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Islamic Extremism and the Rise of ISIS

Presider: Jonathan Masters, Deputy Editor, CFR.org
Speakers: Ed Husain, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, CFR, and Janine Davidson, Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, CFR
August 27, 2014

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MASTERS: Hi, good morning, everyone. This is Jon Masters, deputy editor for the Council on Foreign Relations website, cfr.org. And I'm very pleased to be joined by two distinguished participants today for this media conference call on how Islamic extremism has fueled the rise of militant groups like ISIS, otherwise known as ISIL or the Islamic State, as they now refer to themselves. And, of course, we'll discuss what the United States and its allies should be doing to defeat this growing threat.

Ed Husain is an adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at CFR, joining us on the call from London. Ed is an expert on Islamist movements in the region and an authority on counter- radicalization strategies. Janine Davidson is our senior fellow for defense policy. She, of course, provides expertise on defense strategy, military operations, and national security. She writes regularly on the conflicts in Iraq and Syria on her CFR blog, Defense In Depth.

So to begin, I'd like to start with a recent case of radicalization right here in the U.S. We heard news yesterday of an American citizen, Douglas McAuthur McCain, who was killed in Syria and was suspected of fighting alongside ISIS. The 33-year-old reportedly converted to Islam from Christianity several years ago and then traveled to the region via Turkey to fight as a jihadi. And apparently he had some brushes with the law in the years prior to this. And, of course, the FBI is investigating this and other such cases. Of course, Attorney General Eric Holder has warned that dozens of U.S. citizens have gone to join the thousands of other foreign fighters in Syria.

MASTERS: So, Ed, could you perhaps talk a little bit about what the U.S. and other governments are up against here in terms of the radicalization threat? I mean, hypothetically, how does a young man like this move from a slice of Americana, as one reporter I think put it, to -- you know, he was a fan of the Chicago Bulls and a "Simpsons" fan apparently -- to then dying on the jihadist battlefield in Syria. It seems quite scary.

HUSAIN: John, thank you for that thoughtful question. And thank you to all of you who are participating this morning. I think too often we run the risk of seeing jihadists and non-violent Salafists, too, as being rightly extreme, but extremism therefore indicating stupidity, extremism therefore indicating a disconnect with society, extremism therefore meaning that they're somehow abnormal.

I would like to stress that these individuals who are radicalized and extreme don't see themselves as either radical or extremists or in any way abnormal. In fact, they see themselves as the most normal individuals, because they see themselves in sync with what they consider to be God's expectations. There's a strong religious dimension to this.

Most of the individuals who become foot soldiers for now ISIS, previously Al Qaida, and in different battle zones, different organizations, whether it's Boko Haram, in Nigeria, or whether it's Al-Shabaab in other parts of Africa, whether it's the target movement in the Af-Pak area, these tend to be educated individuals, and at least their most public leaders tend to be educated individuals.

Now, how do you go from being an educated individual to adopting that worldview? Several things happen. One, when people come in from villages into cities, as happened in the 1970s Egypt, or when large migrant communities move from the global south, so to speak, to cities such as Berlin, London, New York, and elsewhere, or when individuals convert from one form of religion in mainstream America to a different form of religiosity, in this case, Islam, for the individual that you just referred to, John, there's a reason why they do those things, the move. And the move often tends to be about the lack of belonging in the first instance.

So if it's coming in from a village to a major city, the desperate lack of a network to which they belong, a sense of identity to which they can clearly hold onto, and this we often see play out on university campuses when students -- 18-year-olds, 19-year-olds arrive on campuses without a clear sense of identity, without a clear sense of belonging, and it's in that vacuum, in that psychological void that you have networks, often non-violent networks to start with, tend to be Muslim Brotherhood, tend to be Hizb ut-Tahrir, tend to be Jemaah Islamiah in the Indian subcontinent, but across the spectrum, non- violent organizations who identify these individuals as being vulnerable, as being needy, as being wanting endorsements, as wanting global connections to something bigger than themselves, to which they can latch onto, with which they can identify, which endorses them, which gives them a sense of purpose, and in our predominantly liberal, wishy-washy, incoherent, fuzzy world, these organizations tend to be very masculine, very clear, very testosterone-driven, and have a sense of identity and purpose that is to overthrow the status quo in X country, which is to create a caliphate which has subsets of meaning for this world and creating a better world, and in the next world, in terms of being rewarded by God, and most importantly, I think, give individuals something to do that links them to a greater sense of a global struggle.

And in this sense, the global struggle is an ideological struggle, and the ideological struggle is against capitalism, is against the West, is against U.S. foreign policy, and it's something that talks about lifting up the plight of Muslims globally. Now, that narrative is embraced on the one hand by the Muslim Brotherhood, which is by and large non-violent, and on the other extreme, Al Qaida and ISIS, which is extremely violent.

But across the board, there's a resonance about ideas, about philosophy, about reading of scripture and, more importantly, I think, endorsing a sense of belonging, identity, and network that gives people a sense of importance, that they're doing something that is worthwhile and they're trying to topple a global system that's seen as unjust.

MASTERS: OK, thanks, Ed.

Janine, on your blog and elsewhere, you talked about the power of the ISIS propaganda machine, which, of course, is taking advantage of the web to spread its message virally, most dramatically with the gruesome execution of James Foley. How should we understand this propaganda threat and hopefully counteract it in some way?

DAVIDSON: Yeah, well, thank you for that question and thank you, everyone, for joining us today. My blog posted an excellent guest post by Emerson Brooking on this in detail. We've talked about it a lot. But, you know, I think that ISIS is -- I mean, ISIS has taken this media campaign to a whole different level. I mean, they're incredibly sophisticated. They have a social media reach that is global. It's slick production quality. If you watched any part of the gruesome beheading video, you could see that.

So it has an incredibly wide reach. It's also differentiated. I mean, they have different audiences, and they have different media arms to address those. You've got English-speaking media strategy that goes from social media to other things. And they have a compelling message that taps into all the things that Ed was just talking about.

In addition, what they're able to do is take their tactical military victories and advertise and use the social media platform to demonstrate to this audience or to send the message that they're the winning team. So every time they take a city, every time they do something gruesome, have some executions, crucifixions, even, they advertise these all over social media.

Now, it's interesting, because what they don't necessarily have is, you know, what we would consider a mainstream media in their covering what they're doing. So there's not really a way to check on, you know, the accuracy of what their message is, which is also part of the brilliance on their part. They have managed to take something that is usually very viral and -- in terms of social media and really manage to control the message.

There's another element, too, which is, you know, once these fighters -- foreign fighters or otherwise come into this group, if they get, you know, sort of lured into putting their own exploits on social media, that further ties them into this organization, kind of like, you know, we're familiar in America with the, you know, gang initiations in certain violent cities in America, where, you know, you get the new recruits to do something gruesome and now they can't -- they can't leave. Well (inaudible) it's worse in this case, because they do something gruesome, and it is on global media, on the Internet. It's never coming down. So, you know, it's not like they can turn themselves in and hope for, you know, some sort of justice and mercy on their part, because they further tighten the connections to this group.

So I think that it's incredibly important to address this. I'm not exactly sure all the ways in which straight on social media, if we can't get in there. From a military perspective, the less they're seen as sustaining the momentum, I think the less appeal over time it might -- the organization might have to recruit. So it's sort of like countering their propaganda needs to be done with actions, as well as words, but it's definitely sophisticated. It's broader than things we've seen in the past.

MASTERS: Ed, I'd just like to go back to you quickly. In terms of catching, you know, some of this early, the radicalization process, how important is the family in this process, in sort of preventing some of this?

HUSAIN: In some cases, the family is absolutely vital. Take, for example, the so-called underwear bomber from Nigeria that tried to dispatch -- well, he was on an airplane headed for Chicago, I believe, on Christmas Day -- what was it, three years ago? Educated here in London, originally from Nigeria, went and trained in Yemen, met up with Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, then was dispatched on this mission.

His father went to the U.S. embassy in Nigeria warning about his own son heading on the path of not just radicalization, but violent radicalization. That warning was either ignored or we didn't have a mechanism in filtering that or unable to act in every single warning about radicalization that could potentially lead to violence. And there's this real challenge of what you do with the information.

So is the family important? Absolutely, it is. And they're the (inaudible) can you hear me, John? I'm (inaudible)

MASTERS: Yes.

HUSAIN: OK, so -- so that's one example. And there are countless other examples of situations like that in which a father, a mother, a wife, or other member of the wider family are concerned and, therefore, are tipping off teachers and tipping off local police authorities, are tipping off local politicians, and this has happened a lot in Europe, because the government, for example, here in the U.K. has put in place what they call a channel project that allows for a concerned member of the family or a friend to alert the authorities that then allows for a given agency to put the radicalized individual under what's called -- well, not so much counseling as, you know, they have their own means of getting through to the individual through imams, i.e., religious clerics and others. So that's where the family does work.

Now, we've also got to bear in mind that there are situations in which the family has had absolutely no knowledge of what's going on inside the individual's head, because we're -- when I say we, wider society that's not necessarily radicalized -- are alert to what can happen in some cases with extremists. They tend to keep this to themselves. The family members don't know, wives don't know.

So take, for example, the example of the 7/7, July 2005 lead bomber, Mohammad Sidique Khan, who tried to -- well, he successful killed himself and several people on the London Underground, the metro system, the subway, whatever you want to call it. He didn't tell his wife that -- if you go on YouTube, you'll find a video of him holding his 1-year-old daughter, addressing a camera saying, "Your mother and me and you will all meet together in paradise. I've got to go and do something, but I can't tell you what it is."

So he's on the record of kind of saying that he's going to do something, but nobody quite knows what it is. Yes, he's interested in the current affairs and religion and whatnot, but there's no indication that's going to become violent, necessarily, until after the act. So we're really torn down the middle. Yes, there is lots of evidence to suggest that families can help. There's also evidence to say that in some cases families have absolutely no idea where the metric of being concerned with world affairs is leading to violence.

MASTERS: OK. Thank you, Ed.

And for those of who may have joined us late, this is a CFR media conference call with Ed Husain and Janine Davidson focusing on the roots of Islamic extremism. So at this point, Operator, I think we can go ahead and open it up to questions.

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. At this time, we will open the floor for questions. If you would like to ask a question, please press the star key, followed by the one key on your touch-tone phone now. Questions will be taken in the order in which they're received. If at any time you would like to remove yourself from the questioning queue, you may press star, two. Again, ladies and gentlemen, if you would like to ask a question, please press star, one now. We are currently holding for questions.

Our first question...

MASTERS: OK.

OPERATOR: Our first question comes from Terry Atlas with Bloomberg News.

MASTERS: OK, hi there. You can proceed with your question.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing the call today. Janine, can I ask you to address like what some of the options and hurdles may be for the administration, as they discuss this week what their military options are, the possibility of actions in Syria? I think we know -- we know what a lot of the options are. I guess I'm particularly interested in what some of the hurdles and complications may be that the administration -- the president's foreign policy advisers really need to think through before proceeding. Thanks.

DAVIDSON: Sure. Thank you for that question, Terry. Yeah, actually, I think that of the issue of military options is really important. What we do in the short term is very, very important in terms of setting a trajectory or the conditions for the long term. Let me emphasize militarily there is no short-term fix that will completely defeat this threat. And I think it's really important to differentiate in our minds the difference between stopping ISIS's momentum and ending or defeating them as an organization. Those are two very different things, and they take two different, but coordinated types of strategies.

In the long term -- and I think this is what you're hearing the administration say -- you know, I think they're really cognizant of the dangers of overreacting. I think there's a sense by some people that they're -- you know, that the post-9/11 reaction was a bit of an overreaction. You've heard the president say I think in his West Point speech that, you know, with respect to terrorism in general, whenever we act, we need to make sure that we are removing more enemies than we are creating by our actions.

And so if you take that as sort of the content in terms of what our next steps are, I think you can kind of get inside the controversies that are happening or the things that need to be considered. So in the long term, obviously, there's no -- there's no quick -- or there's no quick fix, so you have to take a long-term approach. I think we've learned this definitely in the last 10 to 15 years. The one in which the regional leaders have got to come together, they have got to be pulled together, this is something that the Americans can probably help with and assist with, but it has to be seen, I think, as a more locally-oriented solution.

The administration is definitely -- you've heard them say hesitant, if not completely resistant to putting American boots on the ground. But that's not necessarily required. In the short term, there are a number of options, I think, that are probably being considered that are -- you know, it is important to, like I said, stop the momentum of ISIS. I mean, if we were to have gone into Iraq, conducted a fairly successful humanitarian operation, kicked ISIS out of the Mosul dam, and then stopped right there, there is no doubt in my mind that ISIS would be back.

And so you're faced with a little bit of a short-term dilemma, because there is a conversation definitely about airstrikes continuing on. And I'll just say that, with respect to airstrikes, airstrikes are not -- I think they're important and I think that they can be useful, but I don't think that they're sufficient in the long run. They can set the momentum -- they can set back ISIS's momentum. What you've seen in Iraq is a combination, actually, of American airstrikes coordinated with Iraqi and Kurdish forces on the ground.

And so right now, the conversation is, if Syria -- or if ISIS has a sanctuary in Syria, which they clearly do -- they're operating their headquarters out of Raqqah. They have training camps there. Every time they take another city or have another tactical victory, they get more and more recruits for those training camps. If there is a conversation about trying to take out the sites, then that means that airstrikes have to move into Syria.

And there are some people that would say that's -- you know, that's impossible, it's too hard, but I think that, you know, the Israelis have managed to do airstrikes in Syria. You know, a year ago, we had a big conversation about -- you probably read the military saying, you know, in order to do airstrikes in Syria, you have to take all the air defenses, it's going to take, you know, 700 sorties, it's going to take, you know, billions of dollars, and I think that, you know, you have to understand options in the context of what you're trying to do. There's a difference between conducting a massive operation in order to create a no-fly zone or to establish full air superiority over all of Syria. That would take a massive operation. But I don't necessarily think that's what's required or that's what is being contemplated. Targeted strikes in the east or northern part of Syria is a very different consideration than airstrikes around Damascus or on Assad's airfields, which were contemplated last year, which are more heavily defended by surface-to-air air defenses.

So those are some of the things I think that are being considered. And we can get in more detail about, you know, different types of targets and different types of areas and different types of platforms that can be used. But it comes down to, you know, there are risks involved. There are risks not just to the pilots, but there are risks to mission success. Are you going to get the right target? Are things going to have moved? And then there are also very real risks of civilian casualties. And these are all the types of conversations that have got to take place between the civilians in the military as the military continues to collect more information and develop the target sets.

MASTERS: And, Janine, you mentioned as far as -- you know, the U.S. conducting airstrikes in Iraq, I mean, obviously, we have partners with -- you mentioned the Peshmerga, as well as the Iraqi army. Do we need a partner in Syria, as well? Do we have one? I mean, some commentators have even suggested potentially partnering with the Assad regime in countering ISIS. What are your thoughts on that?

DAVIDSON: Right, so there are tactical and political considerations. From a tactical perspective, it depends on the target set. If the targets are things that are, you know, wide out in the open, which some of these probably are, then you don't need as much ground support. If you are contemplating target sets that are, you know, increasing in more urban, air power starts to have less of an effect.

And to really in the long term get after ISIS to defeat them as opposed to just stopping their momentum, then you do need partners on the ground, you need boots on the ground. They don't necessarily have to be American boots. And, in fact, from an intelligence perspective in many respects, having not American boots on the ground is an asset.

Now, the Kurds and the Iraqis, we've been working with those military security forces for years and years. There are connections within -- from military to military. If the political situation in Iraq improves and we're able to peel the Sunnis' tribal leaders and the former regime military commanders away from the anti-Iraqi and more ISIL-oriented, that could be helpful, as well.

In Syria, the challenge is higher. You know, there is a lot of debate and counterfactual analysis about had we intervened and assisted with the Free Syrian Army earlier, then we would be in a better position. It may be true, it may be not. Either way, it's irrelevant at this point. So there will be -- there will be difficult in the short term, but probably more doable in the medium to long term to make those kinds of connections and to support that sort of the resistance. In terms of partnering with Assad, I know some people have called for that. It's sort of like, you know, the least of two evils. I think that that -- I think it's politically. I think that it's going to be very difficult for the Obama administration politically to coordinate with Assad, given the atrocities that his regime has committed. I mean, from a pure numbers perspective, we're talking, you know, magnitudes greater than ISIS to date.

The -- from a tactical and operational perspective, you need a level of trust among your military commanders in order to have an operation that would be useful and successful. And I think that's a pretty good barrier when it comes to trying to operate from a military perspective with Assad's regime.

MASTERS: OK, thanks, Janine. Can we have the next question, please?

OPERATOR: Yes, our next question comes from Carol Williams with Los Angeles Times.

QUESTION: Hi, we just discussed the question I had, but I would like to hear a little bit more about whether you think there could be a successful operation against ISIS in Syria without the overt collaboration and support of Assad.

DAVIDSON: Sure. And I think -- I don't want to sound flip, but I think it depends on how you define success. And this is why I'm trying to differentiate between short-term efforts to stop ISIS's momentum versus the long-term efforts that are required to defeat this organization. I don't think that any airpower alone and I don't think that any effort by the United States unilaterally, militarily or otherwise, in the short, medium or long term is going to defeat ISIS. So no military options, no sole military options or unilateral military options are going to defeat ISIS in the long term.

In the short term, can military -- U.S. military efforts stop ISIS's momentum? Yes. Is stopping their momentum sort of a critical precursor to doing all that long-term stuff? Yes, I think so, because the -- if we aren't stopping their momentum, they're going to continue to get recruits, they're going to continue to become better funded. Over time, you could make the case that the military equipment that they have seized in Iraq, that they may not have the means to operate it and maintain it, but over time they may develop that.

DAVIDSON: And so airpower alone can probably set ISIS back a bit. We're talking about airstrikes on their equipment and their training. Will it have risk? Absolutely. Would the requirement to have folks on the ground coordinating with those airstrikes would lower the risk? Probably make it a little bit easier, but, again, it would depend on the exact target sets.

MASTERS: OK. Ed, I'd like to go back to you briefly to talk about, again, sort of the roots we're talking about, the current generation of jihadis, but maybe, you know, moving to prevent the next generation. We've seen -- you know, the British government is appealing to the country's anti-extremist imams for help in counter- radicalization. How effective is this do you think it will be? And is this something that we're doing in the United States or should we be doing it?

HUSAIN: The group of people we rightfully refer to as jihadis, they are people who come from our communities, our societies, our countries around the world, and, yes, expose them to non-extreme imams and, yes, use non-extreme imams to counter-message the lure and the narrative and the ideology that Al Qaida and ISIS and others are putting out there. But that's just one strand.

I've advocated in the past -- and I continue to do so now -- that this has to be in multiple strands, so young people who are targeted tend to be between the ages of 18 and 25, sometimes older, but they're also on university campuses, they're also on FE colleges, they're also reading newspapers, they have access to the Internet, and, therefore, listen to and watch a whole range of material. They also have real- life friends with whom they're interacting.

So the counter-messaging has to be from multiple points that has to be sometimes counterintuitive. So whether it's using Hollywood or whether it's using mainstream entertainers, to which radicals are often listening to before they pursue the more violent pathway, we ought to utilize all of those, because what we're up against essentially is much like communism, which was a global ideology that had a coherent message against capitalism. We're up against a similar mindset, a similar narrative, a similar ideology. We know what it's against, but it's difficult for you to tell us what it's for.

And to date, the counter-messaging, whether it's led by the U.S. government or facilitated by the U.S. government or by civil society or by the private sector, or by other Muslim governments or Muslim seminary institutions, or all of those and others, the coherent counter-messaging hasn't yet started. The funding isn't available. I mean, late last year, at CFR, we helped launch the global fund for counter-extremism, known as GCERF, housed at the U.N. now, that has the $300 million. $300 million doesn't seem like a lot of money now given that we're hearing that ISIS and others have in excess of $2 billion, if we -- if we believe the reports that are coming out.

So the funding needs to be available. The counter-messaging needs to be coherent. And multiple actors, multiple fronts, in multiple countries need to be messaging against the rise of extremism and evil and as irreligious. And we can't beat this without competing on their territory. We can't shy away from using mainstream normative Muslims and mainstream Islamic scripture, which goes back 1,400 years, that contained this problem for 1,400 years and now in the last 50 to 60 years we're seeing this emerge as a lack, for many reasons, but primarily because of Islamic and Muslim leadership on this.

And that's something that the U.S. government can facilitate. With all of its difficulties in the Arab and Muslim world, to date, bar one or two governments, most governments in the Middle East tend to be allies of America. With all of those difficulties -- the emirates and the Egyptians and the Saudis and the Turks -- yes, there are difficulties, but they're broadly pro-Western. That's something we take for granted, but we shouldn't, and those allies can be used, at times have been used, but haven't been used effectively and as often as they should be.

MASTERS: OK, thanks, Ed. Can we proceed with the next question, please?

OPERATOR: Yes. Our next question comes from Trudy Rubin with the Philadelphia Inquirer.

QUESTION: ... very much both of you for doing this, to all of you. A couple of questions. First, I'd like to ask either Janine or Ed, why do you think ISIS has been so successful militarily? It came out of nowhere. Is it (inaudible) generals or what's the best thinking on why they're doing so well? Is it just that the opposition is so bad?

And, secondly, Ed, your op-ed piece in the New York Times about Saudi education, Wahhabi education, that has been such a factor in Syria, where so many rural people went and talked and Syria came back to their mosques. If you have a situation with Sunnis in rural Syria, where they -- where young people have been exposed to anti-Shiism, exacerbated by the horrors that Assad has perpetrated, and now in Iraq, you have similar from what's been happening against Sunnis, how do you roll that back? How can you possibly counteract that in a way that could lead to a potential long-term solution?

MASTERS: Ed, do you want to take that second part? And then maybe we'll go back to Janine on the success of ISIS militarily.

HUSAIN: Sure. Would you please mind just summarizing the second question?

QUESTION: Sure. If you have had a long-term religious education amongst many Sunnis that demonizes Shiites, and that's been exacerbated in Syria by the horrors perpetrated by Assad, and now we know what's happened with Sunnis in Iraq, how do you roll back that widespread perception that the Sunnis are bad, that the roots of what seems to be a sectarian war throughout the Levant and beyond, how do you roll that back with the long-term defeat of ISIS?

HUSAIN: Thank you. A thoughtful question. Now, it's often pushed out in various fora that this has been a war that's been going on -- a sectarian war that's been going on since the very beginning of Islam. I'm not so convinced, because whether it's the Ottoman Empire or those before it, before the emergence in the 1940s of these independent Arab states, what we saw was on balance a different containment of the sectarian tension within different Muslim communities.

Now, what we've seen over the last -- especially since 1979, with the rise of the Iranian form of what they call the waleh sati (ph) model, or the clerics being in government model of governance, so we have Iran on the one hand and then the Saudi state from 1928 onwards has taken upon itself to be the vanguard of its own form of Sunni Wahhabi Islam.

You correctly mention that I wrote about this in the New York Times the past Saturday. Now what we have are these two governments essentially fighting for power and dominance within the region. So the Saudis are pushing their brand of Salafism that's premised on dislike and despising the Shia, but also the Sufi and other forms of Islam, and then you have the Iranians on the other side pushing for dislike and hatred towards the Sunnis.

But, you know, I'm not a Shia Muslim. I'm Sunni. But I'd say the Iranians haven't been as vociferous. Yes, they've funded Hezbollah and, yes, they've funded the Assad government, but neither have the level of dislike and hatred of Sunnis that the Saudis have pumped into their institutions, their syllabi in various mosques and madrassas that they control that has led to real hatred of Shia Muslims from Pakistan to the Caucasus to parts of Africa to Afghanistan to mostly in the Middle East, i.e., Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middle East where Shia people are a minority. So -- Syria is one of them.

So the onus, really, given the scope of the problem, lies with our Saudi allies in filtering back some of that narrative that they've pushed out over the last eight years of their hatred for Iranians and, in particular, Shia Muslims. It's essentially a political problem. It's essentially a problem driven by Saudi Arabia. And if -- whether it's directly through the king or it's indirectly through the advisers or it's through the religious (inaudible) establishment inside Saudi Arabia, that level of hatred has got to be rolled back. And it can be done if there's a willingness in the United States and in the European Union to have that level of discussion with the Saudis.

We tried to do it after 9/11, but I think we get push-back from the Saudis and threats and, to be frank, you know, temper tantrums that lead to abandonment of those agenda. We've seen 10 years on now, unless we have that conversation and see that change, some of it happened, some of it hasn't happened, there will not be a long-term answer to the kind of sectarian war that's being unleashed throughout the Middle East.

MASTERS: Thanks, Ed.

Janine, do you want to talk a little bit about what has contributed to the success of ISIS on the battlefront?

DAVIDSON: Sure, absolutely.

You know, people say that they just -- that ISIS just sort of came out of nowhere and we see them sort of streaming through Iraq with one military success after another, and that it definitely what it looks like. Does that mean that they are an actual conventional army? Or are they still sort of an insurgent group? I think the answer is somewhere in between.

In Syria, their tactics and their methods have been more insurgent-like. They have been using -- you know, they intimidate, they execute, they have been controlling the population, sort of that classic insurgent style of massive intimidation and fear and brutality. They have also taken the playbook that Al Qaida have published saying, you know, this is how you consolidate your victories. You've got to -- you've got to govern so that you see them building schools, you see them taxing, which makes them a little more self-sufficient every single day.

And so they're doing all of that. Then they come streaming through Iraq, and it looks like they're having this massive conventional military victory, but you have to remember that I don't think that that would have been at all possible without the coordination with the disaffected Sunni population that they were connected with inside each of those towns.

Now, Prime Minister Maliki has systematically dismantled the professionalization of the Iraqi military that the Americans and coalition forces had spent so long and so much money building. He systematically purged the competent leadership from the military, if they were Sunni, especially, and so that -- to the extent that ISIS has a sense of military strategy and tactics, it comes from some of those guys.

DAVIDSON: But what you also see is another very clever tactic, and that is they're -- back to your social media campaign -- they precede their drive with a flood of really scary messages. "We're coming. We're coming. Here we come." And people drop -- what was left of the Iraqi army dropped their weapons and fled. They knew that they didn't have the leadership that they needed. They knew they didn't know how to take these guys.

So I think it's sort of -- my point is, this sort of remains to be seen the extent to which they actually are very militarily competent. I think they've had some shocking and potentially surprising victories, but I think those have been aided by, number one, the fear campaign and, number two, not being met by a very strong resistance because of that, and then some sort of assistance by the former Sunni commanders, if that -- if that were happening.

And you can kind of see that with -- as soon as they started taking airstrikes, they were back on their heels. And then as soon as they were countered at the Mosul dam by the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and the Iraqi, what was, you know, reconstituted Iraqi army, they were defeated, and they were pushed back. Part of the reason why the Kurds had a hard time on the initial drive was they simply were running out of ammunition and they did not have the kind of weapons that they needed. They're more optimized for sort of an insurgency fight.

And the last thing I'll say is, what you're also not seeing is you're not seeing ISIL moving into Baghdad. I mean, you're seeing some violence, but you're not seeing this conventional army cruising into Baghdad, and I think there's a reason for that: They don't have the kind of support that they -- the enabling support that they had in the other parts of Iraq. And they know that they will face an array of Shia militias that are standing up. And it would be sort of a very bloody, very big, and very urban fight.

MASTERS: OK, thanks, Janine. Can we have the next question, please?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Our next question comes from Chris Sheridan with Al Jazeera.

QUESTION: Thanks very much. Appreciate you guys doing this call. I just have a couple of questions. The first one is a factual one. Do we know roughly how many ISIS fighters, how big they are at the moment? I've seen sort of widely ranging numbers in various reports. I'm just curious about that. Also, in terms of the long-term goal in Syria, what is the actual long-term goal that the U.S. is considering now? Is there one at all? Is there a long-term plan? Is it to defeat Assad and defeat ISIS at the same time? Or is it simply to defeat ISIS and hope the Syrians defeat Assad? What is -- I'm just curious about that, as well. Thanks very much.

MASTERS: Janine, do you want to field that? Do we have an estimate of ISIS numbers? And then, what's the end game in strategy -- or in Syria? I know the U.S. obviously wants to prevent it from becoming a terrorism sanctuary, but go ahead.

DAVIDSON: Right, sure. I think that -- actually, I mean, I agree that the estimates are all over the map -- well, they're not all over the map. They're some number between 10,000 to 20,000. Ed may have a little bit more on that, but I don't -- the publicly available versus what the intelligence people know, I don't have a solid number, either.

In terms of the long term, I think this is a great question that's being contemplated. You know, from an American perspective, it's sort of, what's in our national interest? At a minimum, it's preventing spillover -- containing the threat so that it doesn't reach the American homeland at a very, very minimum, weapons of mass destruction, and also atrocity prevention. I mean, there have already been nearly 200,000 people killed in Syria, which is an absolute tragedy, and I think that that's -- that's a crisis that people are very much concerned with.

So that's what people want to see happen. In terms of what is the -- there is no articulated American strategy in the long term yet. You hear messaging about that, about containment versus whether you need to, you know, defeat ISIS. But I think that at a minimum not allowing ISIS to retain their sanctuary and to continue to build and in any way, shape or form target the United States or its allies is definitely the short-, medium- and long-term end state.

As for the complex Syrian civil war, I don't know that the United States has a strategy to end that. I think they have a strategy to support regional actors to try to find a solution, but I think that the short-term problem is about ISIS.

MASTERS: Great. Can we proceed with the next question?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Our next question comes from Lee Cullum with Public Media of North Texas.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, and thank you for some very thought-provoking insights. If Syria and possibly Iraq are, in fact, breaking up into three parts or more, uncontrollably, unavoidably, does that mean we can expect chaos for -- even worse chaos than today for the foreseeable future and beyond?

MASTERS: Do either of you want to step in on that, the breakup of the region? HUSAIN: Sure. Sure. The breakup of the region is something that's been discussed, debated, contested since 1919 and onwards. Now, on the one hand, there's a lot of truth to the fact that the Sykes-Picot Agreement was imposed on the corpse, if you like, of the Ottoman Empire, so there are many straight lines between countries such as Egypt and Libya and Jordan and its neighbors that were drawn up by British and American -- British and French, forgive me, civil servants on a Sunday afternoon. And therefore, those territories don't hold.

And what we're seeing now is the breakup of that order, as the masses of the Middle East were given the political license to rise up against their governments in the so-called Arab Spring in 2011. To some extent, we're seeing both of those factors play out, the 1919 settlement and what happened in 2011 with the masses now reaching a climax, if you like, in Iraq and Syria.

But while that argument has some weight, in contrast, let's look at the most artificial country, if you like, that was created in 1919 and that's Jordan. And by and large, Jordan's borders hold. So there's weight in the argument that, yeah, the Sykes-Picot treaty and the Middle East map doesn't really mean much. But on the other hand, we look at Jordan and we see that it does mean something.

All of that said, what we're seeing is throughout history, at least the last 1,000 years from the Abbasids downwards, people in the Middle East were free to move around. Tribes moved in and out of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan, Iraq. We've tried to put a stop to some of that, but the borders mean very little.

What I would say, though, is, yes, there will be more uncertainty, more turbulence in the Middle East because what we've seen is the failure of the political process to deliver for a largely youth-based Middle East, a largely unemployed Middle East, and a largely hopeless Middle East. If you want to have some stake in the country's government as a young Arab or if you want to propose a business plan with raising capital, neither of those two options are available to you as a young Arab. You cannot get involved in the political process of your country, despite seeing Hollywood movies showing you this is the momentum in America and Europe and elsewhere, where young people can get involved. You try to do that in 2011 and your government and Saudi Arabia and other countries came down and did a successful counter-revolution.

If you now turn back and say, which as tens of thousands of young people in Egypt are saying, well, we'll just look after our own, we'll turn to business and make money and try and succeed as a family unit, well, there is no capital to be injected into your ideas.

The third option is to get involved in Islamist groupings. Well, if you do that, 22,000 people in Egypt and thousands more in other countries have been locked up. That option is closed. The option that you're left with increasingly, with all of its flaws, is the option of either resistance, a total ignorance and hopelessness and giving up on the way in which the region goes forward. In June of last -- of this year, rather, I wrote a piece for the Financial Times, and I'm going to throw this out there as quickly as possible, and I invite those on the call to give this serious thought. And that is, we've been here multiple times in European countries and in European history, when there was a French revolution and then multiple revolutions happening, until we got to the current republic in France.

So the Arab Spring might have failed in 2011, but don't for a minute think that the momentum that many Arabs unleash will die with this generation. This desire to want to overthrow regimes will stick, and the next round of the Arab revolution might be something that will look much uglier than the current incarnation. So how do we prevent something along those lines?

Well, the French revolution, it arguably led to many of the developments that France and Germany and the U.K., Italy, and Spain saw. To cut a very long story short, and I'd encourage friends on the call to look up my FT piece, what we saw here in Europe was extremism, a radicalism in the form of Nazism, two world wars, sectarian intolerance, a dislike for minorities, particularly Jewish minorities, the unfolding of the Holocaust and other atrocities.

But over the last six to seven decades, what we've seen is Europe by way of coming together in the form of union -- firstly economic and then political -- we've seen the prevention of those mass atrocities. Now, of all the regions in the world, the Middle East has the highest amount of ingredients for regional integration -- i.e., common religion, common language, common history, by and large -- but is the least integrated of all the world's regions. And that's where I think U.S. and European leadership, as well as U.S. and European experiences of being political unions, ought to be borne on and we should be pushing for some kind of model that allows for regional integration, allowing not just for economic prosperity and free movement of people, but a common security response that allows for troops to move freely. Because our enemies, whether it's Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula or Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, they look at the terms -- they look at the region in regional terms, and we and our allies are still responding to it in nation-state terms.

And all of the problems, whether it's water shortage, terrorism, refugee flows, sectarianism, are regional problems and require international and regional answers. So in the absence of moving the region to a greater integrated form through an economic and political union that addresses these concerns, I fear that what is waiting for us in the Middle East will most likely be worse than what we're seeing at the moment.

MASTERS: Great, thanks, Ed. Can we have the next question, please?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Our next question comes from Claire Ritker (ph) with National Journal.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you. I wanted to kind of get your analysis on how this is going to affect the U.S. pullout of Afghanistan, whether or not the United States should be reconsidering that in any way, given what we're now seeing with ISIS in Iraq.

MASTERS: Janine, you want to take that one?

DAVIDSON: Sure. I'm not hearing a lot from the administration to suggest that they are reconsidering or changing their strategy to pull out in the next four months. In fact, the president gave a speech yesterday at the American Legion I think in North Carolina, and he did mention, hey, in four months, you know, we're going to be gone from Afghanistan.

I think people are questioning whether or not what's happened in Iraq could potentially sort of happen in Afghanistan. Now, I mean, no two cases are the same, but I do think that nothing comes without risk, and the risk here -- there are two kinds of risks. There's the risk of staying, and there's the risk of going too soon. And the risk of staying is that, you know, the American can -- you know, you can never extract yourself from one of these interventions. And I think that's what people are concerned about.

The mission in Afghanistan at this point is to transition to some sort of a competent security force that is controlled by a competent civilian government. And right now, we have moderately competent security force, and we have a very shaky political environment. And that is a potential recipe that looks like what could potentially what happened in Iraq. You had a fairly competent military even more so than you do in Afghanistan. Of course, there's a different type of threat environment. And you had a civilian government that promised to do all the right things, have a very inclusive process, you know, reconcile with, you know, between Sunni and Shia, political parties, and all these sorts of things.

And, of course, once we left or even as we were leaving, Prime Minister Maliki did none of that. He did almost like everything you could do in a cookbook fashion to make things worse. And if that happens in Afghanistan, if the new incoming government does everything they can do to make things worse with respect to failing to make political reconciliation, then that's going to be incredibly destabilizing.

Meanwhile, waiting in the wings definitely is the Taliban. And if they're able to come back and gain a sanctuary, it's not clear what kind of a threat they would be to the United States, but they would definitely be a threat to all the gains that have been made in Afghanistan.

So what all this means is I do think that, you know, we need to be considering very carefully on a sort of day-to-day basis kind of like a Jenga tower, you know, as you pull a little piece out of the bottom, is the thing going to crumble? Are we there yet? Are we ready to fully go? I think that if we're concerned with stability in Afghanistan, then we have to actually really think through those kinds of lessons.

QUESTION: OK, thanks, Janine. Given time constraints, we have a pretty tight 12:00 noon deadline. But I'd like to give both participants a chance to give some final thoughts. Ed, obviously, you've given -- you've already given us a lot to think about, but any final thoughts?

HUSAIN: In the sense that I would urge all of us to think about the fact that when Osama bin Laden was killed, there was a great deal of jubilation that this was the end of terrorism. When 9/11 happened, again, there was a great deal of jubilation among prominent U.S. commentators that this was the end of terrorism and the beginning of democracy in the Middle East.

And now we're again debating military options against ISIS. And I would urge us to rethink that approach that we're constantly pushing the same military button hoping for a different result. And the age of military conflict and the age of killing our way out of a problem is over, if it ever existed. The only long-term viable answer to the difficulties in the Middle East is through diplomacy, is through soft U.S. power, is through marshalling our allies, is through empowering the right side of the civil war of ideas within Islam, and is through offering a better, more prosperous vision for the Middle East, not just about what we're against, but only the U.S. and the E.U. can collectively deliver a more united Middle East that looks like what it used to be before the Europeans carved it up, and it looks like something that's in line with our expectations and our values, universal values, which most governments and peoples in the Middle East want.

So my last point would be that only we can offer the Middle East the sort of prosperity which comes with free trade agreements with the U.S. and the European Union and defeats the morbid, dark, evil ideology of extremism that's offering a caliphate to people.

And I end with this question, that a prominent ambassador from a prominent Arab country posed in private recently that we know what the Salafis and the jihadis want, but we still don't know what the Europeans, the Americans, and their allies across the region want in the long term for the Middle East. And unless we can offer a better vision that defeats the narrative of the extremists, I'm afraid we will continue to be coming back to this point of debating military options, rather than finding cleverer, more sophisticated long-term practical answers to the challenges of the Middle East.

MASTERS: Thanks very much, Ed. Janine, some concluding remarks?

DAVIDSON: Yes. I'd like to say, first of all, Ed, I completely agree with you that the long-term solution to this problem has nothing to do with -- you know, that you cannot just kill your way out of this problem. But everything you mentioned is exactly the kind of things that need to happen in that region.

I would disagree slightly with the balance of how much of that needs to be the international community and the United States versus the local -- the local leaders, the regional leaders, I think have an incredibly huge role to play in promoting the alternative vision and in moving this region to a better place, ideologically, politically, economically, and in order to give the next generation a future.

That said, I will actually disagree with you about the military piece. And that is, I actually do not think that people are talking about the same military button. If we were talking about the same military button, we would be talking about massive invasions, massive airstrikes, boots on the ground. I mean, nobody is talking about that. I think people have actually recognized what you're saying, and they're saying there is no short-, medium-, or long-term military solution to this problem. I think that's absolutely true.

That said, when you're in the middle of something as gruesome as this, it is very difficult to stand by and watch people get slaughtered. And so there's a short-term imperative to help save people's lives. Can that be done just by bombing people or -- no. And this is why I think you see such a very cautious, measured, calibrated discussion of what the military options are, because I think that at least inside the -- you know, the administration, what you're hearing -- and what I also believe to be true -- is that you've got to come up with ways to reverse some momentum, definitely, in order to stop some of the killing in the short term, but then recognize that that is still like a squirt gun on a five-alarm fire, that the real answer here is the long-term political and economic actions that you talked about.

MASTERS: Great. Well, I think this was a very engaging discussion. And I think we'll have to leave it there. But I want to thank both participants, Ed Husain and Janine Davidson, for their insights this morning, of course, as well as the callers for their interest. Again, this was a Council on Foreign Relations media conference call. And thank you all for joining us.

DAVIDSON: Thank you for having me.

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