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April 8, 2016

Responding To: Managing Security for a New World

Asymmetric Actors: Putting the Islamic State in Perspective

John Arterbury

The dominant security challenges of our era can not be solved alone. Crafting an effective response means being able to work effectively on regional levels across the globe, allowing local actors to lead when necessary and providing crucial support when extraordinary situations demand it. Asymmetric threats, such as those posed by the Islamic State, occupy much of the media discourse in the post-Paris and Brussels era, but we should not lose sight of the greater sum of the threats. Such asymmetric actors do indeed pose deep problems for security managers and societies, including for mature democracies whose electorates may be steered by their attacks. It is important to note, however, that the Islamic State is merely the flavor-of-the-month in terms of terror actors. Europe, for example, has withered similar onslaughts before, whether in the form of the Years of Lead in Italy, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, or the Basque campaign in Spain, to name but a few.

Nor, despite media attention, is the Islamic State the sole actor intent on attacking the United States and its allies. Indeed, Al-Qaeda has leveraged experiences over the past decade to reform and rethink its governance model, and thanks to a combination of the brutality of the Assad regime and this clever politicking, its franchise Jabhat al-Nusra has tried to embed itself into the fabric of Syrian society. Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has exploited the chaos left in the wake of Yemen’s Houthi rebellion and faltering Saudi intervention to reassert and rearm itself.

It is important to remember that despite their bluster these asymmetric actors do not comprise existential threats to the United States or its allies. While they absolutely threaten regional stability—as a horrific spate of recent attacks on hotels in West Africa has shown, including a failed attack that occurred as the Secretary spoke to the Georgetown community—they are not likely to topple any major governments or expand far beyond their current confines. By enlisting the support of our many allies and alliances, the United States can offer the capacity building, funding, guidance, and—in remarkable circumstances—the muscle necessary to counter these threats. But no intervention is guaranteed, and what worked in one context is not certain to work in another. The US must not only permit but encourage our allies’ independence, since regional actors are not only most likely to understand the nuances underpinning a conflict or challenge, but they are also likely to feel its reverberations. Whether it is the Syrian Democratic Forces or the Rukla training area in eastern Europe, each part plays its role. Indeed, as Secretary Hagel rightly noted, alliances have been at the forefront of international peace and stability. After all, NATO has kept the peace in Europe for decades—an achievement that sounds foreign and bizarre to younger generations who may forget that the bloodiest spasms of the twentieth century came not from Africa or the Middle East, but from the heart of Europe. 

John Arterbury is a M.A. candidate in the Security Studies program at Georgetown University.

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