In the wake of the Islamic State's defeat in Mosul, the fight between the organization and its adversaries has reached an inflection point. Over the past week, credible reports from Mosul — sometimes accompanied by purported video and photographic evidence — have indicated that members of the Iraqi Security Forces are conducting mass executions of Islamic State members and their families, along with suspected civilian affiliates. In Raqqa, Syria, similar reports have appeared alleging that members of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are abusing and executing Islamic State prisoners.
In some ways, these reports are reminiscent of the videos accompanying the Islamic State's own conquest of Mosul and Raqqa in 2014, and it is no surprise that some Iraqis and Syrians are taking the opportunity to seek retribution. But while I have very little pity for the Islamic State fighters who engaged in wholesale slaughter, rape and pillaging, I must argue that mass executions are not the way to handle such criminals. Beyond the significant ethical problems, there are also a number of practical and strategic reasons that mass executions are counterproductive to the larger fight against jihadism. And if counterinsurgency forces are hoping to permanently quell the Islamic State's influence at this critical point, these executions will do more harm than good.
The Ideological Battlefield
As per their own propaganda, execution is exactly what Islamic State fighters believe will happen to them if they surrender, which is why they are so committed to fighting to the death. Reports of summary executions in Mosul and Raqqa only support the Islamic State's propaganda claims, while at the same time reinforcing the group's larger narrative that it is fighting to protect Sunnis from injustice at the hands of Shiites, apostate Sunnis and "Jews and Crusaders."
Historically, the treatment of Iraqi Sunnis under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shiite-dominated government fanned the flames of sectarian tension, ultimately helping the Islamic State of Iraq to stave off extinction and grow into the Islamic State we know today. Even following serious damage to the organization from 2006 to 2010, Shiite violence kept the group's ideologies alive and allowed it to regain strength. In Syria, things were much the same as the treatment of Sunnis under the Alawite-controlled regime of President Bashar al Assad turned the Syrian revolution into a sectarian affair. Thus, history emphasizes the importance of attempting to quell violence between factions: Better to counter the Islamic State's narrative by providing justice for those accused of being members than to support it with mass executions. (To date, Shiite militias have mostly shown restraint during the Mosul operation, but that could be changing.)
Moreover, the reality is that those committing mass executions often have no idea who they are killing, which means that, inevitably, some of the executed people will turn out to be innocent. This, of course, will serve to perpetuate grievances and hatred — and perhaps spawn additional violence by the families or tribes of the civilians killed.
Additionally, some of the people being killed could possess significant battlefield or strategic intelligence. By processing and properly interrogating these individuals, this intelligence can be extracted and used to more effectively fight the Islamic State. Obviously, not all of the people being executed have or would be willing to provide important information, but interrogating prisoners is often a highly fruitful intelligence source — and it is difficult to extract intelligence from a corpse.
A Critical Counterinsurgency
But perhaps the most significant damage these executions cause is the distrust they foster between the local population and the forces conducting them. Taking a step back, it is important to recognize that the Islamic State is far more than a terrorist group. Instead, it is a collection of militants conducting a large-scale insurgency across a broad swath of Syria and Iraq. And that is just the Islamic State's core; the organization's various franchise groups and grassroots supporters, often driven by local or individual grievances, must also be reckoned with. Killing or arresting members in a traditional counterterrorism operation therefore simply can't destroy the group, let alone the broader ideological movement it has spawned. A counterinsurgency is needed.
Despite ideological differences, there are many similarities between today's jihadists and the global communist movement of the 20th century. Like the jihadists, the communists inspired groups with local grievances to conduct terrorist attacks and wage insurgencies in order to foster a revolution. These communist movements thrived — often without much external support — in places of deep inequality and oppression, such as China and czarist Russia. But in countries with democratically elected or popular governments, the movements struggled to find a foothold. (Certainly, with outside support and funding, the communists of the United States and Europe were able to establish small terrorist cells such as the Weathermen, the Red Army Faction and the Italian Red Brigades. Though these groups killed some people and terrorized many others, they never grew into insurgencies, much less toppled governments.)
That history is mirrored by today's jihadist groups. As I've discussed before, despite the Islamic State's goal of becoming a truly global insurgency, its success on the ground has been inexorably bound to local conditions, making it more of a "glocal" than global phenomenon. In European and North American countries with democratically elected governments, jihadist organizations like the Islamic State remain small, isolated and unable to pose an existential threat. By contrast, contemporary jihadists have thrived in locations marked by vacuums of authority; governments suffering from crises of legitimacy; and long histories of ethnic, tribal or sectarian conflict. Effective counterinsurgency programs — which also help establish security and justice for the local population — can successfully manage the serious threat posed by jihadism, especially if they balance military might with government policy. But mass executions, especially those that kill innocents, cause irreparable damage and destroy one of the most critical elements of a counterinsurgency: the trust of the local population.
Former Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong, himself a very successful insurgent, once wrote that a guerrilla fighter "must move among the people as a fish swims in the sea." In Iraq and Syria, jihadists were given plenty of room to swim from 2011 to 2014 because of the actions of the al-Maliki and al Assad governments. But after two years of the Islamic State's brutal rule, the group has largely lost support from local populations — and the freedom and power that come with it. Consequently, now is an ideal time for counterinsurgency forces to use the advantage of negative public sentiment to help find, fix and finish Islamic State fighters.
However, that advantage can be lost, as it was after the death of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi in April 2010. Unless the United States and its allies can help create some sort of legitimate and stable government in the Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria, the coalition will not eradicate the group, no matter how many bombs it drops. Jihadists will be able to lay low within the countries' local populations until the opposition eases its offensive, and then they will re-emerge. Mass executions that sow distrust and perpetuate anger will only help them along.
The Future at a Crossroads
Of course, establishing steady, viable governments for Iraq and Syria is easier said than done. The United States and other donor nations have spent billions of dollars attempting to achieve such a goal in Iraq, and efforts have been inconsistent at best — and outright failures at worst. Results have been particularly disastrous when accompanied by attempts to impose Western values and styles of governance on a population that is hostile to those ideas and views them as foreign.
Furthermore, in the case of Iraq and Syria (and Libya, for that matter), there is also the question of how to define a state, and whether the current manifestation of that state is viable. Are these countries still viable as we think of them today, or would small states formed along ethnic, sectarian or tribal lines be more stable? Like the former Yugoslavia, each of these states is a relatively modern construct containing deep ethnic and tribal fault lines. Similarly, they were all held together by the force of a dictator, only to descend into chaos once control was lifted. Of course, the political answer to the problems of Iraq and Syria may not be the same as it was in Yugoslavia. Perhaps the answer this time around will be to create a more autonomous federal system.
What is certain is that until Syria and Iraq are able to deal with underlying political issues and establish stable governance, their leaders will be unable to drain the water giving jihadists room to swim, and the world could end up fighting the next iteration of the Islamic State in just a few years. After the fall of the Islamic State in Mosul and Raqqa, it will be critical to watch the dynamics developing among the jihadist group, the counterinsurgency and the cities' local populations. Right now, it is possible the Islamic State will be isolated, but there is also the chance that the organization will be permitted to survive and regroup. Decisions such as the reported mass executions will play an important role in determining which of those futures becomes a reality.