What will it take to defeat Daesh, also known as ISIS, and other terrorist groups? Joined-up, collaborative thinking and action – not only from the states who share an interest in defeating the group, but also among the private sector and civil society.

Daesh will not be defeated by drone strikes alone. Aerial bombardment without a coherent strategy for long-term stability merely creates a vacuum in which terrorist groups can thrive. Even if the battle can be won on the territory Daesh controls, the battlefield now stretches from Beirut to Ankara to Paris, and potentially to any of the hundred-plus countries in which Daesh is believed to have recruited fighters virtually or physically.


But while their rise may leave some wondering whether they can be defeated, they can – and these three steps is how we make a start.

  1. Unity among allies

States must lead the way. Daesh will not be defeated while civil war rages in Syria – and civil war will continue to rage in Syria for as long as the powers that could end it disagree about what the endgame should be. Daesh is banking on the likes of Russia, the US, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia being unable to set aside their differences and pragmatically find a political settlement that all would prefer to the status quo. So far, this calculation of diplomatic inefficacy seems well-founded.

Even if that were achieved, diplomatic and military solutions can go only so far. Daesh also needs to be suffocated economically and socially. And to prevent it – or something like it – appearing again in another guise, its appeal to a significant number of young men and women all over the world needs to be understood and undercut.

  1. Coordinated economic measures

Take economic suffocation first. Daesh may propound a bloodthirsty mediaeval theology, but it is run like a sophisticated modern corporation. It has a highly adaptive management structure, a clear value proposition, and a sophisticated marketing department which is adept at using new technology to package its appeal and reach potential customers. Like any other modern corporation, it relies on international supply chains, financial flows and communications platforms.

Some private sector actors are already doing their bit to cut these lifelines. But much more could be done. Daesh derives its income not only from plunder, trafficking and extortion of local populations, but also through more organized business activities in areas such as agriculture, oil and factory production. Breaking their supply and delivery chains would require a wide-ranging alliance of multinational and regional companies, many of whom are understandably apprehensive of getting involved and lack a platform for coordinated collaboration.

Most businesses view terrorism as a matter of tactical risk management, rather than a matter for strategic collaboration. Yet all businesses share an interest in a stable operating environment. The world needs new mechanisms for private sector actors to cooperate with militaries and intelligence agencies, to understand and counter threats to international security.

  1. Build a compelling competing offer for its customers

Ultimately, the defeat of Daesh will be achieved only when it appeals to insignificant numbers of people. To undercut its appeal, we must first understand how Daesh offers meaning and a hero narrative to young people who are disillusioned with anything else life has to offer.

While most Muslims oppose Daesh, the group markets itself as Islamic – indeed, as the truest form of Islam. Western governments can, and must, seek to counter rising populist anti-Muslim sentiment by stressing the difference between Islam and Islamism. But the task of persuading potential recruits that Daesh is not truly Islamic is one that can be achieved only by other Muslims.

To do this, we need counternarratives and platforms – alternative ways for young Muslims to aspire to be heroic and engaged.

Any involvement by Western governments in these efforts in the region might be counterproductive. But governments and businesses can collaborate to address some of the reasons why the Daesh hero narrative currently finds such a wide audience regionally and globally. We live in a world of gaping inequalities, not only of wealth but also of opportunity; young people face high rates of unemployment, often in countries with corrupt elites and weak institutions. Daesh have made it their business model to exploit resentment and disillusionment, offering excitement and an anti-establishment cause.

Addressing these problems with new models of governance is much harder than dropping bombs. Neither will be sufficient alone to defeat Daesh, but both may be necessary as part of a bigger picture in which many stakeholders have a role to play.

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Author: Anja Kaspersen, Head of International Security and Member of the Executive Board

Image: Smoke raises behind an Islamic State flag after Iraqi security forces and Shiite fighters took control of Saadiya in Diyala province from Islamist State militants, November 24, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer