Manila, 14 November. I needed to wake up early for the opening plenary of the fourth Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Business Advisory Council Meeting. I reached for my phone and there was a flood of alerts. Paris, the city of lights had come under attack. In those early hours, there was not yet confirmation that the shootings, suicide bombs and hostage taking were coordinated—but it seemed likely. As the hours passed, the death toll rose frighteningly quickly.
Over 135 people were killed in the Paris attacks, a scant day after suicide bombers in Beirut killed over 35 people. Just one week after, 21 people were killed in Mali.
These attacks bracketed the Apec economic leaders meeting held November 18 to 19 in Manila. Both fittingly and ironically, the Apec meetings that focused on inclusion and resilience a batter world were held against a backdrop of violence and division.
Following the attacks in Beirut and Paris, CNN ran a documentary on the rise of ISIS with the tagline #blindsided. The documentary echoed what many analysts had been saying about the modern war ISIS is fighting.
Heghlu’meH QaQ jajvam. “Today is a good day to die.” In the Star Trek universe, that one phrase explained why the Klingon warrior is so formidable. Perhaps the most dangerous fighter is the one who is unafraid to die. That is the fighter that will take risks that are incomprehensible to the rest of us. Because we cannot imagine this, we cannot anticipate it. If we cannot anticipate it, then we cannot defend against it. Then we are blindsided.
And that, in fact, is what most analysts say is particularly worrying about ISIS—its ability to attract recruits. These recruits are not soldiers trained to fight a war of logic and calculated risks. These are believers who are in a crusade, one which they believe is righteous. This is a war with reason and economics on one side, and emotion and conviction on the other.
The CNN documentary echoed a Washington Post piece by Greg Miller and Souad Mekhennet on the ISIS propaganda machinery. ISIS, they say is essentially a messaging machine. This war is not being fought with guns. It is fought with cameras and photographs. The battleground is the 24-hour news cycle and the lightning quick mobile platforms of social media.
The same posts and reports that create fear and outrage among those attacked feed pride and a hunger for meaning to the ISIS audience. Like many other terror organizations, ISIS recruits the disaffected, the marginalized. Imagine you are young and strong and angry because society has no place for you. Imagine you have been told you have no value. Then imagine someone telling you that you can be a hero, that you can make a difference. Imagine them telling you that you will have a chance to strike against the most powerful nations on the planet. What would you do?
What makes the ISIS recruitment videos so effective, analysts say, is that they intersperse the images of strength and force with images of happiness and camaraderie. It should come as no surprise to anyone with military training that this is an extremely effective mix of emotional themes. War, after all, is about getting soldiers to endure and sometimes, perpetrate, what would normally be considered atrocities. These extreme circumstances are borne through a potent mix of courage and fraternity. There is a reason boot camps are severe. Boot camp teaches laser focus. Boot camp teaches soldiers to be strong, to endure, to rely on each other—often to the exclusion of everything else. That is the attitude needed in battle.
This is clearly a mix of emotions that is hardwired into the human psyche. ISIS, apparently, has managed to use it to great effect.
And that is the reality of this situation. As long as the recruits willing to die for the cause stream into the territories controlled by ISIS, ISIS can continue to wage this war of terror.
A security strategy is critical, of course. And so is a military strategy. But what is clear about this rise of ISIS is that Iraq fell because the soldiers decided not to fight for their government. A military strategy that presumes all soldiers will fight for the government they belong to will not work in countries where a sense of community and loyalty has not been established. In the broken nations ISIS could target, the real vulnerability does not lie only in the lack of training or firepower, it lies truly in the absence of community. In the many nations from which the ISIS recruits come, the real concern is not about physical restrictions, it is about the lack of emotional links to their own nations.
At the heart of this war is a sense of community—the lack of it, the desire for it.
This, in fact, is what a large part of leadership is about. Whether in politics or in business, what has always been clear is that while explicit rewards have a place, the strongest bonds and the best coordinated performance comes from teams that have a deep commitment to their cause and to each other.
This amorphous thing that we call by different names: culture, share values, alignment is, at its heart, a sense of community. Man is a social being. When managers forget this, organizations falter. When leaders of nations forget it, the social fabric frays. That the Apec theme is about inclusion is encouraging. These leaders, if they are true to their word, might actually lay the foundation for a wider and lasting peace.
Readers can email Maya at [email protected]. Or visit her site at http://integrations.tumblr.com.