in Rome.