Islamic State strategy shifts from territorial control territory to random attacks, drawing over-reaction and recruits.
By David C. Rapoport*
The horrifying attacks in Paris indicate that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or Daesh, has shifted strategy. While ISIS harshly condemned Western secularism, originally it did not attack many Westerners. The first US victim was journalist James Foley in August 2014, and afterwards nine hostages from the West and Japan, largely journalists and aid workers living in Syria, were beheaded when demands to Western states to halt air assaults were not met. The gruesome displays were viewed globally and managed by an executioner who spoke with an English accent.
ISIS now goes online encouraging supporters to launch their own attacks anywhere in the world – and the group has claimed responsibility for attacks in Paris, Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia and, most recently, San Bernardino, California. A growing apocalyptic vision of creating a new world under Islam may be the most plausible reason for the shift in strategy. ISIS anticipates that the new strategy could threaten security for Muslims in the West, helping stimulate more ISIS recruits while unifying Islam.
The Paris attacks were designed to be random – nine coordinated strikes on easy-to-access sites including a stadium, concert hall and several restaurants. The sites chosen enabled ISIS to kill as many as possible and target a style of life the extremists consider reprehensible. The attacks contrasted dramatically with another in January by two Al Qaeda members who killed 12 persons associated with the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo for offensive descriptions of Prophet Mohammed. Comparing the two events, US Secretary of State John Kerry said the Charlie Hebdo attack had a “particularized focus and …rationale that you could attach yourself to somehow and say. Okay, they’re really angry.” One could understand that satirizing the religion’s founder would infuriate Muslims, and many non-Muslims considered such ridicule inappropriate, too.
In Syria the primary aim of rebel groups is to overthrow the dictator Bashar al-Assad. ISIS is the primary exception, devoted instead to completing a 2009 plan to gain control of Syrian and Iraqi territories, designated as a caliphate, and produce an apocalypse as described in the Bible.
ISIS has provided no explanation for launching the attacks in Paris that encouraged powerful foreign secular states to get more deeply involved in the Syrian conflict. Since the West is a major enemy, the decision was probably inevitable, though that does not explain the timing.
Political and apocalyptic factors in the terrorism group’s recent history help answer this question. The belief that a new world was being created attracted Sunni recruits from around the globe. In June 2014, when the caliphate came into existence, ISIS had 6,300 fighters. In the next six months around 15,000 foreigners arrived, according to the UN, and the CIA estimated ISIS probably had 31,500 members altogether. Most men came intending to be fighters, and many women came to live in the new state, marry and have children. In 2015 ISIS governed up to 8 million people in a territory larger than the United Kingdom. Seizing gas and oil resources enabled it to meet what it regarded as charitable obligation, the third pillar of Islam, by providing food, transportation, housing and schools.
A few groups in other Muslim areas like Boko Haram in Africa identified with ISIS. But Al Qaeda, which had once recognized ISIS as an affiliate, denounced the group in May 2013 as “seditious.” Sheikh Abdu Salam, an Al Nusra Front leader, Al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, said: “They assault Muslims, and their ideology completely drifted from the Sunni ideology that we follow, so we have to fight them.” In 2014 Al Nusra initiated a variety of violent attacks near Aleppo forcing ISIS to withdraw from the eastern province of Deir ez-Zor. Ironically, these battles led some analysts, including former CIA head David Petraeus, to suggest that the United States and “moderate” Al Qaeda members could sometimes be “allies.”
Enormous difficulties emerged by 2015. ISIS no longer could expand its territory. Foreign recruit numbers dropped. Turkey tightened border controls. Many foreigners left. ISIS beheaded about 100 foreign fighters attempting to desert. Many foreign women returned home, upset by how ISIS regulated marriages. The United States bombed ISIS oil sites, reducing revenue for services. Kurdish forces cut principal supply lines and regained some territory lost, including the important city of Kobani in January. Iraqi military forces then recaptured Tikrit in March. ISIS suggests that Shiites and Alawites, a Shia offshoot, living in the caliphate’s territory “pervert” the Koran, and contended they must be killed. Sunni Muslims in the territory opposing the caliphate received the same treatment. A UN report estimated that nearly 15,000 civilians were killed in Iraq for 16 months starting in January 2014, and ISIS was responsible for the overwhelming majority of deaths.
Ten days before the Paris attacks, one Chinese and one Norwegian hostage were killed when their countries refused to pay ransoms. Ransoms are no longer a financial resource for ISIS. More countries banned them, and insurance companies, a chief source for funding, discouraged ransom payments.
Considering these compounding challenges, one might assume ISIS would avoid tangling with powerful foreign states. But that did not happen. Days before the recent Paris attacks, an ISIS affiliate took credit for destroyed a Russian passenger plane killing 234 persons. Russia then changed its policy of targeting rebels in Syria battling Assad and attacked ISIS in Iraq for the first time, bombing its oil sites.
Perhaps ISIS was inspired by memories of how the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 induced thousands of foreign Muslims to join the resistance swelling the ranks of Al Qaeda, ISIS’s predecessor in Iraq. ISIS may even assume that involvement of foreign secular powers might prompt Al Qaeda to once again become a crucial ISIS ally. Perhaps ISIS expected that Western governments, remembering the disastrous decision to invade Iraq, would continue to avoid invading Syria. But these political and military reasons for a new strategy seem weak and it would seem more practical for ISIS to keep the conflict local.
Instead, ISIS’s religious beliefs may be behind the new strategy.
Since the 1st century many Jewish, Christian and Islamic apocalyptic groups have turned to terror, a tactic not bound by pre-existing norms, because they wanted to create a “new world” – consistent with the religious belief that God’s violence would be wholly indiscriminate.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq revived intense apocalyptic beliefs among some Sunnis. Although the war did not bring divine intervention, it stimulated foreign recruits, a process that encourages apocalyptic groups to persist. Many believe that divine intervention is more likely if they endure intense suffering.
The Hadith, a collection of sayings from Prophet Mohammed, identified the village of Dabiq in Syria as the place where the final battle in this world would be fought. ISIS captured Dabiq, in northwest Syria, in August 2014, a crucial event for its apocalyptic goals. ISIS named its English magazine after the city, and Dabiq was the scene of a video displaying an American aid worker’s severed head and announcing, “Here we are, burying the first American Crusader eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive.”
Religious beliefs explain why ISIS wants the West to invade Syria – the apocalypse will occur and eternal life in paradise will begin.
The San Bernardino attack has unleashed extraordinary anxieties. Such over-reactions to terrorism, while common, can be disastrous, offering a reminder on how World War I began.
*David C. Rapoport is professor emeritus of political science at UCLA, and founding and chief editor of the scholarly journal Terrorism and Political Violence. He is the author of six books and is preparing another based on his article, “Four Waves of Modern Terror,” to be published by Columbia University Press.