Peace Science Digest

Defeating ISIS with Nonviolent Resistance

Photo credit: Ben Schumin

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Stephan, M. J. (2015). Civil Resistance vs. ISIS. Journal of Resistance Studies,1(2), 127-150. Retrieved from


The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS) is a radical religious group possessing the tendencies of both a violent insurgency and a totalitarian regime. ISIS has killed and enslaved thousands of innocent civilians and pathed the way to one of the largest humanitarian disasters ever recorded. Their goal of creating an independent Islamic state, and recruiting the armed fighters to do so, has since proved resilient to the military opposition of much stronger nations. This resiliency suggests that ISIS’s ambitions will only be weakened through a combined strategy of diplomatic, economic, political, and ultimately local nonviolent resistance.

Maria Stephan lays out a comprehensive outline on the various ways civilian nonviolent action can weaken the strength and authority of ISIS and suggests how such resistance could be supported by the international community. Key to Stephan’s outline is the understanding of ISIS as a group trying to exert their control and legitimacy through every facet of society ranging from governance, commerce, health care, education, energy and communication utilities, etc.

By demanding control or influence over every sector of society, ISIS presents a vulnerability by spreading themselves too thin and relying on the passive participation and cooperation of a population who largely dismiss their authority. Acknowledging this vulnerability, highlights opportunities that disrupt patterns of cooperation and obedience depended upon by ISIS and deny them the human and material resources needed to maintain power.

Authority or Perceived Legitimacy

The vast majority of ISIS’s authority comes from the ideology acknowledging ISIS leader Abu Bakir al Baghadadi as the eighth caliph and commander of all Muslims, and ordering all Muslims to accept his rule and fight with him to build a Muslim state. As Stephan points out, simply stating ‘ISIS is un-Islamic’ is unlikely to affect their authority or legitimacy. More affective would be for Islamic scholars and religious leaders to provide specific renunciations against ISIS’ religious interpretations or for media outlets to amplify the voices of ISIS defectors speaking out about their time on the front lines and the dishonesty of ISIS propaganda machine.

Humor and Satire

Humor and satire are proven tools when incorporated into nonviolent campaigns, especially through the utility of enabling protestors to undermine a violent oppressor in a way that is often safer and less confrontational than conventional street protests. Satire and humor allows protestors to communicate serious, and potentially dangerous, messages about their oppressors under some level of anonymity or a façade of innocence that makes their actions harder to trace and less threatening to their target. In some of the most oppressive ISIS controlled areas, popular artists and media personalities have used humor to address the hypocrisy and absurdity of ISIS rule and helped lower public fear while poking holes in ISIS’s claims to authority.

Humor can be a powerful weapon. Daesh [ISIS] rules through fear. If we can make people laugh at them we break through the fear barrier.” -Mohammad Khedhr, leader of anti-ISIS satire campaign Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered

Human Resources

ISIS cannot take or maintain control of an area without the active and passive cooperation of local and outside support. ISIS relies on the skills and resources of civilians in all sectors and professions in order to maintain their control and influence, as well as foreigners to invest government and enlist in their army. This also highlights one of ISIS’s greatest vulnerabilities: their obligation to provide reliable governance and services to the community it wishes to govern and to the soldiers they employ. Any disruptions in services, employment rates, inflation, military recruitment etc. are major problems to ISIS if they wish to maintain their façade of legitimacy.

While formal mass protests are very risky under ISIS, other nonviolent tactics can be equally effective in undermining authority including ISIS administrative workers deliberately underperforming in their duties, leaking information to outside activists or supporters, non-cooperation of the business community or nonviolent sabotage of oil production or transportation-thus eliminating a major source of ISIS’ income. The nonviolent battlefield can also spread to publishing counter-recruitment videos to combat ISIS’ highly successful recruitment machine. Former ISIS fighters who have returned home after realizing the lies of ISIS propaganda can speak publicly about their experiences. More broadly, work can be done around the world on demarginalizing young Muslim men and women who are often enticed by ISIS’s promise of fighting for a presumably noble cause.

Undermining ISIS’s claim to be providing an honorable, dignified lifestyle is only half the battle. A longer-term effort needs to focus on developing alternative pathways to social and political participation for Muslim youth in both the democracies and non-democratic states where ISIS messaging is resonating.” –Maria Stephan

Material Resources

ISIS occupies a sizeable amount of land and has successfully controlled the flow of money, land, technology, communication, transportation and natural resources within that area. The US-led air strikes have mostly eliminated their major source of income generated from the region’s oil production. ISIS now relies on a system of extortion and taxation of Iraqi government employees and contracts and profits of local companies.

Intangible Factors

ISIS focuses on a number of psychological, cultural and ideological “intangible” factors to recruit new fighters and maintain control over their territory. By catering to natural desires to belong, personal identity, and meaningful existence ISIS can cater their propaganda to attract alienated young men and women. In most cases, these young men and women are vulnerable to this type of manipulation, because ISIS promises to fill a void that they lack at home. By addressing inequality and political, social, and economic marginalization in our societies, every community can combat ISIS propaganda by providing their youth with real alternatives addressing desires to belong, personal identity, and meaningful existence.

“ISIS promises excitement, adventure, and glorious afterlife to those who join its ranks. For alienated Muslim youth in particular, the prospect of joining a seemingly powerful, mission-focused organization holds great appeal.” -Maria Stephan

Resisting Totalitarianism

ISIS maintains power by waging war on every aspect of social and political life, trying to intimidate, destroy, or otherwise overpower any semblance of self-determination. Through the use of ideological conditioning, terror, and a functional bureaucracy, ISIS has become both a totalitarian regime and a socio-religious movement. Stephan claims the most threatening act against a totalitarian regime is a society’s ability to organize in spontaneous political action, independent of the laws and ideology of their oppressors. Once people begin to organize against their governments, the façade of absolute power begins to deteriorate.

Those who aspire to total domination must liquidate all spontaneity, such as mere existence of individuality will always engender, and track it down in its most private forms, regardless of how un-political and harmless these may seem.” -Hannah Arendt

Supporting Autonomous Civic Action

Considering the totalitarian qualities of ISIS control, the most obvious way to combat their authority is to identify safe ways local citizens can protest their government. Insiders (those within ISIS controlled Syria and Iraq) and outsiders (foreign governments and non-governmental organizations) can work together to support community resiliency and non-cooperation with the ISIS bureaucracy. Stephan’s strategies include providing educational materials and medical supplies to locals running underground schools or medical clinics, offering trauma support to victims of ISIS or former combatants trying to re-enter normal life, supporting alternative forms of media and communication channels providing anti-ISIS information to ISIS controlled areas, and supporting legitimate local and regional voices capable of challenging the religious, social and cultural tyranny of ISIS.

Dr. Maria Stephan is a senior policy fellow at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, where she focuses on the dynamics of civil resistance and their relevance for violent conflict prevention. Although no new empirical research is introduced in this article, Stephan’s analysis and proposals are influenced by expert knowledge gained through past research and years of professional experience focusing on nonviolence and governance.

Continued Reading

Before the Next ISIS, We Need Nonviolent Counterterrorism Strategies

A New Era of Nonviolence: The Power of Civil Society Over War

The role of diplomacy in countering ISIS by David Cortright (

Nonviolence and Humor: Carnival as a Tool of Nonviolent Resistance and Reconciliation. PeaceVoiceTV (

Burning Issues: Taking on ISIS. TV interview with Phyllis Bennis from the Institute for Policy Studies at:

Bennis, Phyllis. 2015. Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror: A Primer

Keywords: civic action, ISIS, nonviolence

The above analysis is from Volume 1, Issue 4, of the Peace Science Digest.