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
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
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
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
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
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)
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
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
Our first question...
OPERATOR: Our first question comes from Terry Atlas with
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
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
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
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
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,
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,
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: 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
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
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
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,
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,
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.