A girl carries cooking oil at the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp, which holds relatives of suspected Islamic State fighters, in Syria's Hasakeh governorate. Photo: AFP / Delil Souleiman

Recent photos from Al-Hasakah governorate in northeastern Syria show a group of women and children looking for discarded food in a rubbish dump. Al-Hasakah governorate is currently under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by the US forces stationed in the region as part of their campaign to fight against Islamic State (ISIS).

The irony is that the same photo shows the pumpjack of an oilfield, highlighting that these families lived through the long and perilous “war on terror” whose latest chapter is being waged in Syria and Iraq against ISIS.

When US president George W Bush announced the “war on terror” in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks 20 years ago, it was not expected that America’s counterterrorism operations would spread to the rural areas of Syria, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East.

Academics, journalists, and the public continue to wonder why the West became trapped in what can be described as the “perpetual war on terror,” as Bruce Hoffman expressed it in his 1998 book Inside Terrorism.

One of the main reasons for the West’s failure to defeat the Taliban and prevent the rise of ISIS after its initial defeat in Iraq in 2008 is that the West has never fully invested in supporting local communities in the peripheral areas to prevent them from being hotbeds for radical groups.

Since the beginning of the “war on terror,” radical groups have continuously sought sanctuary in the rural areas. Aside from being remote areas, which can provide better protection against counter insurgency operations, these areas are inhabited by local tribes. Extremist groups employed the carrot and stick approach to build support and influence among the local tribes. As a result, the “war on terror” has turned into a war on tribal communities.

In one of the most fascinating books written by Akbar Ahmed, The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, the author draws on many case studies to demonstrate how the US has become involved directly or indirectly in tribal societies.

Beginning with Waziristan and expanding to societies in Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere, Ahmed demonstrates how American firepower has indiscriminately targeted tribal people in these societies. All too often, the victims are innocent children at school, women in their homes, workers simply trying to earn a living, and worshipers in their mosques.

Battered by military attacks and drone strikes, the tribes bemoan, “Every day is like 9/11 for us.” Tapping into the tribal codes of solidary and honor, the Taliban and ISIS have been asking tribesmen to take revenge against the transgressors, which in this case are the US and its allies, according to them.

This constant cycle of revenge and counter-revenge has created opportunities for the Islamist groups to recruit members of the local tribes into their ranks, increasing their manpower and their geographical distribution, which in turn extended the “war on terror.”

The image of destitute families looking for food in a rubbish dump is an example of the poor management of economic resources in areas of counter terrorism operations that lie under the control of Western powers.

Since the defeat of ISIS in Syria in 2015, northeastern Syria has witnessed multiple protests against the SDF for not properly distributing the revenues from oil and gas resources that lie in their territories. Poverty and lack of economic means among the local tribes in rural areas create opportunities for ISIS to continue recruiting locals among its sleeper cells who, in turn, attempt to regroup and wait for an opportunity to rise again.

The same could be said about Afghanistan, where the US and other Western powers did not invest enough in resolving rural grievances. Multiple reports have warned that urban-rural inequality in Afghanistan impedes the country’s progress toward stability.

Neglecting the rural economies and focusing on the major urban centers in US efforts toward nation-building decreased the popularity of the US and the Afghan government and increased the Taliban’s recruitment ability. Over the last 20 years, the Taliban played on rural people’s grievances and used the peripheral areas as starting points for its insurgency against the central government and US forces in Afghanistan.

In the few cases where connections were built with the local communities, the priority of the US and its allies was to use them as proxies against terrorist groups. This is clearly demonstrated in the case of the “Sons of Iraq” movement that was established in 2005.

That movement was composed of members of al-Anbar tribes and was paid by the American military to patrol neighborhoods, and to fight against al-Qaeda forces in western Iraq. While such action may have brought fruitful results in the short term, in terms of weakening al-Qaeda in Iraq, its long-term consequences for the local population were disastrous.

Supporting particular tribes against al-Qaeda in Iraq generated tribal competition where those who did not manage to gain US support struck deals with al-Qaeda because they felt that they were out of the political and economic bargaining game.

What was also shortsighted about this policy is that it distributed resources directly to tribal leaders who hoarded some of the resources for themselves, creating divisions and tension among members of the tribe itself around economic benefits. 

While some consider the US withdrawal from Afghanistan a failure of the “war on terror,” others argue that the goals of the war in Afghanistan have been met because al-Qaeda was dismantled, and Osama bin Laden was terminated. What is agreed upon, however, is that the US and its allies have failed in the process of nation-building there.

Any future attempts to combat terrorism across the world should recognize that this is not just a military battle. Rather, it is a battle that should aim to invest in sustainable development projects in the rural areas of Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere where extremists could exploit grievances to recruit people and fight back. 

Haian Dukhan

Haian Dukhan is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Central European University.