Could We Develop an Anti-Terrorism Vaccine?
Eradicating radical Islam in the same way we are eradicating Polio
By Tawfik Hamid
Since the War on Terror began in 2001, radical Islamic movements have been on the rise. ISIS, for example, has set out to reestablish the ancient Islamic caliphate, a great colonial empire stretching across the Middle East and North Africa. And so far, it does not seem entirely implausible. A recent
NY Times editorial described the situation thus: "A year after announcing its expansion goals, [ISIS] is operating or has cells in more than a dozen countries." Today ISIS is fighting government troops not only in Iraq and Syria, but also in Egypt, Libya, Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon. In the face of unceasing airstrikes by a US-led coalition of 60 nations, ISIS continues to expand the territory under its control and influence.
Our clear failure to defeat or even stem the tide of terrorism has cost us thousands of American lives and has put an enormous strain on our treasury. In the fight against ISIS alone, the Pentagon is spending an average of $9.2 million per day, more than half on airstrikes, with virtually no significant positive impact. And President Barack Obama, by his own admission, lacks a clear and complete strategy to defeat the terror group.
The Islamic State's proven ability to control huge resources and vast territories coupled with dramatic advances in technology spawns a new and terrible threat to the future of the world. The danger of course escalated when ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) changed its name to IS (Islamic State), signifying a shift from a singular focus on the Levant to far grander ambitions on a global scale.
If stupidity (or insanity) is defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then is there any greater stupidity (or insanity) than repeating the same military tactics and operations (albeit without a clear and complete strategy) over and over again and expecting different results?
The free world has essentially five different options in fighting this war:
- Do nothing
- 2. Continue to employ the same military tactics and operations (without a coherent long-term anti-terrorism strategy) that we have used over and over again since Sep 11 without long lasting results
- 3. Use effective psychological deterrents to discourage further attacks by the Jihadists
- 4. "Peel off so-called 'reconcilables'" (Al-Qaeda warriors who joined the battle for opportunistic rather than ideological reasons) to fight ISIS, as General Petraeus has suggested
- 5. Eradicate terrorism from the face of the earth, just as we have almost succeeded in doing with Polio
The "Do nothing" option would simply result in continued expansion and power-grabbing by IS, accompanied by the inevitable rise in terror attacks worldwide.
Using the same approaches to fighting terrorism that have failed even to contain the problem for more than a decade describes precisely the aforementioned definition of stupidity (or insanity).
The use of effective psychological deterrents to dissuade the Jihadists from attacking us is a valid and powerful tactic. Unfortunately, however, due to the complexity of the phenomenon of Islamic radicalism (which includes cultural, psychological, theological and behavioral components), the current level of knowledge and understanding within the US government makes it unlikely that such an approach would be used correctly or effectively.
Employing opportunistic Al-Qaeda members to fight ISIS on the model outlined by General Petraeus is both short-sighted and high-risk-an extremely dangerous game. As happened over the long term in Iraq (where Petraeus tested his theory of turning one enemy against another), relying on opportunists will eventually backfire. Any weapons or training we supply to mercenaries will ultimately be used against innocent civilians and against our interests. Supporting such barbaric radicals in any way would be like trying to defeat a lethal cancer by empowering a different deadly cancer to develop in the body. Convincing the Sunni militias to fight against Al-Qaeda in Iraq worked temporarily, but in the end created the breeding grounds for ISIS, just as empowering the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union in the 1980s paved the way for the creation of Al-Qaeda.
Let us now turn our attention to the fifth option, which is far more likely to change the outcome and achieve success.
We can learn a great lesson from the process of the eradication of Polio.
Polio is not being wiped out globally by curing people who have become infected with the disease, but rather by inoculating everyone else. According to the World Health Organization, "if the virus cannot find an unvaccinated person to infect, it will die out."
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is both the largest and most successful public-private global health partnership in history. The international effort led by WHO, Rotary International, the US CDC and UNICEF set out to eradicate polio from the earth in 1988, a time when polio paralyzed more than 350,000 people a year. Today the number of diagnosed cases has dropped by more than 99% to just a few hundred yearly.
This extraordinary success has been achieved by vaccinating well people rather than attending primarily to those who are already sick. The same formula needs to be applied to the case of Islamic terrorism: Civilized nations and peaceful religious communities worldwide must find a way to cooperate in annihilating terrorism by inoculating with a modified version those not yet infected by radicalism. If the plague of radicalism cannot find an unvaccinated person to infect, terrorism will die out.
Anti-radicalization measures (which we might regard as the Terrorism Vaccine) include both theological and cognitive approaches and can be designed to prevent normal individuals from becoming radicals. Thy need to include the use of effective media campaigns (short term) and correct educational approaches (long term). This preventative terror-eradication initiative must of course run parallel to proper counter-terrorism efforts.
Some may feel that this approach could take a long time
. But let us not forget that traditional military approaches failed for nearly 15 years to eradicate or at least significantly reduce the level of the problem. This seems to necessitate additional more effective and probably more efficient approaches. We have been spending most of our resources and effort fighting those already infected with radicalization and diseased with terrorism. It is time for a fundamental shift in focus and energy to make sure the disease finds no new victims.