Learning to Live with ISIS? -The One-Year Anniversary of the “Islamic State.”

It was around this time last year that the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” which currently refers to itself as the “Islamic State,” emerged out of the ongoing Syrian conflict to invade and extend its rule from Syria into northern Iraq. Since then, ISIS has carried out a high number of atrocities against anyone that did not adhere to their views of Islamic religious orthodoxy or morality. Their often-gruesome actions and appalling ideological views have brought an extraordinary amount of media attention. Indeed, in the last twelve months, I alone have been called on to give no less than 27 television or radio interviews on topics related to ISIS for local media in the Jacksonville area. Thus, like many other Americans, I have watched the evolution of the organization very carefully over the past year. Now, a year after ISIS first emerged on the scene, I am have far greater concerns about the group’s staying power and potential for growth.

As has been well documented on video and by numerous eyewitness accounts, their catalogue of abuses include the sexual enslavement of thousands of very young Yazidi girls, the public beheading and humiliation of Christians, and the execution of homosexuals by throwing them from the roofs of tall buildings. Yet, in terms of total numbers, it is their fellow Muslims, primarily Shia, who have suffered the most under their rule.

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While certainly the majority of Muslims have rejected the legitimacy of the group’s self proclaimed caliphate, or issued condemnations of the group’s activities and beliefs, and several governments (both in the West and Islamic worlds) have formed a military coalition to fight ISIS, the group nevertheless maintains its rule over millions of Syrians and Iraqis. The United States alone has spent an estimated 2.7 billion dollars on its bombing campaign against ISIS since August of 2014, yet ISIS remains firmly entrenched in Iraq and Syria and has further extended its reach to claim strongholds of support in Libya and Afghanistan as well.

This is in significant part because ISIS continues to draw considerable material and moral support from around the world. While only a very small percentage of the world’s Muslims have expressed any support for ISIS, if even a small percentage of the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims support ISIS this could easily amount to tens of millions of supporters or sympathizers, which can serve as a fairly powerful base of support. According to the F.B.I. and other top U.S. counterterrorism officials, supporters around the world tweet and post over 90,000 pro-ISIS messages on social media that reach millions of people every day. As a result of such efforts, ISIS has drawn tens of thousands of recruits from all over the world, including thousands from western countries, who were willing to abandon their lives and families to go to Iraq and Syria to fight and die on behalf of a heavily romanticized image of the caliphate that exists only in their imagination and ISIS propaganda. Beyond this there are many more that provide “material” support that helps fund and recruit for the organization.

Do not think that we in Jacksonville, or the broader north Florida area, have been immune to the effects of ISIS’ propaganda. It was only in February that a man who owned and operated kiosks at the Orange Park Mall was arrested by the F.B.I. for providing material support to ISIS. More recently, and causing significant alarm, ISIS released a “kill list” of targeted members of the U.S. military that included residents of St. Johns, Clay, and Flagler counties.

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The American people are undoubtedly exhausted from U.S. involvement in various conflicts in the Middle East since September 11, 2001, but they have also often been offended and outraged by ISIS’ continued atrocities. Even though polls have shown that many Americans do not want to see another major military engagement in the Middle East (involving significant numbers of U.S. ground troops), they also show that Americans want to see something done to destroy ISIS. President Obama tried to bridge this issue by committing to fight ISIS through U.S. airpower and localized Arab ground forces, trained and equipped by the U.S. military, but this effort has, to this point, clearly failed.

Perhaps even more disturbing is the idea that we are growing used to the status quo, which effectively amounts to a type of containment strategy for ISIS, and that we seem to be learning to live with their presence. Their various atrocities, which continue unabated, seem to draw less attention from the media and less interest from the general public, as Americans and others are, perhaps, getting desensitized to such reports.

Are we normalizing them?

Or do we want them destroyed?

If so, then the first option was for the United States to support (in terms of training, logistics, and airpower) regional Muslim forces on the ground to dislodge ISIS from Iraq and beat them into submission. So far, those efforts have clearly failed. Do we continue in the hope that what we are doing now will eventually work? Or revise those efforts somehow in a way that they will be more effective?

A second option is do it ourselves through the greater use of U.S. troops and military force. If we are to use this option, are we, as a people, seriously willing to commit the “blood and treasure” necessary to destroy ISIS? There is also the risk that another major American effort in the Middle East could cause more problems than it would solve (although aside from a nuclear armed Iran I am not sure of what could be much worse than ISIS at the moment).

Or have we learned to live with them, essentially accepting their presence in the Middle East as an unfortunate reality that we all need to get used to? I worry that this is increasingly the case. Indeed, some government sources from various Islamic countries in or around the Middle East have voiced their opinion that ISIS is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Can we effectively ignore the ongoing enslavement, sexual abuse, and violence carried out against minority groups in the areas they control on such a massive and systematic scale? Trusting that far weaker Arab, Kurdish, and Turkish forces in the region can effectively contain the problem with only limited U.S. military support? There is also the concern over the degree to which some of these governments want to see the group eradicated, as is the case with Turkey. Are we willing to risk living in a world where ISIS has the opportunity to argue, with limited degrees of success thus far, for its acceptance as a legitimate expression of Islam?

Which is it?