Decisiveness and patience: how to defeat ISIS

Decisive military action and a more patient strategy of ‘aggressive containment’ were just two of the differing approaches suggested to deal with the global threat of ISIS and violent extremism made by an expert panel at King’s College London last night.

The panel was discussing what should be done about the so-called ‘Islamic State’ and the impact it is having upon Syria, Iraq, the Middle East - and beyond.

Opening the discussion, His Royal Highness Prince Turki Al Faisal Al Saud, Chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, said that it was the biggest challenge facing the Muslim world today and called for more international cooperation between nations in fighting a common foe.

He said that ISIS ‘should be treated as criminals’ and their claim to an Islamic State not given any credence or recognition. ‘Just the words give them the prestige of being an Islamic State - which they are not.’

Visiting King’s professor Sir John Sawers, former head of MI6, said ISIS was a symptom of the historic issues in the region - not the cause. He added that the clear involvement of Russia and Iran in backing the Assad regime, showed the West’s current strategy needed urgent review and that it should ‘get serious.’

‘If we are not prepared to follow up on our commitments with military action to back up our policy, then we are contributing to the crisis in Syria and Iraq, to the ongoing misery, to the continuing flow of thousands of migrants.’ He called for more funding to support military intervention.

But Professor Peter Neumann, Director for the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s disagreed; saying a policy of ‘aggressive containment’ would be more effective: ‘I believe it can be defeated, if we are patient.’

He said ISIS was ‘not a viable entity’ in a political, economic or cultural sense and likened it to the plundering destruction of the Nazis: ‘I think it will implode. It cannot sustain itself, especially if we are patient, in two to three years, I believe we will see a fundamental change.’

The event is marks the first joint alumni event with Georgetown University, Washington and is part of the growing collaboration between King’s War Studies Department and Georgetown’s Centre for Security Studies, at its School of Foreign Service - as well as with a number of other departments.

Professor Christine Fair of Georgetown’s Security Studies programme said it was important to note the reach of ISIS beyond the Middle East to Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh - and the importance of not ignoring their role in the stream of foreign fighters joining the conflict. She also backed visiting War Studies professor, Sir David Omand who said that the role of intelligence services and monitoring of extremists was vital - but not at the loss of personal liberty or confidence in states.

Sir David said ISIS did not respect borders: ‘No nation can adequately protect itself without the help of others. Simply backing the anti-Assad rebels has not worked. We need to re-think, we need good intelligence. But the government will have to be bold in introducing new intelligence measures and stand strong against those who harbour unnecessary fears of them undermining our liberties.’

Moderating the discussion was Professor Theo Farrell, Head of the Department of War Studies. In closing, he told the audience that ‘it is the start of term here at King’s, and we in War Studies are welcoming over one thousand students who arrive eager to learn about the security challenges facing the world.’ Professor Farrell noted that ‘no challenge is more grave and pressing than that presented by ISIS’ and accordingly he thanked the panel for their expert insights on how to meet this challenge.

King’s President and Principal Professor Ed Byrne said that he hoped the event, the first of its kind with Georgetown, would be one of many more to come.

Plans are now underway to create a dual MA program in Security Studies and a PhD track for Georgetown students to further their studies at King’s to be up and running by 2016/17.