Can Political Struggle against ISIL Succeed where Violence Cannot?


It is widely believed that violent savages such as those fighting on behalf of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) understand only force. This default thinking is reinforced by policymakers’ ready access to military tools. However, violent action is often counterproductive and nonviolent strategies for dealing with ISIL have unexamined potential.

A Counterproductive Violence

ISIL’s unquestioned brutality has encouraged the formation of an international coalition to fight it. This coalition is presently engaged in a bombing campaign though “boots on the ground” are beginning to look more and more likely. Historically, however, armed interventions have a poor record of ending violent conflicts—something not acknowledged enough in U.S. policy and security circles. External armed interventions tend to extend the duration of civil wars and even worse, increase the number of civilians killed. A country has a more than 40% chance of relapsing into civil war within 10 years if the conflict is resolved through violent means. In addition, such military campaigns are expensive. The U.S. military campaign against ISIL has already cost close to $1 billion, while the total cost by the end of the year could range between $2.4 billion and $3.8 billion.

The bombing campaign against ISIL has already created unintended though foreseeable consequences. It increased admiration for ISIL, encouraged other jihadist groups—including some from Egypt, Algeria, Yemen and Libya—to declare their allegiance to ISIL, and potentially caused the divided Syrian jihadist groups to contemplate closer cooperation. Perhaps even more importantly, the bombing is generating growing anger among ordinary people on the ground who would not necessarily support jihadists but are now blaming the American-led intervention for food and fuel shortages, power blackouts, and civilian casualties.

ISIL’s Survival Depends on the Local Population

Like any ruling group, ISIL must rely on the support of the communities it governs. As of November, approximately 6 million people lived in ISIL-controlled territories. An estimated 30,000 ISIL fighters would hardly be a match for ordinary people if they decided to come together and resist the jihadists—a point that has also been acknowledged by the former head of counterterrorism at MI6.

ISIL realizes that its capacity for repression is limited and its brutal tactics can eventually backfire. Therefore, it prefers to buy the loyalty of tribal groups and induce local militia to switch sides rather than fight. In exchange for the tribes’ support, ISIL agrees to share some degree of autonomy in governance issues, including taxation. ISIL also made it easier for fighters from other extremist groups—even from opposing groups such as Al Nusra—to renounce their past allegiance and join ISIL. To maintain loyalty, ISIL pays its fighters between $200 and $600 per month, more than other groups can afford. ISIL thus remains strong not so much because it violently represses people but because it is skilled in making deals with many of them. Often, the allegiances are won not because locals identify themselves with ISIL’s extremist ideology, but because they perceive ISIL as being able to ensure security and resources for their community members.

ISIL also emphasizes governance as a way of ensuring the voluntary obedience of the population. ISIL’s propaganda magazine, Dabiq, shows the group to be a shrewd political actor that runs cancer treatment, cleans streets, and rebuilds destroyed infrastructure with the goal of earning grassroots support. The group also rebuilds roads, issues license plates, and pays monthly salaries to approximately 30,000 civilian administrators. These strategies seem to have worked. For example, locals in the Syrian city of Raqqa, even those not sympathetic to ISIL, expressed appreciation for the stability and relatively safety that ISIL managed to bring to the city after years of violence and war.

Political Struggle as a Tool to Defeat ISIL

Despite the fact that ISIL itself recognizes that its survival depends on the passive acceptance by the locals, the same calculation seems to be missing entirely from the strategic calculus of the external actors that want to defeat ISIL. Although there is a general understanding that fighting ISIL is a political project the tools used so far have been mainly military. Furthermore, to the extent that the coalition is using political tools, these efforts are confined to efforts to appeal to local Sunni elites and reintegrate them into the Iraqi government’s security and governmental structures. However, this strategy fails to take into consideration the broader base of domestic support that ISIL rests on.

In order to survive, ISIL created nodes of interconnections or dependency relations between its leadership, on one hand, and its fighters, civilian administrators and local population, on the other hand. These relations are its strength but they are also its greatest weakness. As long as people obey the rules set by Islamic fighters, the insurgency is secured. If they decided to unite and rebel, ISIL would fall in the same way more than 50 brutal (and arguably more powerful than ISIL) regimes fell between 1900 and 2006 after people self-organized, withdrew their consent to be governed and engaged in disruptive civil resistance actions. In that sense, the militants’ power, at its core, is political rather than military because it is based on obedience and support of the population they attempt to rule over. However, the automatic and familiar response of “a steady influx of guns and money” to ISIL’s opponents fails to consider the political bases of ISIL’s power. The coalition must carefully map out ISIL’s web of allegiances and voluntary obedience and, at the very least, avoid taking actions that strengthen them.

The question is then, if violence is such an ineffective and costly tool for defeating a violent group and building a more stable society afterward, what is then the alternative weapon against ISIL? The answer lies in the notion of a political struggle fought by political means that aims to undermine the very basis of ISIL’s political (and by extension its military) power. The strategies of political struggle are more appropriate and effective than violence for delegitimizing the adversary, shifting the loyalty of its supporters, and attracting fence sitters and those who hide their preferences. Admittedly, a political struggle is not a panacea for every type of violence, but nonviolent organizing and mobilizing against violent actors have proven to be historically twice as effective as and three times shorter than armed struggle, not to mention almost 10 times more likely to bring about a democratic outcome within 5 years after the end of the conflict than its violent counterpart.

A political struggle must focus on mapping the existing dependency relations and setting up clear political objectives, namely: 1) turning locals against ISIL and 2) removing ISIL’s pillars of support (such as its fighters and civilian administrators). Planners must ask the questions: How can we shift locals’ allegiance? How can people engage in noncooperation to undermine ISIL’s governance? How can they destabilize the ISIL governance without necessarily engaging in an open rebellion that is likely to be brutally repressed? Inducing defections among administrators and fighters could undermine ISIL from within, through intentional incompetence, inefficiencies, subtle disruption, and sabotage of daily work that ISIL and its allies must rely on in order to effectively control the territory and local population. In past nonviolent political struggles, people would not only engage in visible direct action such as strikes, street protests, and demonstrations but would call in sick and not show up at workplace, would work slowly and ineffectively, create bureaucratic red tape without getting much done, or botch implementing orders of their superiors. Adversaries were helpless in trying to figure out how to counter inefficiency or address incompetence.

Billions of dollars committed to military efforts could be redirected to developing sophisticated strategies of social communication, political agitation, provision of humanitarian services, and inducement of inefficiencies, incompetence, and defections within the adversary’s base of support. If ISIL’s reputation and credibility depend on restoring electricity, delivering clean water or oil, providing health services, or making bakeries operational, then there are a number of dependency relations that could be severed from inside (violent outside attempts far too often were used by ISIL for its propaganda advantage). However, such actions could happen only if the local population became politically agitated to engage in coordinated acts of civil disobedience and through induced incompetence purposefully sabotaging services ISIL relies on to win local sympathy. If enough people refuse to collaborate with ISIL the terror group has no choice but to step back. This happened in Mosul where some imams refused to pledge their allegiance to ISIL and a large number of imams’ followers went on the streets to express their support. They were too many, even for brutal ISIL, to challenge them.

The strategy must go to the heart of the ISIL appeal that is based on an ultimately false promise of a new type of participatory citizenship. ISIL seems to be offering a degree of individual and group autonomy and independent engagement in running local services as long as people remain loyal to ISIL that are unprecedented under the authoritarian regimes in the regions and the Shia-dominated government in Iraq in particular. Joining Islamists also gives a feeling of adventure, financial and reputational awards, and religiosity. The tools of political struggle must show that behind this façade is an undesirable reality of totalitarian control. They must also offer people more voluntary engagement. For example, communities that oppose ISIL-imposed curricula might build networks of underground education. Political strategies could also encourage and convince more locals to document daily life under ISIL to dispel the myth of its people-oriented governance, effective management of local affairs, or the obedience it enjoys among a number of tribal communities.

The United States and its allies could use a portion of the billions they spent on the current bombing campaign to set up advanced Internet connectivity in the air over Syria and Iraq, perhaps by implementing Mark Zuckerberg’s idea of aerial router drones and balloons and flood the area with used mobile phones and laptops. This would generate a flood of information about the reality of life under ISIL directly from people experiencing it that would swamp ISIL own propaganda currently dominating the digital domain—that even more resource-rich US government has difficulty to counter. More importantly, it could provide a communication platform for establishing cooperation, strengthening self-organization and enhancing coordination of actions against ISIL among various people and communities on the ground.

Fear inhibits action and limits participation that eventually leaves civic space unprotected and open for radicals to fill in. A Syrian activist observed this happening in Raqqa: “our own cowardice allowed ISIL to grow. We never had the courage to call their crimes, even though we knew they were behind it.” Shedding fear to undertake resistance action is very difficult. However, in the past, people have mobilized despite fear when they established solidarity and mutual aid networks that helped develop trust. Fear was also reduced when people engaged in collective actions with many others. In ISIL-administered territories, this can begin by developing underground networks of humanitarian services that could slowly but surely generate trust, solidarity, and political power as increasing numbers of people join activities that are autonomous of or beyond ISIL’s control.

A basic desire of any community is to keep violence out of its village or town. Local people are known to have united and organized themselves without arms to keep violent groups out. Examples include peace communities in Colombia, locals establishing peace zones in the Philippines or in El Salvador and people coming together to form “nonwar” areas in other places. The self-organization of these communities brought about growth in their social, organizational, and political capacity to defend themselves against violent actors, reduce overall violence and, as a result, save civilians. These communities thus offer a template for how locals under ISIL’s control could organize themselves to enhance security and safety of their areas and do so without arms.


The strategy for a protracted struggle against ISIL needs to be based on an understanding of the probable outcomes of various strategies. It must also aim to minimize costs, shorten the conflict, and make the post-conflict situation less prone to a reemergence of violence. A mix of military and non-military action in this strategy might be most feasible given current invested-interests in the armed approach. Rather than bombing and planning for an armed campaign that is likely to be extremely costly in both blood and treasure, a more effective long-term strategy would be to use military force merely to contain ISIL on the territory it already controls. The containment would be combined with the implementation of communication and social strategies to exploit ISIL’s political vulnerabilities. Weakening ISIL politically will increase fissures within ISIL, defection by its key allies, and dissatisfaction among the local population. This political process would in turn create cost-effective opportunities to undermine ISIL military prowess.


Dr. Maciej Bartkowski is an adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins University, Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, where he teaches strategic nonviolent resistance, and is editor of Recovering Nonviolent History: Civil Resistance in Liberation Struggles, published in 2013. Dr. Bartkowski can be followed on Twitter @macbartkowski, and on