National Security

With Over 30 Million ISIS Supporters, it Will Take More Than Bullets To Defeat Them

“Focusing only on defeating ISIS on the battlefield neglects the more important underlying drivers of extremism and violence from which both al-Qaeda and ISIS have emerged…”

From a military perspective, ISIS is being defeated at every stronghold. In Syria, the self-proclaimed ISIS capital of Raqqa is about to fall – the battle there is in the shaping phase as the US led coalition moves troops and materials into place to make the final push.  In Mosul, Iraq, the largest city ISIS occupies, the battle against ISIS is in its final phases. The Iraqi army, with the help and support of the US, are pushing the last of the ISIS fighters out of the city.  Once the battles wind down, and the respective governments and people retake control, what will happen to the remaining ISIS fighters?

The bigger concern is what will happen to the millions of ISIS supporters and sympathizers?  The remaining ISIS leaders and fighters will move into the shadows – they will migrate to countries all over the world.  Many countries see this as a vexing problem.  The fighters and ISIS leadership that escape the actual battle will spread to other nations, bringing their perverted ideology with them.  Immigration to Europe by those fleeing the war zones brings with it the danger that ISIS fighters will be among the refugees. The primary concern is that displaced ISIS personnel will be able to link up with a global underground army of religious radicals.

For the most part, military attacks against ISIS have been the only focus. This laser-focus on military action is the same mistake that has been made for the past 25 years of fighting terrorism. The underlying causes of terrorism have never been addressed.

Military action alone ignores the critical factors that created ISIS and the radical Islamic movement, and simultaneously bolsters totalitarian Middle Eastern regimes. The world must address the political, social, economic, and psychological makeup of the people that join groups like ISIS.

What the leaders of the Middle East and the Western nations fighting terrorism fail to recognize is the following:

Military action alone will only exacerbate the radicalism that has plagued Middle Eastern countries for decades.  Focusing only on defeating ISIS on the battlefield neglects the more important underlying drivers of extremism and violence from which both al-Qaeda and ISIS have emerged. The leaders involved in this fight must face the reality that millions of ordinary men and women in these regions have become radicalized.  This is fertile ground for newly dispersed radical Islamic leaders to find a safe area to operate and organize.

Defeating ISIS and running them out from their last vestige of strongholds may heighten sympathy and practical support amongst ordinary citizens across the Middle East.  There are thousands of ISIS fighters in the Middle East.  That is a significant number until you take into account that in the Arab world, as many as 30 million people have some level of sympathy, support, or approval to ISIS.

The Islamic world now faces massive challenges in the post-Raqqa and Mosul ISIS era.  The enormous number of ISIS “sympathizers,” coupled with the reasons ISIS and radical Islam took hold across almost all sectors of society, must be addressed.  The number of potential fighters and surrogates are astounding, and if nothing is done to address conditions that caused radicalization, the likelihood is that both the numbers of fighters and sympathizers will increase.

A Pew Research poll over the past decade shows that a steady average of 4 to 10 percent of Arabs express some understanding, sympathy, or support for radical Islam and ISIS.  In some countries, the support numbers for ISIS reach 40 percent of the population.

What does this mean in real terms?  What it means is that among the 400 million Arab people in the world today, anywhere between 16 and 40 million people sympathize with ISIS in one way or another. This fact could make it easy for ISIS militants leaving Raqqa and Mosul to find safe places across many nearby lands.  Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, is reported to have already abandoned Mosul ahead of the city’s fall to Iraqi forces.

In 2014 the Doha-based Arab Center poll across 12 Arab countries found a lack of any correlation between religiosity and ISIS support.  Most ISIS supporters were not motivated by religious sentiments, but rather by political, social, economic, and other grievances.  The many underlying reasons as to why millions of Arabs sympathize with ISIS and radical Islam affect most citizens in the region.  Issues with material living standards, education, jobs, access to capital, personal freedoms, and rights, coupled with problems or restrictions on political participation and accountability, lead to a lack of direction and hopelessness.

When these issues are not addressed, conditions tend to drive citizens into the hands of extremists.  Many sympathizers who join ISIS are seeking to leave behind a life of vulnerability, humiliation, and weakness for one defined by strength, purpose, and direction.

Any serious effort to destroy ISIS and dismantle its appeal requires addressing those underlying causes.  Only comprehensive reforms in the Arab world, coupled with military action, will bring the desired outcome.

Military attacks do not improve the underlying conditions that transformed ordinary citizens into desperate terrorists.  The aftermath of military campaigns often leaves the region broken, uninhabitable, and desolate.  An effort that only battles ISIS and radical Islam militarily will set up a situation where even more view see ISIS with favor, and the military battling them as the greater danger.

The Way Forward

With the fall of ISIS-held territory looming and the inevitable scattering of ISIS fighters and leaders to other nations, the real task will be implementing the political and social changes that must be made in the region.  The people of the Middle East that have suffered under various governments, and more recently under ISIS, are extremely vulnerable.  The Arab nations will have to deal with social changes, improved living conditions, and the health and safety of their people if they ever want to turn them away from radical Islam or ISIS.  The military cannot correct the conditions that gave rise to this movement through might alone.

Of course, security and safety are paramount in any nation, and that must be established first. But as security is established, improved socioeconomic conditions and reinvented political systems must be established. Failing to take up this effort will result in a new generation of radicalized Islamists and the resurgence of ISIS or other similar groups.

Jon Harris is an OpsLens contributor and former Army NCO, civilian law enforcement officer, and defense contractor with over 30 years in the law enforcement community. He holds a B.S. in Government and Politics and an M.S. in Criminal Justice.

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Jon Harris

Jon Harris is a Senior OpsLens Contributor and former Army NCO, Sergeant Morales Club member, civilian law enforcement officer, and defense contractor with over 30 years in the law enforcement community. He is published in Army Trainer Magazine, authored regular columns in several newspapers, and is the author of the Cold War novel Breakpoint. His adventures as a security contractor in Afghanistan and Iraq can be found on He holds a B.S. in Government and Politics and an M.S. in Criminal Justice and is currently completing his Juris Doctor degree.

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