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International Crisis Group Report Details Violent Extremism In The Middle East


A big report out today. It's called "Exploiting Disorder: Al-Qaida And The Islamic State." It's from the NGO, the International Crisis Group, and it's about countering extremism. Among its recommendations? Back off on assassination attempts aimed at violent jihadist groups - they're unpredictable and they're risky - and try to open lines of communication even with hard-line groups. Richard Atwood of the International Crisis Group is the lead author of the report, and he joins me in studio. Welcome to the program.

RICHARD ATWOOD: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me in.

SIEGEL: The report is about al-Qaida, Islamic State and related groups. How great a threat would you say those groups pose?

ATWOOD: Well, they clearly pose a grave threat. They control territory in - now in many countries, and they have demonstrated their ability to expand and disrupt elsewhere. We still think, though, that the threat they pose or trying to counter the threat they pose should not distract from or deepen some of the underlying currents that have allowed them to expand, particularly the upheaval in the Middle East and the escalading Saudi-Iranian rivalry which drives both Shiite and Sunni radicalization across the region.

SIEGEL: A tactic that the U.S. has pursued against these groups has been decapitation. Not literal decapitation, but targeting the leaders of the groups to knock out the leader. You write decapitation is a tactic of limited value. It doesn't hurt a group to lose their leader or their number two?

ATWOOD: It can. It depends very much on the group, which we argue in the report. It depends very much on the context. Certainly in Pakistan, drone strikes have weakened the al-Qaida core. This is certainly true. I think where a movement is quite well-organized and it's not based around a personality cult, a new leader will usually emerge quite fast and usually and - or in many cases, the new leader will be more radical than his predecessor. Certainly we've see this in Yemen, we've seen this in Somalia, we've seen this in Nigeria with Boko Haram.

SIEGEL: It's certainly a popular view that the groups you're writing about are groups that we could never negotiate with in any way. They simply hate the West or hate America too much. You urge in this report that we be much more careful about the distinctions among these various groups. Could there be productive or effective talks, communications with them?

ATWOOD: Well, in the report we acknowledge that many of their goals and aspirations will be - would be extremely difficult to accommodate. That's one of the challenges that we look at, and we're certainly not recommending a peace process with the Islamic State. What we are saying is that there may be opportunities, in some cases locally, to open lines of communication, and that these lines of communication may lead to the alleviation of human suffering.

SIEGEL: It seems as though one major takeaway message from the report is we can't just kid ourselves into thinking that these extremist groups will disappear within a couple of years. They're there. They control territories in many countries, they've been able to play on various crises to solidify their positions. So part of what you seem to be saying is be smart, be diplomatic, make shrewd compromises with more moderate groups among these various factors. Fair?

ATWOOD: Yeah, that's right. We're arguing that some of these movements will be very difficult to defeat by military means alone, first of all, and that the conditions that have allowed them to rise - particularly the wars and the state chaos - while these still continue, it will be very, very difficult to reverse their gains.

SIEGEL: The report by the International Crisis Group is called "Exploiting Disorder: Al-Qaida And The Islamic State." Richard Atwood, you're the lead author, but you've had colleagues on this project?

ATWOOD: Yeah, I wrote the report with Robert Blecher, who's the Middle East, North Africa deputy director, but it draws very much from the expertise of all our colleagues.

SIEGEL: Thanks so much for talking with us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.