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How is the Islamic State different from other extremist groups?

August 21, 2014 at 6:14 PM EDT
Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution and Steven Simon of the Middle East Institute join Judy Woodruff to discuss the threat the Islamic State poses and how they’re recruiting members, including westerners.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And now we learn more about the threat the Islamic State poses and how they’re recruiting Westerners.

That comes from Steven Simon, who served as a senior director for Middle Eastern and North African affairs on the National Security Council staff from 2011 to 2012. And Shadi Hamid, he’s a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy. He’s also the author of “Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.”

And we welcome you both to the NewsHour.

Steven Simon, I will just start with you. How — we have been reading so much about ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State, recently. How are they different from these other extreme groups, and particularly al-Qaida?

STEVEN SIMON, Middle East Institute: Well, they’re different in terms of their tactics, and I think in terms of their overall strategy. Their tactics, as we have seen, are savage.

They deploy savagery as a tactic. This is a tactic that has been repudiated by core al-Qaida. You know, the al-Qaida leadership in South Asia, Ayman al-Zawahri, the current leader of al-Qaida and the replacement for bin Laden, he has specifically enjoined al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, from doing the kinds of things that he is doing, because, from an al-Qaida point of view, it alienates most Muslims. And that’s a serious defect in the strategy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Shadi Hamid, is that the main difference, that this is just a more extreme — a group that is just far more willing to take extreme actions?

SHADI HAMID, Brookings Institution: That’s a key difference, but it goes well beyond that.

They’re not your terrorists of early to mid 2000s that were blowing things up and just killing innocent civilians without any kind of vision of how to build something. What’s really scary about ISIS is that they actually have a governing program. They actually control and hold territory. They provide social services. They run local government. They provide some modicum of law and order.

So they are actually able to obtain some local support in Iraq and Syria precisely for those reasons. So it’s the viciousness along with governing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Steven Simon, is that one of the reasons they have been able to attract the supporters, the members, the young men who have come not only from the Middle East, from that part of the world, but we also know Westerners from Europe, even from the United States?

STEVEN SIMON: Well, this side of the successful Muslim movement challenging the West in particular, challenging those who want — who are perceived to want to kill Muslims is a galvanizing thing, I think, for Muslim young men in many places, including Europe.

In Iraq, in particular, though, ISIS is benefiting from the mismanagement of Iraqi affairs by the Iraqi government, the exclusion of Sunnis from public goods, the disregard for Sunni interests, in the wake of the massive dislocation that followed the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

There’s a lot of unhappiness among the Sunni majority population, especially those Sunnis who are concentrated in the areas where ISIS has gotten a foothold. So ISIS is able — has been able to join forces with the Baathists, former Saddam people, and other disaffected individuals to gain a pretty serious grip.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about in Syria, Shadi Hamid? I mean, they were clearly able to swell their forces, draw more adherents in Syria, and, again, from the West, from Europe, from the United States. What’s the appeal? And we just — we saw in the video, the terrible video with James Foley, the man who was there with him had a British accent.

SHADI HAMID: This actually worries me that we’re focusing so much on Iraq, and senior administration officials focus on that part of it. They barely even mention Syria. Obama clearly doesn’t even want to talk about that.

But the rise of ISIS is more directly tied to Syria than it is to Iraq. And Syria experts were warning this administration a year-and-a-half ago, saying that if there is more — this power vacuum continues and we can’t support the more mainstream rebel forces, extremist groups like ISIS are going to gain ground.

So I think that we have been kind of asleep at the wheel. Americans are waking up to the threat right now, but ISIS has been beheading Arabs and Muslims for over the past year.

 

JUDY WOODRUFF: So why is that an appeal? What’s the appeal to young people to join?

SHADI HAMID: Well, I think part of the problem with the kind of Arab spring is that peaceful protest didn’t work, working within the democratic process didn’t work, so we had peaceful protesters in Syria, but they were being shot down and slaughtered by the Assad regime.

We had mainstream Islamic movements like the Muslim Brotherhood, which were trying to work within the democratic process. Yes, they had — we, as Americans, don’t share their values. They were deeply conservative and illiberal, but at least they were saying that there has to be a process.

ISIS is saying that you can have an Islamic state through brute force, that you don’t have to wait, you don’t have to be gradualist about it. And there’s a kind of appeal, the kind of — I think for radicals and for radicalized Europeans, they see a kind of purity to their vision.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And let’s pick up on that, Steven Simon.

What is it — for young men living — who are Muslim living in Europe, living in the United States, I mean, what is the draw?

STEVEN SIMON: Well, I think they see themselves engaged in a noble and virtuous endeavor. They’re doing something that they feel is a fight for a really good cause.

And it’s interesting, because they don’t see themselves as going to join a terrorist movement. They see themselves going to join liberators. And, for this reason, for example, they tweet and Facebook their way to the battlefield, to the delight, I have to say, of law enforcement and intelligence officials in Western Europe and the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So I guess the — you know, stepping back, the question on everyone’s mind, Shadi Hamid, is, what is the threat here, both to the region, the wider region beyond Syria and Iraq, and then ultimately to Europe and then to the United States?

SHADI HAMID: Yes.

So we shouldn’t underestimate ISIS. And I worry that with all this rhetoric about ISIS being inexplicably evil, to use John Kerry’s words, that we will just look at them as these kind of fringe extremists, but we have to understand the root causes of their rise and also their staying power.

If we don’t have any plan to understand the Syrian roots of the conflict, ISIS is probably going to be with us for the foreseeable future, three years, five years, 10 years, God knows how long. So that’s what’s so scary about this is that they are a reality on the ground. In some ways, they’re the most successful extremist group in modern history.

So there isn’t an easy solution, unless there is a coherent vision that addresses both Iraq and Syria.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, I mean, what would you add to that, Steven Simon? What do you see the threat? We heard I think Secretary Hagel say this is a threat beyond anything we have ever seen.

STEVEN SIMON: Well, you know, look, there aren’t that many ISIS fighters. The numbers vary really widely depending upon who’s counted as being an ISIS and who isn’t. The initial ISIS attack in Iraq consisted of about 3,000 fighters.

OK, this is essentially a minuscule force. The Iraqi army consists of 900,000 individuals, 900,000 soldiers. The Pentagon says about a third of those are workable, you know, that the United States could help about a third of that army fight ISIS. That’s a huge advantage.

The Peshmerga, the Kurdish forces, they haven’t fired a shot in anger in a long time. They folded initially, but they have come back. Where is ISIS actually going to go is really the question? They can’t invade Iran. They’re not going to invade Saudi Arabia. They can’t invade Jordan. They’re not going to invade Turkey, and they can’t invade Israel.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you see them as more contained than what…

STEVEN SIMON: I see them as fundamentally contained. I think their tactics will earn them a lot of enemies, and the tacit alliances that they formed in Iraq won’t last.

SHADI HAMID: But even if they don’t gain additional territory, what they control now is a very large swathe of territory in both Iraq and Syria. So there is an extremist so-called Islamic State in the middle of the Middle East.

And that destabilizes obviously Iraq and Syria, but also you see spillover effects in Jordan, in Lebanon. So, even if we contain it, it’s still a huge problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, they have certainly gotten a lot of people’s attention.

Shadi Hamid, Steven Simon, we thank you both.

SHADI HAMID: It’s good to be here.