THE BLOG
01/26/2016 12:41 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2017

ISIS as a Tuning Fork

In 2015, we saw ISIS-inspired (if not claims of ISIS-directed) violence from France, Afghanistan, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Belgium to San Bernardino. Already in 2016, we have an individual proclaiming allegiance to the Islamic State after trying to execute a Philadelphia police officer and suicide bombings in Istanbul and Jakarta. The question that haunts us is how to prevent the next outburst.

These incidents are not inexplicable. They follow a pattern. None of these attackers is pledging allegiance to the memory of Che Guevara or the Bader Meinhof Gang (Germany in the 1970's). They all respond to what's currently in the news and broadcast by social media. North Korea may have the bomb, but it has not tried to enlist the disaffected in its cause. There were Muslims in the U.S. for decades, but suicide bombing apparently did not occur to any of them until ISIS made martyrdom romantic.

It is almost as though ISIS (under whatever acronym) is acting like a tuning fork. Struck, the organization's social media apparatus vibrates, and people at random around the world, predisposed to feeling discontented, marginalized or disenfranchised begin to vibrate in sync.

The immediacy and availability of social media amplify the effect. The vibration comes complete with a set of models for patterns of behavior: blow something up, and if you die in the process, this is laudable.

The model matters. I remember an Afghan in Kabul once saying to me, "This [suicide bombing] is all new. We fought the Russians here for 10 years and no one ever blew themselves up."

A different tuning fork would resonate with a different set of disaffected people. Che Guevara was attractive to American and European leftists who saw imperialist and capitalist oppression all around them. Latinos in the U.S. may have paid some attention, but I doubt that American Muslims were interested at all; not an issue that resonated in their community. Suicide was not on the agenda for anyone who caught the Che vibration. The object of a leftist insurgency was to prevail; a reward in heaven was not part of the package.

If the tuning fork analogy has merit, it has implications for the steps we can take to prevent these random attacks.

If those who respond are largely passive and happenstance recipients or resonators it is neither an effective nor a Constitutional strategy to try to find and neutralize them in advance. After all, the world is full of people with grievances or who are mentally unstable, or feel marginalized, and our First Amendment protects the voicing of anti-government sentiments. Not every Muslim woman wearing the hijab or Muslim man who decides to grow a beard is up to no good.

The more productive strategy is to turn off the tuning fork, eliminating or reducing this particular source of attraction. As I have previously argued, ISIS has grown and metastasized in precisely those Islamic countries with dictatorships (often supported by the U.S. in the name of "stability") and massively disaffected populations with no democratic recourse, often influenced by the Saudi Wahhabi strain of Sunni Islam. ISIS did not arise in native middle class populations in the U.S. or Europe, although some individuals within these populations are susceptible to ISIS's vibrations.

These source problems are identifiable, localized, and capable of being addressed--in contrast to the myriad problems of those around the world who might respond to the tuning fork. This is not to say that solutions are easy--especially given the complexity of civil wars, the Sunni-Shi'ite conflict, oil politics, etc.--but they are amenable to solution if we are clear-eyed about analysis and willing to take on the problems.

If we decide (e.g.) to support dictators for reasons of "stability" or the oil supply, we should at least be honest about the likely consequences and not act surprised when random individuals respond to the tuning fork. The resulting random deaths are a cost of business as usual overseas.

Of course there are some things we can do to lessen the likelihood of identifiable groups of individuals being influenced by conflict overseas. For example, better integration of immigrant and refugee populations in both Europe and the U.S. would help. Brussels would be well advised to pay more attention to the dynamic in the Mollenbeek neighborhood.

But random responses are just that. Random. Focus on the causes of violence, not a fruitless attempt to anticipate and preempt the consequences.

Ms. Inge Fryklund, JD, PhD, has worked in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and Central Asia, with USAID, UNDP, and with the U.S. Army and Marine Corps