This article was first published on arabyouthsurvey.com, and is reprinted here with their kind permission.
Sixteen years into the war on terror, al-Qaeda presents an ever-greater threat to the world, and especially to the region, in terms of strength, number, and relevance. The group has more followers than it did and has ensconced itself in insurgencies across the region. Then there is the Islamic State, which emerged in the wake of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and evolved into a global organization competing alongside al-Qaeda to wreak havoc in various countries.
Despite spending upwards of two trillion dollars to eradicate al-Qaeda, the world faces a worse problem than it did in 2001. Clearly, something is not working. The findings of this year’s ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey offer a window of what might be missing in the equation.
Among the most critical parts of the survey is the importance young Arabs placed on the need to go beyond military action in the fight against the Islamic State and terrorism – especially as that group has weakened over the past year. Education reform and providing well-paying jobs are seen as just as important as military operations.
Given that the Islamic State emerged from Iraq, the findings related to this country are particularly telling. The highest number of respondents who said that the Islamic State weakened over the past year come from Iraq (82 percent), but Iraqis are also the second least likely to be confident in their government’s ability to deal with the issue of unemployment, after Lebanese respondents. Concern about unemployment has increased since 2016, with young Iraqis expressing strongest concerns.
There is an obvious divergence between expectation and reality in Iraq, and this should worry any policymaker dealing with the threat of terrorism in the region and beyond. The government in Iraq is facing one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent history, coupled with economic stagnation and low oil prices. Around three million Iraqis are internally displaced. Of the 11 million in need of humanitarian assistance, only 6.2 million are targeted, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The crisis in Iraq is poised to worsen as the battles against the Islamic State continue in heavily-populated sections of western Mosul, and as the government fails to manage resources and curb corruption. The optimism about the military action against the Islamic State in Iraq is eclipsed by the pessimism that Iraqis expressed towards their government and its ability to provide jobs and better education after the Islamic State is defeated.
Elsewhere in the region, the threat of extremism will grow as long as similar problems persist. There is no end in sight for the civil wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen. Several other countries face deep economic, social and political problems even if they are not gripped by military conflicts.
Another key finding is the noticeable rise in anti-American views. A majority of youth in eight Arab countries now consider the United States their enemy, up from four countries a year ago. The highest number of responders with anti-American sentiments come from Iraq — a telling finding, considering the U.S. effort in the fight against the Islamic State in their country.
To defeat the Islamic State and terrorism, the U.S. and its allies in the region have to do much more than the use of force. This is the lesson that countries should have learned from the past 16 years fighting al-Qaeda. These groups can be defeated in the battlefield but their eradication requires a broader effort. These groups exist because of underlying problems that drive people to join or support them.
The fight against the Islamic State over the past three years, for example, focused disproportionally on the military action. In Syria, the U.S.-led coalition overlooked the circumstances that enabled the group to control half of the country in the first place, namely the regime’s brutality and foreign interventions. In Iraq, the fight against the Islamic State did not include a serious effort to rewrite the social and political contract in the country, as if the factors that led some to embrace the group in 2014 suddenly ceased to exist.
It is a mistake to measure success against extremist groups by how much territory gained back from them. Such assessments often cloud judgment about the true strength or relevance of these groups. The fight against extremism must seek to address the grievances that created the space for extremists to operate and present themselves as defenders of these communities.
The threat of terrorism should not be treated narrowly through a military counter-terrorism lens. A more prudent approach should involve better governance. In the case of the Islamic State, better education becomes even more vital because of the immense effort the group exerted over the past three years to brainwash an entire generation. Children who grew up under the rule of this savage group will present a challenge to their countries for many years to come, especially if governments fail to grasp the depth of the problem.
The respondents in the survey highlighted the steps needed to fight extremism. They saw five top priorities: military action, educational reform, jobs, media campaigns to expose the Islamic State ideology as a distortion of Islamic teachings, and reforming religious institutions to fight extremism. Failure to listen to these voices will only perpetuate the problem.