Skip to content
View Featured Image

Engaging The ISIS Threat: Time For A Method Yet Untried

Above Photo: Reuters

12 Jun 2017 – Responses to the threat of terrorist attacks have been ineffective in removing these threats. Both military and diplomatic officials acknowledge that a military solution is not possible. This can be a learning moment for international conflict resolution. Before digging more deeply into endless war, an examination of some powerful nonviolent tools provides a clearer and more hopeful path. The fields of international psychology and conflict resolution suggest some effective tools.  They are available to governments, NGOs and citizen groups.

Many reasonable opponents of destructive war once hopefully believed that the advent of nuclear weapons made the cost of war so great, for the initiators as well as the targets, that wars would be a thing of the past. We were wrong. The proponents of peace through disarmament and international cooperation were beaten back by theories of escalation, the shift to proxy wars, and development of an array of weapons that could shift the major costs to less powerful enemies. And the hidden dealings of the warfare state found us often engaged in unpopular wars. However, the emergence of ISIS and similar groups obliges us to reassess whether the costs and purposes of war are once again beyond the pall. The concepts and tools of nonviolence may be ripe for a mainstream renewal.

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 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 facing displacement by war and exploitation.

The array of responses has involved such costs as tarring the US as a proponent of war and as a state requiring extensive cyber intrusion and attacks upon whistle-blowers. These labels work against the efforts to present the US as a leader in human rights and democratic processes. That is a heavy burden since ISIS recruitment and domestic disillusionment follow such efforts. But with a “them” to fear and to hate, we bear the costs.

Rarely is “them” described other than with the names of suspected perpetrators of specific acts of terror or others described as “high value” targets. The novelty and the complexity of “them” is baffling those who have been charged with their defeat.

What is ISIS?                        

Part of ISIS, (sometimes considered to be the whole thing), is an organization that has military power, controls vast territory in Syria and in Iraq and has information access throughout the Middle East and beyond. Its leaders express an ideology regarding the restoration of a caliphate or a religious state. This part of ISIS does command oil revenues and arms. It is an organized jihadist group that controls territory and seeks statehood. Acknowledging the overwhelming military superiority of the US and NATO, the leaders adopt a strategy geared to polarization of adversaries and the zeal of potential sympathizers. As reported in the Guardian, the tactics have been described:

Hit soft targets: ‘Diversify and widen the vexation strikes against the “Crusader-          Zionist” enemy in every place in the Islamic world, and even outside of it if       possible, so as to disperse the efforts of the alliance of the enemy and thus drain it           to the greatest extent possible. …

Strike when potential victims have their guard down. Sow fear in general           populations, damage economies. ‘If a tourist resort that the crusaders patronise …    is hit, all of the tourist resorts in all of the states of the world will have to be         secured by the work of additional forces, which are double the ordinary amount,   and a huge increase in spending (Atron, 2015).

Eager to recruit, the militant group may spend hundreds of hours trying to enlist a single individual, to learn how their personal problems and grievances fit into a universal theme of persecution against all Muslims. Within the elite, however, the ideology does not extend to all Muslims and the Shia are often depicted as apostates fit for extermination (ISIS declares war on….Muslims, 2015). The Sunni-Shia enmity, however, has too often been used to evade responsibility for the current conflict on the part of the US- led invasion of Iraq in 2013. Chomsky,  notes:

One of the … main effects, of the U.S. invasion of Iraq …was to incite sectarian                   conflicts that had not been there before. If you take a look at Baghdad before the           invasion, Sunni and Shia lived intermingled—same neighborhoods, they intermarried. Sometimes they say that they didn’t even know if their neighbor was       a Sunni or a Shia (Chomsky, 2015).

Western intelligence agencies have difficulty in understanding the limited effectiveness of efforts to find Muslim religious or political leaders to repudiate and to demonize Muslim extremists in their midst. This comes from a failure to grasp that people in Arab countries more frequently identify complicity with a neo-con intelligence presence that is spreading such fears and often view their own authoritarian governments as the source of such stereotypes (Gulam, 2015).

People in the region have been mobilized to fight one another. Some have been displaced in social and economic status and left without hope after a foreign invasion (Lawder, 2016).  The futility of a search for military enemies and allies among the various factions in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Kurdistan, Turkey, Libya and the Saudis should be obvious. PKK, the Turkish guerrilla group that is fighting for the Kurds in Turkey is based in northern Iraq. They are on the U.S. terrorist list. No strategy that deals with ISIS while opposing and attacking the group that is fighting them can make sense.  Nor does it make sense to have a strategy that excludes Iran, the major state that is supporting Iraq in its battle with ISIS. The contradictions and shortcomings inherent in military strategies abound. Iran is viewed officially by NATO, the US and Israel as a potential military threat. However the nation, other than the US, wanting an inclusive government in Iraq is Iran. The US/NATO attack on Libya in 2011 has not brought peace. Thousands of troops on the ground in Iraq are not ending the conflict. Combat troops remain in Afghanistan. Drone wars continue in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and now new air wars are underway against ISIS and others in Iraq and Syria. The ground fighting by ISIS has exposed rifts with Al Queda which appears to adhere to a slower, long term vision (Gerges, 2016).

At a time when Iraqi unity might help to deter the strength of ISIS, the divide left by the allied war and its displacement of Saddam Hussein’s more secular armed forces has made this unlikely. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition has shown a distinct Shiite bias, has acted in a corrupt fashion, and ignored popular demands for security and services. In this view ISIS is less an enemy than a symptom of turmoil formed by the invasion of Iraq (Kayaoglu, 2014).

Unsuccessful Responses to ISIS

Vast resources have been used to identify potential plots and to defend against them. These include:

  • Targeting ISIS leaders with drones;
  • Connecting the dots by which different intelligence agencies share information;
  • Increasing to 46,000 airport screeners, up from 16,000;
  • Increasing the number of air marshals i.e., cops in the sky. The actual number is. classified;
  • Upgrading port security by enhancing detection capabilities, switching emphasis from cocaine to weapons;
  • Stockpiling antidotes to bio-chemical attack with billion dollar investments:
  • Establishing Biowatch programs costing $ 200 million with no known success;
  • Awarding Lockheed Martin $400 million for biometric ID cards for truck drivers:
  • Establishing FirstNet to increase communication among first responders;
  • Militarizing police by creating Homeland Security Joint Terrorism Task Forces;
  • Monitoring cyber-security at all levels;
  • Searching for informants to spy on potential lone wolves who might plan a violent act or the kid in the basement storing up weapons.

These activities spawn the growth of counter terrorism industries complete with “experts” and corporate lobbyists with strong media links. They work to demonize enemies and to justify the costs of military response. Drone warfare illustrates at the same time the boom in military spending and the assurance that such spending adds to resentment toward the U.S.

By any measure, drones have been counterproductive. Both civilian and government drones have increased dramatically and the trend is likely to continue. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration predicted that more than 10,000 drones will be operating within the US by 2017 (Cherry, 2013), and 30,000 are projected by 2020 (Wolverton, 2014).  Weaponized drones have been used to immobilize the ability of protestors on the US mainland and of refugees on the Mexican border areas. They have been used increasingly since 2010, according to a newly released DHS document entitled “Concept of Operations for CBP’s Predator B Unmanned Aircraft System” (Gallagher, 2013). Their use anywhere in the world has been unpopular. Pakistani public opinion shows attitudes more disturbed by US drones than by fears of terrorists. An estimated 74% of Pakistanis polled by Pew in 2012 termed the US an “enemy”, primarily because of drone strikes (Pew Research, 2012).  This same survey revealed that only 17% backed drone strikes against leaders of extremist groups.

Al Nusra and the Strategic Debacle in Syria

Resentment against colonial intervention runs deep. The US aided the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan to fight against their own somewhat more secular tribes in the North in an effort to thwart Soviet influence. This use of strategic gamesmanship in the absence of knowledge or concern about the depth of tribal and religious identities helps to explain the roots of Al-Qaida, the sympathy it has found throughout Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, the actions of 9/11 and the longest war in US history. The penchant in foreign policy to view the world as a giant game-board of nation states to be aided, armed, manipulated, undermined or defeated comes with a poor understanding of  the roles of culture, economic inequality and human needs (Pilisuk, 1982).

The tragic war in Syria illustrates the consequences of seeking “moderate” factions and arming them in hopes of overthrowing and creating a more compatible government. The policy has produced terrorist groups, splintered amongst themselves and supplied with weapons, mainly from the US. The divisions among these groups have  contributed to the failures of the West in picking sides. Al Nusra, recently declaring its independence from Al-Qaida, remains a military and ideological source of support for jihadist activity in Syria.

The perspective of soldiers on the ground often differs from that of military planners. Jack Murphy, a former Green Beret (U.S. Special Forces), issued a detailed report, US Special Forces Sabotage White House Policy Gone Disastrously Wrong with Covert Ops in Syria.  Murphy tells the story of U.S. Special Forces under one Presidential authority, arming Syrian anti-ISIS forces, whilst the CIA, obsessed with overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad, and operating under a separate Presidential authority, conducts a separate and parallel program to arm anti-Assad insurgents. The Free Syria Army, rather than representing pro-democracy opposition to the Assad regime has become an inseparable part of Al Nusra (Crooke, (2016). Pro-democracy protesters in Syria opposing Bashar al-Assad in 2011 were shot in the streets by security forces. In 2016, the crackdown launched against demonstrators is being led by Islamist rebel groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra (Dearden, 2016). Military intervention has created a monster.

Playing the military game-board as a way to gain governments amenable to US economic and geo-strategic goals, has had deleterious consequences. We have sided with the most repressive middle-eastern governments, The Saudis and Qutar. Most dangerously we have raised the stakes to a risk of war with Russia. Instead,  US officials could press for a coalition of Europe, the U.S., Canada, and Australia, the white colonials, along with Turkey, to resume negotiations with Russia, building upon the successful negotiations between the U.S. and Russia that led to the destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal (Bennis, 2015).

Military actions are often promoted as essential to protect innocent civilians. There is, however, an increasing amount of evidence suggesting that, on average, foreign military intervention in the name of R2P (Responsibility to Protect) has actually done more harm than good (Zunes, in press).  In both the bombing of Serbia in 1999 and the bombing of Libya in 2011, it appears that nonviolent alternatives were not fully supported. Violence dramatically escalated as a result of military intervention. Hardline elements among the resistance came to dominate, resulting in increasing instability and widening conflict. The cases support findings from more inclusive studies. For example, a statistical analysis of such interventions intended to stop mass killings over a fifty-year period, between 1955 and 2005, concluded that international military interventions in cases of severe repression actually exacerbates violence in the short term (Kathman and Wood, 2001; Wood, Kathman, and Gent, 2012). The authors note how changes in the balance of power in a civil war influence the strategies of combatants typically increasing the level of violence. They conclude that with foreign intervention, the state engages in increasingly violent tactics towards civilians due to increased difficulties in resource extraction and threats to their power.

Military action is sometimes demanded as a means to bring perpetrators of gross crimes to justice. However, killing people is a particularly poor way of seeking justice when the main goals are to deter future occurrences of the type of criminal activity or to enable groups detesting one another to live in peace. Restorative justice, by contrast, provides an opportunity for those judged as perpetrators to restore to the victims what they may and to build a culture that will go beyond endless, eye-for-an-eye retribution (Zehr, 2005; Van Ness and Strong. 2010). A reformulation is needed from who people hate to what people need.

ISIS and Ideology

None of the responses aimed at defeating ISIS or preventing terrorist acts hold any promise for undoing the threat. Military voices concede that there is no military solution. This is because ISIS is much more than an organizational entity. It is an exponent of a much more widely held ideology within the Middle East and beyond. One cannot fully understand the recruitment success of ISIS without recognizing the widespread sympathy with some of the core beliefs. They believe that Western colonial powers, particularly the U.S., 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;
  • Tortured Prisoners of War;
  • Disdained the culture, religion, and the historical contributions of their region;
  • Fanned anti-Arab hatred. ( For a more detailed list see Marsella, 2016).

As long as the Western response ignores the realities of these beliefs and reacts only to acts or threats of terror, it will validate the view that ISIS is not the problem but rather a symptom of Western hegemony. This strengthens the most hardened jihadists. And ignoring its reality means the response of the West will fail.

Official Doubts about the Military Response to ISIS

None of this Western affront to the Middle East 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 them will be recruited to engage in acts of terror  — completing 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. Contemporary America is in need of a national conversation about the appropriate direction of our foreign policy, and about the adverse impact on conditions at home of excessive military activity overseas (Coates, 2014). Guns and bombs are not the only way to beat the jihadists. That view is finding support from surprising sources.

The New York Times published a confidential report by the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, Major General Michael K. Nagata, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. According to the confidential minutes of a conference call Nagata held with several experts, the General said:

“We do not understand the movement, and until we do, we are not going to     defeat it,’ he said ‘We have not defeated the idea. We do not even understand the    idea.  ….I want to engage in a long-term conversation to understand a      commonly held view of the psychological, emotional and cultural power of I.S. in terms of a diversity of audiences…They are drawing people to them in          droves….What we have been asked to do will take every ounce of creativity that we have….This may sound like a bizarre excursion into the surreal, but for me it         is about avoiding failure” (Schmitt, 2014).

One top Pentagon leader who has helped shape the current thinking is recently retired Army Gen. Martin Dempsey. Dempsey stepped down as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff earlier this past fall. Dempsey notes that unless the Iraqi government bridges the divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims and addresses the grievances of the Kurds,  “then nothing we do will last,” …The military lines of effort will always be achieved. And that can be detrimental to the other lines of effort.” The military” according to Dempsey, “defeated the Taliban, Saddam Hussein’s regime and the Iraqi insurgents, but civilian leadership failed to do the political, economic and diplomatic heavy-lifting needed to sustain those wins.” Pentagon’s Joint Force Quarterly (Hooker and Collins,2015). Dempsey’s recognition of the limits of military force should be welcome. But that force is itself a factor in the failure of civilian approaches.  The military fighting itself created Sunni and Shia animosity and sustains it. Kurdish military involvement weakens any chance for an Iraqi state that can maintain unity. Military and political critiques of how a war on ISIS is conducted are still under reported.

Stephen Hadley, who served as national security adviser from 2005 to 2009, recently blamed the U.S. government and the international community’s heavy focus on the military for the failure to adequately train local police forces in Iraq and Afghanistan to stabilize the countries after the end of combat operations (Bender, 2015). Retired four star General Wesley Clark, who was NATO’s Supreme Allied policy Commander for Europe has considered the rise of ISIS a result of bad US military policy (Clark, 2014). Michael T. Flynn, a retired three-star Army general and former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency has publicly raised similar concerns. Lisa Monaco, President Obama’s counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, said the increasing effort by the Islamic State to branch out to countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon and Libya “is a huge area of concern.”  CIA director John Brennan notes that 1,000 foreign fighters flock to Iraq and Syria every month. “We have to find a way to address some of these factors and conditions that are abetting and allowing these movements to grow” (Schmitt, 2014). Among the more serious abetting factors, according to the IMF, has been marked economic decline, decreased educational opportunities and greater poverty in all of the Middle Eastern and North African countries in which violent conflict is occurring (Lawder, 2016). Such conditions contribute to anger and disillusionment leading some to engage in acts of terror. Military incursions have frequently been defended as needed to protect the lives of civilians who face immediate danger. Certainly the emotional appeal of avoiding genocidal activities is strong. However, the evidence for use of force to prevent violence is weak. This was clearly demonstrated in the cases of Kosovo and Libya (Zunes, in Press).

We may be entering a new historical moment in which the overuse of military activities to promote geo-political interests could be coming to an end. This possibility was raised before when the advent of nuclear weapons clearly made the onset of a nuclear war unacceptably costly to both the initiators and the retaliators. Rather than follow this up with enforceable disarmament agreements we have come to risk the consequences of proliferation and to continue wars and threats below the threshold of total nuclear war. But the world has changed. Even some architects of the cold war and the warfare state like Zbigniew Brzezinski and former Ambassador Thomas Gordan no longer believe that Washington will prevail in its quest to extend US hegemony across the Middle East and Asia Kelly, 2016). Brzezinski was a major proponent of imperial expansion. This was described in his book, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives (1997). He has done a dramatic about-face. His article in The American Interest titled “Towards a Global Realignment” calls now for a new cooperative American realignment with Russia and China. Though largely ignored by the media, it shows that powerful members of the policy establishment are questioning the reliance upon global conflict among powerful states using less powerful groups as pawns. Groups like ISIS and Al Qaida are proving that countries like Yemen, Libya and Afghanistan cannot be treated as banana republics. The new methods of threat against people in powerful nations should signal an end to the old model of international conflict. Some military leaders are agreeing that they are being asked to accomplish tasks that have no military resolution and are concerned that Washington policy makers have not absorbed the lessons of America’s last big wars (Bender, 2015).

The Obama administration’s strategy contains nine “lines of effort,” in facing ISIS. Only two of them are led by the military. Other elements of the strategy call for disrupting the terror group’s finances; enhancing intelligence gathering; getting other nations to choke the flow of foreign fighters from some 80 countries who look to take up arms with the Islamic State; persuading Muslim clerics around the world to expose ISIL’s “true nature;” helping people displaced by the Syrian civil war; and lining up the international community to help build better governments in the region, especially in Iraq. There are two problems with the Obama strategy. The first is that the two military options undermine the seven non-military efforts. The second is that the non-military options, creative as they may be, are framed as part of a strategic game to defeat ISIS. They do not take on the necessary next steps that would be useful in converting all parties from a path of bitter opposition to one of respectful dialogue. Still the recognition that military force is not working is one important step.

There is a renewed sense among the more experienced players that after every decisive action comes the question, “And then what?”  According to Joseph J. Collins, director of the Center for Complex Operations at the Pentagon’s National Defense University, while some people advocate sending in U.S. troops, there are “very few of them asking that question of what comes next.”  However, quietly within the Pentagon and the State Department many are asking that question (Bender, 2015).

A substantial military-industrial-media complex is geared to justifications for military solutions (Pilisuk and Rountree, 2015) and ISIS provides the threatening target.

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. There are organized and dangerous individuals among these militant leaders. But they are not ISIS. The major strength of the militants lies instead in widespread appeal of the anti-colonial message. The militants employ soldiers and weapons strewn over the Middle East over decades, largely by U.S. interventions but weapons trafficking is 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 against such attacks or suppression of humanitarian aid to areas where they reside abet them in their recruitment of increasing numbers of angry people.

Breaking the Cycle

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, even among US military leaders. There is no military solution. Given this fact, the value of detailed plans for removal of troops becomes quite important (Cortright, 2011). In fact the rich variety of nonviolent options available obliges a look into which may be appropriate. Many of those suggested accept the goal of defeating ISIS as an evil entity. These are among the strategies listed in the White House plan (2015) and elaborated by the US Institute of Peace (Stephan, 2016). They deserve careful scrutiny. But the field of nonviolence offers something even more appropriate to the current conflict.

I contend that sending other people’s children to fight in an unwinnable war would be among the more cowardly responses. Pressing diplomatic and economic measures to defeat ISIS might help if they are not accompanied by military measures that undo them. The US sent humanitarian aid in air dropped  heavy-duty yellow plastic wrapping, so that people could easily see them when they were dropped. Children would run and find them. Then the U.S. began dropping cluster bombs wrapped with the same bright yellow plastic wrappings. Children were killed running to bombs which they thought were food. The collaboration between humanitarian efforts and military goals always turns into a disaster for the people on the ground (Bennis 2015). Just as there needs to be opposition to Russian weapons there needs to be serious pressure brought to bear on Saudi Arabia, on Qatar, on Turkey, on all the U.S. allies to stop sending weapons to the Syrian opposition, much of which is going directly to ISIS.

The truly courageous step needed to engage ISIS, and other organized groups planning acts of terror, is to talk to them.  This has been the approach of a very small group of courageous journalists who have risked their lives to engage in honest conversation with leaders who have been labeled extremists or even terrorists. Jurgen Todenhöfer, a known human rights defender and advocate for peace, documented his efforts to do just this in My Journey into the Heart of Terror: Ten Days in the Islamic State (2016). His reporting of verbatim accounts of what our “enemies” were willing to share reveals both a human side and a rationale for their actions. It is confirmed in other studies of young people throughout the Middle East finding that they are wanting not violent retribution but rather a place for their own dreams for a peaceful and just future (Kelly, 2014). Surveys of Muslim youth clearly refute the view that madrassa’s are serving to recruit jihadists (Gould, Khisbiyah, and Gould, 2012). Rather, they find excitement among many youth to cut across artificial divides among all the Abrahamic religions. Studies of Muslim youth in three Western European countries show Muslim and non-muslim youth to have strongly similar attitudes on most issues, including opposition to violence. Among those who had experienced discrimination, there was greater sympathy for those who fought back, but still not wishing to engage in violence themselves (European Union, 2010). Would that the military and political leaders now despairing of success in defeating ISIS militarily had studied such accounts more seriously. Instead, hearing from the other side has not been popular. Todenhofer became the target of sharp criticism. As with all escalating conflicts, understanding the adversary was considered to be sympathizing with dark methods of the enemy.

While youth culture, and culture generally, are often missed, in the search for enemies, so too are divisions within governments. If one looks only for military allies, then finding potential collaborators for peace is weakened. Syria is not just a state led by one authoritarian leader backed by Russia and with one oppositional force backed by the US. Visitors to Syria find many citizens looking for ways to prepare for the future through reconciliation, thereby averting a separate group of Syrians ostracized from society.  Dr.Ali Haider, the Minister of State for National Reconciliation is one of two opposition candidates elected to the Syrian Parliament in May, 2012.  Haider has expressed views about restorative justice that include a truth and reconciliation commission as well as the more grassroots efforts of groups working for reconciliation in Israel/Palestine (Nassor, 2016). Such leaders can be a positive influence in negotiation.

The description, provided earlier, for the various components of ISIS does not present easy partners for a violence-ending dialogue. Neither, one might add, are the depictions of the colonial powers and their armies. This offers a time to dig more deeply into the theories and evidence from the study of nonviolent conflict resolution. That shelf has an amazing barrel of options. They range from the teachings and actions of spiritual leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Christ, to the examples set in the work of David Hartsough, Kathy Kelly, Brian Willson, and to the scholarship of Gene Sharp, Michael Nagler, Joanna Macy, David Cortright, Tom Hastings, John Paul Lederach, Johan Galtung, Baruch and Folger, Morton Deutch, and Dan Christie. This arena of knowledge has been relatively untapped in policy circles where traditional ways of strategic thinking have missed out on the tools of nonviolence. Typically the strategists have also missed out on understanding the important roles of women in both perpetuating and ending conflicts (Cheldelin and Eliatamby, 2011). The matter is of special importance where stereotypes of Arab women’s roles replace realities. So much of what has been studied about creative nonviolence has been publicly cast as the realm of naïve idealists to be tolerated at best and looked upon as traitorous at worst. But in dealing with ISIS, every other approach is making matters worse. The time may have arrived to give peace a chance.

The larger rubric under which such options have been studied has been Track II diplomacy. It refers to “non-governmental, informal and unofficial contacts and activities between private citizens or groups of individuals, sometimes called ‘non-state actors.’ In dealing with ISIS, its presence as a non-state system has been the most difficult for traditional approaches. Track II has been refined as nine tracks in a multi track system. Most relevant here are: communication, religion, and private citizen routes.

Communications and the Media, or Peacemaking through Information, is a realm that brings in the voice of the people; how public opinion gets shaped and expressed by the media-print, film, video, radio, electronic systems, and arts, all now influenced greatly by social media.

Religion, or Peacemaking through Faith in Action, examines the beliefs and peace-oriented actions of spiritual and religious communities and such morality-based movements as pacifism, sanctuary, and non-violence.

Citizen diplomacy includes various ways that individual citizens become involved in peace and development activities through private initiatives, exchange programs, voluntary organizations, non-governmental organizations, and special-interest groups. Also relevant in the long run are tracks including: Commerce, Advocacy, Education and Funding.

Peacemaking through Commerce includes the provision of job opportunities (without which peace cannot be sustained) and commercial ties that cross party rivalries. Advocacy and Activism covers the field of peace and environmental activism on such issues as disarmament, human rights, social and economic justice, and advocacy of special-interest groups regarding specific governmental policies. Education, Research and Training is a track connected to university programs, think tanks, and special-interest research centers. It provides training in practitioner skills such as negotiation, mediation, conflict resolution, and third-party facilitation and includes education at every level on aspects of global or cross-cultural studies, peace and world order studies, and conflict analysis, management, and resolution. Funding, or Peacemaking through Providing Resources, includes funding at the community level, by foundations and individual philanthropists, for many of the activities undertaken by the other tracks.

How each track may be applied in dealing with ISIS is a matter that can evolve as resources are put to the task. Some groups, however, are already at work. Build A Movement, is an organization committed to researching nonviolent movements and training activists on strategic nonviolence, digital security and the role of civil society in democratic transitions. Voices for Creative Non-violence has a long record of work with refugees and others bearing the brunt of US economic and military intervention. They have connected with grassroots movements for peace in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Gaza, Bahrain, and Pakistan. What they have learned from the experiences of common people provides a source of information for governments who have too long relied upon military and economic leaders without an adequate ear to the ground.

Official policy circles typically miss the potential for reducing animosity. Sulfa, for example, works diverse groups – Palestinians from, Bethlehem, Jericho, Jenin, Nablus, ranging from devoutly religious to secular, who share the desire to create direct contacts with Israelis from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, kibbutzim and development towns. Participants range from highly religious to secular. Their Tribal Fires, listening circles, shared food and dance and international guests. Some are academics, others are laborers. (Sulha Research Institute, 2016). What we learn from Sulha and from related groups such as the Dialogue Institute of Temple University, the Abrahamic Reunion and 9/11 Families for a Peaceful Tomorrow is that people beginning with extremist views about religion can befriend others beyond their faith and can become tolerant of other faiths. Even among people who have lost a child or other family member, people can meet with their counterparts in the conflict and turn their energies to ending strife. This extends  even to coming together to donate blood to help conflict victims on all sides (Abrahamic Reunion, 2015; Dialogues Institute, 2015).

To advance peace requires an appreciation of the fact that undoing deadly conflicts may take as long and be as challenging as waging them. Three general phases are typically considered. Peacekeeping is the prevention or ending of violence within or between nation-states through the intervention of an outside third party that keeps the warring parties apart. Unlike peacemaking, which involves negotiating a resolution to the issues in conflict, the goal of peacekeeping is mainly preventing further violence. Peacekeeping can also happen at lower levels of conflict, in families, communities, or organizations. Peacemaking is the term often used to refer to negotiating the resolution of a conflict between people, groups, or nations. It goes beyond peacekeeping to actually deal with the issues involved in the dispute.  But it falls short of peacebuilding, which aims toward reconciliation and normalization of relations between ordinary people, not just  formal resolutions that are written on paper. Peacebuilding is a long-term process that occurs after violent conflict has stopped  (Christie et al, 2008; Galtung, 2010). ISIS will not look the same after peacebuilding. Neither will the US and Western Europe.

The indistinct lines in the Middle East conflict gives room for practices of non-violence at several levels. The unsatisfactory attempts at drawing parties to support one or another military leader could be replaced by organized disavowal of the violent struggle. If people refuse to obey, rulers cannot rule. Contrary to the popular view that the population depends on the goodwill of the ruler, it is actually the ruler who depends on the consent of the population to carry out his or her political project (Popovic and Mimoun, 2016; Sharp, 1973).

Always in times of escalating rhetoric of war, reasonable discourse is discarded. 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 a planner of both a national Teach-in in Washington and a cross-national teach-in in Toronto I have sad memories at our efforts at dialogue. In Washington, invited guests in the State Department and White House advisors did not show up for a dialogue with highly qualified opponents of 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, which 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 untrue charges of a single U.S. ship being attacked. Dialogue could have confirmed the reality of Vietnamese nationalism and removed the mythical fears of dominos falling into a Communist orbit.

We speak about preserving values of the dignity of all lives. Violent replacement of dialogue expresses the opposite. In 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency was in dialogue with Iraqi officials to gain sufficient access to determine whether Iraq had bomb-producing facilities. Despite the largest anti-war demonstrations around the world, all asking for dialogue, U.S. and British authorities 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 U.S. already retains an extensive record of suspects, many already on watch lists, with data on their interactions with colleagues. Many already are targeted for assassination. They can 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 influential leaders in ISIS are enormous. In contrast, even imprecisely directed offers to talk 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 will be led or informed 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. In the areas of ISIS influence, we find governments offering support or opposition. We find also communities victimized by violence, some characterized by waves of refugees. We find a medical community and organizers of relief efforts. We also find educational and religious institutions. John Paul Lederach’s “triangle,” describes three levels of society at which would-be conflict resolvers might work: the grassroots, the leaders, and the middle level. While peacework must be done at all three levels, the middle level is especially important. Lederach observes that it links the top with the bottom as well as linking across party lines. It is time for officials to recognize and support the directions already pioneered in nonviolent research and action. There is reasonable concern that envoys sent to talk among groups facing internecine warfare would prove easy targets for assassination or kidnapping. Here again are useful suggestions from the nonviolent action protagonists in the form of assembling caravans of cross party leaders operating as peace advocates (Ervin, 2016). The range and creativity of non-violent action is enormous. Compared with costs of military options, they come at a fraction of the costs.

What Would We Say?

Geo-strategic models regarding which entities to arm and when to send troops abound. Often ignored are powerful models for resolving conflicts peacefully. Extracting one basic theme, the adversarial parties start by listening to one another, repeating the case of the other party to its satisfaction, pointing to regions of validity in the other’s case, and searching for areas of agreement (Rapaport, 1960). Once antagonistic parties can be brought into dialogue the variety and power of conflict resolution techniques are quite compelling (Deutch, 1994;  Fisher, 1994; Kelman, 2010). This problem has been addressed in research on non-defensive communication in which one addresses, with honest curiosity, how another can hold views that might be so alien from one’s own. The task changes from persuasion to understanding (Ellison, 2009). Use of the process across cultural divides has been shown in truth and reconciliation processes (Marsella, 2015).

In the current Middle-eastern case, where getting the parties into the same room is not assured, we can learn from the studies of apology and forgiveness (Hauss, 2003). In 2011, Silvio Berlusconi did, apologize for Western state terrorism and for the Italian terror waged in the middle east in 1911. Italy has not yet suffered what ISIS terms “retribution for massive Western killing, with moderation” Galtung, 2016) Sometimes gaps in deeply held views appear to offer no hope for civil conversation. Recognition that the other party is justifiably grieved by one’s actions can be the first step to bridging barriers to conversation.

For example:

“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 we 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, US and Western Europe, 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 counterattack 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.”

The message can be improved and can be launched to flood the airwaves and the internet with a new strategy to reach and to ignite the imagination, particularly of young people. It can be delivered quietly in diplomatic contexts and informally by civilian groups and by caravans in which respected leaders of opposing groups travel together to bring islands of safe listening in small areas under temporary cease fire. The military has a role in protecting safe passage for the messengers and safe space for dialogues. Armed parachuters might even have a short term role.  Every conversation arising from these invitations provides a part of the answer to General Nagata’s question of why so many are drawn to ISIS.

At the diplomatic level, conversations could find ways to negotiate with IS on meanings of a caliphate that come closer to their model of the Ottoman Empire that contained “millets”, protected areas for linguistic-religious minorities to be themselves.  Rather than a besieged Iraq/Syria state the concept might focus on Mecca-Medina movement not entirely different from the hegemonic secular movement embracing the NATO countries (Galtung, 2016). At the grassroots level the conversations would create ties that decrease the willingness to kill the other side and move cultures toward peace.

Study of non-violent conflict resolution offers some support for such action. Years back, at the height of the cold war, psychologist Charles Osgood proposed a strategy of GRIT — graduated reciprocation in tension-reduction — in which small, conciliatory, unilateral initiatives would be announced and followed through, regardless of adversary response. Successive efforts would summon both curiosity and small reciprocal efforts. Evidence from both controlled lab studies and analyses of gestures in the Kennedy-Khrushchev era are promising (Pilisuk and Skolnick, 1968). If unilateral acts of conciliation can work with apparently intractable conflicts, so also can apology lead, under certain conditions, to forgiveness and reconciliation (Hauss, 2013, 2015). More recent studies of reconciliation refine some of the tools for intervening in intractable conflicts. Where intergroup conflicts have been sharp and longstanding, conditions increasing levels of empathy have proven effective. For example, all groups in a conflict express needs for a sense of agency –including dimensions of power, competence, influence and self-determination. By recognizing such needs in the other, they become more likely to express another type of need, a moral-social need that includes aspects of warmth, trustworthiness and tolerance (SimanTov-Nachlieli, et al, 2016).

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 failing record of the alternative, this is a time to test our beliefs in the power of creative nonviolence. With military solutions failing us it is useful to examine efforts that modify what David Adams has described as a culture of war. The essential characteristics of the war culture are: Enemy images; economic growth based on military supremacy and structural violence; Governance based on authoritarian structures of power; Inequality between men and women; Secrecy and manipulation of information; Soldiers and weapons; Elevation of the rights of some groups above the rights of others; Education which teaches that power is based on force and fear. Part of this path is through poorly charted waters. But the military approach to terrorism is a recognized disaster. And if a nonviolent approach can lead toward a culture of peace, that is a step worth taking. Some of the transition may call upon a willingness to substitute the gains of empire for a world of peace and security, another task for which creative nonviolence can have a significant contribution.


Adams, David. (2006) Culture of peace as the best alternative to terrorism.  Retrieved from: Abrahamic Reunion, (2015)

Atran, Scott. (2015) Mindless terrorists? The truth about Isis is much worse. The Guardian, Nov.15

Baruch Bush, Robert A and Folger, Joseph P.  (2004) The Promise of Mediation: The Transformative Approach to ConflictSan Francisco: Josey Bass Bender, Bryan (2015) Military leaders dubious of bigger war against ISIL Politico 11/17/15 07:08 PM EST Updated 11/18/15

Bennis, Phyllis (2015) Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror. Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press.

Brzezinski, Zbigniew (2016) Towards a Global Realignment The American Interest : Volume 11, Number 6 Published on: April 17.

Cheldelin, Sandra I. and Eliatamby, Maneshka (2011) Women Waging War and Peace: International Perspectives of Women’s Roles in Conflict and Post-Conflict Reconstruction. Bloomsbury Publishing USA

Chomsky, Noam: To Deal with ISIS, U.S. Should Own Up to Chaos of Iraq War and Other Radicalizing Acts

Chomsky, Noam and Polychroniou, C J. (2016) Global Struggles for Dominance. Interview Truthout, August 17, 2016. <>

Christie, Dan, Wagner, Richard V. and Winter, Deborah DuNann (2008) Peace, Conflict, and Violence : Peace Psychology for the 21st Century , Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice- Hall

Clark, Wesley (2014) Don’t Wait for the Next  War, NY: Public Affairs Press

Coates, David. (2015) Weighing the Arguments on U.S Military Action Against ISIS. The Huffington Post | Updated May 09, 2015 <>

Cortwright, D.(2011) Ending Obama’s War: Responsible Military Withdrawal from Afghanistan (N.Y.:Paradigm Press/Routledge).

Cortwright, D. (2009) Gandhi and Beyond: Nonviolence for a New Political Age 2nd ed. (NY:ParadigmPress/Routledge.

Crooke, Alastair, (2016) How the US Armed-up Syrian Jihadists.

Consortium News, September 29, 2016 <>

Dearden, Lizzie (2016) Syrian pro-democracy protesters attacked by jabhat al nusra rebels as they return to streets. Independent , h 16

Deutsch, Mort. (1994). Constructive conflict resolution: Principles, training, and research. Journal of Social Issues, 50, 13-32. Dialogue Institute (2015)

Ellisen, Shraron S (2009) Taking the War Out of Words, 4th Edition Deadwood,OR: Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing

Erwin, Gail (2016) Learning From The Grassroots: Emergent Peacebuilding Design In Pastoralist Kenya , PhD Dissertation, Saybrook University

European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, Morten Kjærum Director (2010) Experience of discrimination, social marginalisation and violence: As comparative study of Muslim and non-Muslim youth in three EU Member States.

Fisher, Roger. J. (1994). Generic principles for resolving intergroup conflict. Journal of Social Issues, 50, 47-66.

Gallagher, Ryan (July 3, 2013). U.S. Border Agency Has Considered Weaponizing Domestic Drones to “Immobilize” People.  Future Tense, ASU New America/Slate.

Gallagher, Ryan (Jan 16, 2013).  Military moves closer to truly autonomous drones.  Future Tense, ASU New America/Slate.

Galtung, Johan (2010) A Theory Of Conflict: Overcoming Direct Violence Transcend University Press: Bergen: Kolofon Press.

Galtung, Johan (2016) Personal Communication.

Gerges, Fawaz A., (2016) ISIS: A History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

Gopin, Marc (2008)To Make the Earth Whole: The Art of Citizen Diplomacy in an Age of Religious Militancy  Dec 31. (2015

Gould, B. , Khisbiyah, Y. and Gould, J. (2012). “ Accessing Global Information: The Muslim Youth Internet Survey on the use of the Internet for Current Islamic and Non Islamic Issues.”  29:2,  22 -42.

Gulam, Asgar Mitha (2015) The demonization of IslamOriental Review, Canada <>

Hastings, Tom H. (2014) A New Era of Nonviolence: The Power of Civil Society Over War, Jefferson, NC: McFarland

Hauss, Charles. (2003) “Apology and Forgiveness.” Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <>.

Hauss, Charles. (2015). Security 2.0: Dealing With Global Wicked Problems. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers: Lanham, MD.

Hooker, R.D. Jr., and Joseph J. Collins (2015) From the Chairman: An Interview with Martin E. Dempsey Force Quarterly 78 | July 01, 2015

ISIS declares war on Muslims: Latest edition of terror group’s magazine calls for Shiites to be targeted. Daily Sep 13th 2016 World News

Kaplan, Oliver (2015) Civilian Nonviolent Resistance to ISIS    Denver Dialogues May 26, 2015 /

Kayaoglu, Baram (2014)rbFive Axioms to Remember about ISIS and Iraq June 25, 2014 <>

Kelly, Kathy (2014) Other Lands Have Dreams : From Baghdad to Pekin Prison.  CounterPunch & AK Press, USA &UK.

Kelly, Kathy (2016) Old Cold Warriors Cool to New Cold War. Consortioum News.

Kelman, Herb C. (2010) Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation: A Social-Psychological Perspective on Ending Violent Conflict Between Identity GroupsLandscapes of Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal Devoted to the Study of Violence, Conflict, and Trauma. 1 (1) :Article 5. conflict_resolution_and_reconciliation_lov_2010.pdf

Kimmel, Paul. R. & Stout, Chris. E. (Eds.) (2006) Collateral damage: The psychological consequences of America’s war on terrorism. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Lawder, David (2016) Economic costs of Middle East wars exceptionally high: IMF Study. Reuters, 9/16/16

Lederach, John Paul (2010), Moral Imagination of the Soul. The Art and Soul of Building Peace. N.Y: Oxford University Press

Macy, Joanna and Johnstone, Chris (2013) Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We are in Without Going Crazy  Novato, CA: New World Library

Marsella, Anthony J. (2015). Reflections on the cultural contexts of conflict resolution via truth and reconciliation processes. In M. Gallucio, (Ed.) Conflict resolution: Issues and directions ( 287-297). NY: Springer SBM.

Marsella, Anthony J,(2016) The Paradoxical Consequences of USA Counter-Terrorism Programs. Transcend Media Service

McDonald, John, W. and Diamond, Lousie  (2003)Multi Track diplomacy

Nagler, Michael (2014)The Nonviolence Handbook: A Guide for Practical Action 1st Edition Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers .

Nassor, Donna (2016) Personal Communication.

Pilisuk, Marc and Rountree, Jennifer (2015), The Hidden Structure of Violence: Who Benefits From Global Violence and War.  New York: Monthly Review Press.

Pilisuk, Marc & Skolnick, Paul (1968) Inducing trust:  A test of the Osgood proposal.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8(2), 121-133, 1968.

Pilisuk, Marc (1982) Games strategists play: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: v.38, No 9

Popovic, Srdja and Mimoun, Raphael (2016) How to Beat the Islamic State Through Non-Violence. Democracy Lab March 14, 2016

Rapoport, Anatol. (1960). Fights, games, and debates.  Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Sadiq, Nauman (2016) Terrorism as Pretext for Intervention in Middle EastOriental Review, Canada Thu, Jun 9, 2016


Schein, E.H.. (1994) The process of dialogue: Creating effective communication. The Systems Thinker. 5 (5) 1-4.

Schmitt, Eric (2014) In Battle to Defang ISIS, U.S. Targets Its Psychology

New York Times, Dec. 28, 2014

Sharp, Gene (1973). The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Boston, MA: Porter Sargent. ISBN 0875580688ISBN 978-0-87558-068-5 LCCN 72–95483 (3 volumes) White House (2015).

SimanTov-Nachlieli, Ilanit, Schnabel, Nurit and Halahi, Samer (2016) The Power to be Moral: Affirming Israeli’s and Palestinians’ Agency Promotes Prosocial Tendencies Across Group Boundaries. Journal of Social Issues Vol 72. No 3  560-532

Stephan, Maria J. (2016) Defeating ISIS Through Civil Resistance? Striking Nonviolently at Sources of Power Could Support Effective Solutions, July 11, 2016 US Institute of Peace

Sulha Research Institute (2016)\

Todenhöfer,  Jurgen (2016) My Journey into the Heart of Terror: Ten Days in the Islamic State. NY: Greystone Press.

Van Ness, Daniel W and Karen Heetderks Strong. (2010) Restoring Justice–An Introduction to Restorative Justice. 4th ed. New Province, N.J.: Matthew Bender & Co.

Volpini , John S. (2013) Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of  S. Brian Willson. Oakland, CA: PM Press

Wessells, Mike (2006) The impact of U.S. antiterrorism interventions on terrorist motivations: Preliminary research in Afghanistan and Iraq.  In P. R. Kimmel & C. E. Stout (Eds.).  Collateral damage: The psychological consequences of America’s war on terrorism, 165-188. Westport, CT: Praeger

White House (2015) FACT SHEET: The Administration’s Strategy to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Updated FY 2015 Overseas Contingency Operations Request. <

Whitney, Mike (2016) Brzezinski Gives Up on Empire. CounterPunch (August 25 2016).

Willson, S. Brian (2016). Paying the Price for Peace. Bo Boudart Productions Wood, Graeme (2015) What ISIS Really Wants, The Atlantic, March WIS /

Wood, Reed M., Kathman, Jacob D and Gent, Stephen E  “Armed intervention and civilian victimization in intrastate conflicts,” Journal of Peace Research September 2012 vol. 49 no. 5 647-660.

Zehr, Howard. (2005) Changing Lenses – A New Focus for Crime and Justice. Scottdale PA: Herald Press (3rd ed)

Zunes, Stephen (2017) The Efficacy of R2P: The Cases of Kosovo and Libya,” in Tony Coady, Ned Dobos, and Sagar Sanyal eds., The Responsibility to Protect in Real Politics Oxford University Press

The Hidden Structure of Violence: Who Benefits From Global Violence and War by Marc Pilisuk and Jennifer Achord Rountree. New York, NY: New York Monthly Review, 2015..

Peace Movements Worldwide (3 Volumes) by Marc Pilisuk and Michael Nagler (Eds). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-Clio, 2011.

Sign Up To Our Daily Digest

Independent media outlets are being suppressed and dropped by corporations like Google, Facebook and Twitter. Sign up for our daily email digest before it’s too late so you don’t miss the latest movement news.