WASHINGTON, 3rd May, 2016 (WAM)–TRENDS Research & Advisory organised a group of scholars, practitioners and journalists at the Stimson Centre in Washington D.C. on 27 and 28 April. The two day conference was organised by TRENDS Research and Advisory, based in Abu Dhabi, UAE, the Orfalea Centre for Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the Stimson centre, bringing together terrorism and counter-terrorism experts from diverse backgrounds to confront the challenges presented by Daesh.

The wide-ranging discussions that occurred over eight thematic panels challenged existing conceptions of Daesh and how the international community ought to respond.

Despite recent media reports and claims that Daesh is being weakened, the group remains a large threat to security. This threat is not limited to Iraq and Syria, where Daesh has control over territory, but its influence and alliances are being seen across the world. Governments and international organisations are attempting to come up with responses to the threats posed by Daesh, but so far these efforts have not been fully effective.

In opening the event the President and CEO of the Stimson centre, Dr. Brian Finlay, underlined the importance of bringing together a range of voices, from the USA and from the Middle East, to discuss the challenges posed by Daesh. He emphasised how this event was a unique opportunity to discuss the threat of extremism posed by Daesh. Given the challenges the world is facing from extremism and terrorism it is necessary to hold events like this one to think critically about the problem and put forth pragmatic contributions to the policy making process, unique opportunity to discuss extremism, bringing together regional voices to address the global problem.

Dr. Ahmed Al Hamli, the President of TRENDS Research & Advisory, reinforced that this is no easy task as our current responses to the threat of terrorism are sometimes as disruptive as the threat itself. However, through diverse and integrated approaches based on global cooperation we can improve our responses.

The discussions addressed the political, military and social impact of Daesh covering local, national and international responses. In what became a clear theme of the event, the experts explained that to effectively confront Daesh, we must be willing to challenge established conceptions of what it represents, what motivates it and what constitutes appropriate responses.

The experts were of the view that while the threat from Daesh is sometimes overstated, the ongoing impact Daesh is having on global security cannot be ignored. The globally recognised forensic psychiatrist and counter terrorism expert, Marc Sageman, explained we are in a difficult position as governments have substantial information about terrorist organisations, but do not fully understand it, while researchers, academics and advisers do understand the information, but lack details due to security concerns.

There is no easy answer to the gaps in information and understanding but clearly governments and politicians need to focus their attention and make use of available experts.

Professor Mary Breen-Smyth, of the University of Massachusetts in Boston, an individual with extensive experience from the situation of Northern Ireland, argued that what hinders the development of effective policies and solutions is the practice of the Western democratic model. Professor Breen-Smyth explained that politicians today are usually more concerned with their re-election than with dealing with the long term impact of threats to society posed by terrorism.

The power of elections is driven by media in support of short-term solutions. In return, the elected individuals are not investing in real long-term solutions that target the security threats on the society, rather focusing on their own personal gain. The threat from terrorism is a long term matter that requires concentrated attention over an extended period of time, something governments and policy makers are failing to realise.

According to TRENDS’ group of experts in counter-terrorism, it is counter productive to challenge the understanding of religious beliefs in a way that enforces extremist ideologies which in return will create more tension between groups that could lead to acts of terrorism. The experts were broadly agreed that to counter extremism we need to focus on actual behaviour and not become caught up in ideological battles.

There is a need for governments and societies to move away from trying to “counter” the message from groups like Daesh and rather provide effective alternative models of societies where individuals can grow and develop.

Dr. Victor Asal, from Albany University, explained that the data on extremism overwhelmingly shows that religious belief does not make people violent, and it does not contribute to extremist ideologies in the way it is often portrayed. He emphasised that we need to have more knowledge about religion in our society in order to understand how it is used to motivate individuals to extremist activity.

Dr. Hussein Ibish, of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, assessed that the conflict spread across Iraq and Syria represents one of the most complex conflicts in modern history; Daesh is able to survive in the spaces of the overlapping and conflicting interests of each of its opponents. Dr. Joel Day, of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell explained how Daesh has spread its influence to organizations as far away as South-East Asia, and how these far-flung organizations tend to benefit from their association with Daesh.

Thus, the threat posed by Daesh is indeed global, requiring a global response.At the same time, Dr. Risa Brooks, of Marquette University and a Non-Resident Fellow of TRENDS, explained that Daesh may appear different from other terrorist groups, or is an extreme form of these organisations, but it does not necessarily represent a unique or exceptional threat. She assessed that Daesh has been able to take advantage of unique political conditions in order to launch its threats to the international system.

The experts explained how our responses have been short of effective due to a lack of an appropriate understanding of how Daesh operates.

Not only are the understandings of Daesh limited due to poor comprehension, the conference also addressed how Daesh has shown resilience in its ability to learn and adapt its methods in order to maintain its appeal and operational capability. Charlie Winter, an expert in the strategies of Daesh, from Georgia State University, explained how Daesh is able to project its message through a variety of propaganda techniques through both online and offline methods. The propaganda efforts of Daesh have been central to its attempts to maintain its appeal, especially in relation to vulnerable groups.

The conference included an extremely important discussion of what comes next in relation to Daesh. The social psychologist, Dr. Clark McCauley from Bryn Mawr College, and a Non-Resident fellow for TRENDS, explained that at the core of the Daesh phenomenon is emotion, specifically humiliation, which he defined as the combination of anger and shame.

This violent group is successful because it offers an exhilarating remedy for humiliation, thus to effectively end it as a violent movement, an even greater remedy must be made available.

In concluding the event, the Director of the Stimson centre, Ambassador Lincoln Bloomfield, along with Professor Richard Falk, from the Orfalea centre, pointed out that a military response alone is not going to defeat Daesh. We have learned this from past situations where both military and non-military responses are necessary to effectively defeat Daesh.