To defeat ISIL, we must first define it

The broader the conversation, the better the response.
The broader the conversation, the better the response.
Image: AP Photo/Michel Euler
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The world’s major powers have yet to determine a recipe for defeating the Islamic State. Experts have suggested steps that include forcing out Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, reforming Islamic teaching, and more fully integrating Muslim communities in the West.

But there’s also a more abstract task ahead. In order to bring down ISIL, countries around the world may need to coalesce around a narrative.

That’s an argument put forward by Mark Phillips, author of “Reinventing Communication,” a book about designing and managing complex systems.

In every battle space, adversaries capitalize on uncertainty in order to advance their agendas, Phillips explained last year in a lecture at the London School of Economics. Organizations like ISIL use the uncertainty created by terrorist attacks to gain a competitive advantage.

But narratives free us from what Phillips terms “a mechanistic, cat-and-mouse approach” consisting of response and counter-response to individual events. That makes narratives a powerful weapon in any battle, including the one against ISIL.

Compared with the rest of the planet, the US and its allies operate with few constraints on technology, funding, or human capital when it comes to developing ideas and tactics to address the uncertainty sown by ISIL. But according to Phillips, these countries have yet to unite around a story they can return to time and again that would allow them to consider the greatest range of options to defeat the terrorist organization.

An effective narrative helps us to harness uncertainty by unlocking “the creative problem-solving abilities of individuals and groups to find innovative ways to address challenges,” Phillips tells Quartz. “That’s what gives it its powers.”

As Phillips sees it, from the Cold War to the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11, the occasions when Western powers have collaborated in military efforts have occurred when a narrative has formed that allows for widespread engagement. In both of those instances, “the underlying theme was that we have a serious potential existential threat and we need to be able to engage a variety of potential tactics to protect ourselves and defeat that threat,” he says.

With the Cold War, no singular event gave rise to a narrative; there was “a general feeling that we really need to do something,” Phillips says. Other times, a narrative is thrust upon us by a traumatic event such as 9/11. The Paris attacks may be one such moment.

Reaching a narrative consensus will also require understanding the motives of those who join ISIL, the ranks of which include students, mothers, physicians, gang-bangers, and others. Some seek martyrdom. Some seek a refuge from discrimination or a sense of belonging. Some may be trying to find meaning through action. Others need money.

The goal in exploring the motives of terrorists is not to excuse their actions, adds Phillips, but “to understand more accurately the nature of the terrain, where the uncertainty comes from.”

By comparison, notes Phillips, ISIL does have a narrative. But it’s one that will ultimately be self-defeating. “It’s very much a recidivist-looking, backwards, glory days of the past type of longing,” he says, “and at the end of the day that’s an ideological structure that can hamper policy movement and bind them as an organization.”