This event follows the Summer 2018 publication of the special issue of Orbis: FPRI’s Journal of World Affairs,“Stabilizing the Fertile Crescent After the Fall of the Caliphate,” dedicated completely to the research and findings of the “After the Caliphate” project. Presenting key points of the research conducted throughout this project, the speakers at this event were able to discuss at length their findings contained in this issue of Orbis and beyond.
First to speak was Barak Mendelsohn, Senior Fellow at FPRI and Associate Professor of Political Science and Haverford College, whose research appears in another facet of FPRI’s “After the Caliphate” project: his upcoming book Jihadism Constrained: The Limits of Transnational Jihadism and What It Means for Counterterrorism. Delving into the perceptions and realities of terrorism, Mendelsohn noted that “we are forgetting that terrorism is about achieving political objectives,” indicating that the Islamic State and al-Qaeda are not as successful in their endeavors as we may perceive them to be. These failings are due to the inability of these organizations to supersede prevailing strong national and sub-national identities, create one united transnational movement, or incite political change in other countries.
In consideration of Mendelsohn’s findings, Assaf Moghadam, Adjunct Associate Professor at Columbia University, indicated that, although actors such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda are not relatively successful in reaching their goals, the global jihadi movement is far from over. Foreseeing a transformation, Moghadam predicted that “in the next few years, the movement likely will continue to evolve from its bipolar structure toward an increasingly multipolar entity,” characterized by an increase of both cooperation and competition. These organizations are changing and adapting, as demonstrated by ISIS’s utilization of the popular messaging app Telegram as a platform for communication and operations, recruitment, and the spread of propaganda, which, as Moghadam pointed out, has critical implications for counterterrorism.
Continuing on the topic of counterterrorism, Tally Helfont, Director of the Program on the Middle East at FPRI and Project Lead on the After the Caliphate Project, discussed the strategies that the Gulf States employ to combat terrorism as well as their impact on the Fertile Crescent. This multilateral approach that consists of “stopping the men, the money, and the ideas” of ISIS is a relatively new concept, Helfont explained. While the focus on the men and the money treats the symptoms of this problem, the root of the issue lies in the ideas. This strategy of “combatting extremism at its psychological and ideological roots, rather than just cracking down militarily on its manifestations” is exacted through a variety of strategies that range from public awareness campaigns to educational restructuring. The Gulf States are stepping up to a greater leadership role in the region, Helfont indicated, and this initiative is a key element of this change.
Bringing the panel to a conclusion was Samuel Helfont, Senior Fellow at FPRI and Assistant Professor of Strategy and Policy at the Naval War College program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA. Speaking on the Sunni-Shi’i divide within Iraq, the subject of his Orbis article “An Arab Option for Iraq,” Helfont outlined the potential that Iraqi Arab nationalism has to combat sectarianism. This is something that the United States can help with, he said. By working with Iraq and its regional allies, the U.S. can promote this particular brand of nationalism by establishing “institutions in Iraq that reflect a moderate, Iraqi Arab nationalist identity at the expense of sectarian projects that have been pushed by Sunni and Shi‘i Arabs, as well as by Iranians.” With great potential for increasing stability and unity within Iraqi people and politics, this particular brand of nationalism may be a promising strategy in the fight against ISIS influence within the nation.