Human beings are incredibly good at recognizing patterns. It is an amazing skill, both practically and creatively. But it can get us into trouble, too. And it is doing that now.
We observe ISIS's horrific behavior and we see a pattern: a terrorist group bent on destroying our way of life.
This pattern lends itself to certain assumptions. We assume that its propaganda accurately states its true motivations. We assume that anyone who supports ISIS must agree with all it says. These assumptions imply a purely military solution: Destroy the evildoers wherever they are.
These assumptions are wrong, as is the pattern that suggests them. In reality, ISIS is an onion. Its relatively small center consists of people out for some combination of power, glory, and belief, and who in all likelihood quite genuinely want to harm us - probably because we don't want them to have power and glory and disagree with many of their beliefs. Short of giving in to them, there is probably little we can do, at this point, to deal with most of these core members apart from military or police force.
This is far less clearly an appropriate or effective strategy for the rest of ISIS and its supporters, who occupy layers around the core. Our goal should be understanding why they support ISIS and what can be done to end their support.
The reason for this strategy is simple. Without the rest of the onion, the core will fall easily to the far superior forces arrayed against it. With its supporters, however, military force will fail to halt the violence. No matter how much we degrade ISIS, there will always be far-flung people with sufficient interest in attacking us and the capability to do so. Terrorism has been their preferred method precisely because it is comparatively easy to pull off. Those who are quick to advocate more force on its own would do well to remember this and the lessons of history.
So what drives people to support ISIS?
There's no one reason, and it is unclear how useful just listing reasons is for counterterrorism policy. But one thing can be said: People support ISIS when doing so seems superior to not doing so. Given that supporters are guaranteed to be shunned by all nonsupporters and hounded by law enforcement, this seems by our standards a pretty awful choice. That enough people take it anyway to form a viable and dangerous group is evidence that they view the alternative to be really, really bad.
A viable strategy begins with fixing this badness. This is well within our power. The supporters of ISIS in Iraq and Syria lack everything from jobs to viable political representation. Multistate negotiations need to guarantee viable power-sharing as a central tenet of governments in Iraq and Syria. Integration begins with feeling that you have a stake in the system and that the system offers the promise of a better life for you and your children.
Supporters of ISIS outside the region feel marginalized at home and are drawn to the allure of perceived meaning in their actions. Take away local support of ISIS by instituting real power-sharing and investment in the region, and the allure ends. Reduce the xenophobic calls to religious or ethnic purity by not reacting as ISIS wants us to, and marginalization diminishes. Ethno-religious groups like ISIS want you to hate members of their group. This hate helps drive their recruitment. It's a strategy called provocation. And it's easy to resist just by not responding with hate.
ISIS may utilize a particularly brutal version of terrorism to intimidate, but its strategy is neither new nor complex. We face it again and again when we fail to deal with the underlying factors that spawn it, when we focus on the pattern rather than the cause of the pattern.
We have an opportunity to do better. We would do well to seize it.