On the occasion of the 2016 Nice attack, the editor in chief of a Swiss newspaper argued about the rational behind the attacks by the terrorist militia “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS) in European cities and made the assessment that the fanatics are about to “lose the war against civilians”:
“The weapon that the deluded terrorists employ is fear: they want people in Europe to feel safe nowhere and to expect attacks everywhere. The calculation behind this: Frightened citizens might then move their governments to stop fighting against the jihadists to escape further attacks.” — Robin Blanck, “Sinnlos, feige“, Schaffhauser Nachrichten, 16.07.2016, own translation.
These statements are vague and problematic, but they are also exemplary of the widespread misunderstanding of ISIS’ motives to incite and organise terrorist attacks in the West — a misunderstanding of the terrorist militia, which unfortunately prevails in many editorial offices. As Western societies must deal with the threat posed by ISIS, they should also be aware of the enemy’s objectives.
In anticipation of the apocalypse
A widely held belief is that ISIS’ leaders want to make Western populations influence their governments to abandon military operations against the militia out of fear of more attacks. However, seized and leaked documents, as well as various writings and videos by followers and strategists of the “Islamic State” show that the objective is quite the opposite. The terrorist attacks in Europe are not somehow supposed to make Western governments cease their military intervention against the self-styled Caliphate in Iraq and Syria, but rather provoke them to escalate their local military deployments and use of ground troops.
Such an escalation would allow the jihadists to portray the conflict with greater credibility as a war waged by the West against the Islamic world. But most decisive is a broader strategic rationale set by the millennial project of religious fanatics who see themselves as warriors in the final, decisive battle. The logic of ISIS is in fact strongly influenced by apocalyptic prophecies. The jihadists believe they are in the end times and anticipate the final battle with the infidels (i.e. the western armed forces) to take place in Dabiq, a Syrian town near the Turkish border, which ISIS conquered in summer 2014. This obsession with the end of the world is crucial if we want to understand the excessive violence used by ISIS. When the execution of former US soldier Peter Kassig was announced in a video by the terrorist militia in November 2014, a British ISIS fighter stated: “Here we are burying the first American crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive.” (Hannah Allam, “Peter Kassig’s Friends Hope Unusual Islamic State Video Means He Fought His Beheading“, McClatchy DC, 16.11.2016).
The Last Hour would not come until the Romans land at al-A’maq or in Dabiq. An army consisting of the best (soldiers) of the people of the earth at that time will come from Medina (to counteract them). — Sahih-Muslim Hadith, Vol. 41, Kap. 9, Hadith 6924.
Seized al-Qaeda documents show that the apocalyptic idea prompted Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to go to Iraq in 2002 to await the invasion of the US and its allies. For Zarqawi, Dabiq meant the final destiny for the “fire” his fighters had “kindled in Iraq”. (William McCants, “The ISIS Apocalypse-The History, Strategy and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State“, New York, St Martin’s Press, 2015, p. 10).
Eliminating the grayzone
In addition to an escalation of the military conflict, ISIS leaders are primarily concerned with dividing and polarising Western societies. They call this strategy “extinction of the grayzone”, whereas grayzone stands for the peaceful coexistence of religious groups. The specific aim of the attacks is to incite hostilities between Muslim populations and the Western societies in which they live. ISIS is consciously trying to trigger a backlash by Western governments and populations against the Muslim minorities and create an escalating spiral of mutual alienation, distrust, hatred, and collective revenge on both sides. In such a scenario, the terrorist militia hopes to imposture as the only effective protector of the increasingly beleaguered European Muslims, who will, so the jihadist assume, in large numbers choose hijra, the emigration into the lap of the Caliphate. (“From Hypocrisy to Apostasy: The Extinction of the Grayzone”, Dabiq, No. 7, 12.02.2015).
Of course, not every violent offender who commits attacks in Europe or the United States on behalf of ISIS has exactly these objectives in mind. Their motives are often very personal and not always predominantly of an ideological and political nature. Some probably use the label “Islamic State” primarily to give their crimes greater attention and a higher meaning. But the strategists and leaders of the IS who organise, direct, inspire, and claim for themselves attacks in the West act according to this “strategy of divisions”. Between Muslims and non-Muslims in Western societies on the one hand, between the West and the Islamic world on the other.
The group thrives on division and rage. Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi — the self-crowned caliph of this death cult — wants to make this a war between Islam and the West. But we don’t have to play by his rules. — Kevin Knodell, “The Islamic State’s Assault on the ‘Gray Zone’“, War is Boring, 28.07.2016.
The trap of the jihadists
If you want to analyse whether the jihadists are successful with their inhumane and brutal strategy of terror, you must measure it by their own objectives. We are optimistic that Western democracies can successfully overcome this challenge, but warn of the sometimes blind naivete in considering this as a matter of course. This naivete seemingly resonates in the lines of the Swiss editor in chief mentioned above: “Each additional attack leaves deep concern and compassion, but not fear. Despite the terrorist attacks, Europeans stick to their liberal values; people go to concerts and other large events and do not let them dictate their lives. The fanatics’ calculation is not coming to fruition; they are losing the war they are waging against civilians.” (Robin Blanck, “Sinnlos, feige“, Schaffhauser Nachrichten, 16.07.2016, own translation).
Cela d’autant que l’Europe est en grand danger: les extrémismes montent partout et nous sommes, nous, services intérieurs, en train de déplacer des ressources pour nous intéresser à l’ultra-droite qui n’attend que la confrontation. Vous rappeliez que je tenais toujours un langage direct; eh bien, cette confrontation, je pense qu’elle va avoir lieu. Encore un ou deux attentats et elle adviendra. Il nous appartient donc d’anticiper et de bloquer tous ces groupes qui voudraient, à un moment ou à un autre, déclencher des affrontements intercommunautaires. — Patrick Calvar, Commission de la défense nationale et des forces armées, 10.05.2016.
Vigilance, fortitude, and above all a cool head are therefore needed to allow the challenge arising from the jihadists to dissipate in a free, open, and tolerant society. First, responsibility lies with the media and politicians who reflexively ascribe all (alleged) attacks to ISIS — often without specific evidence for its actual involvement. This widespread automatic response inflates the influence and clout of ISIS and is grist to its propaganda mill. ISIS, in turn, is just waiting to claim responsibility for the attack in such a case, Max Bearak recently wrote in the Washington Post. According to Bearak, most attacks were perpetrated by people who had never been in direct contact with ISIS and so the terrorist militia was not even aware of them.
An illustrative example is the attack on a nightclub in Orlando on 12 June 2016. Although officials of the US Department of Homeland Security denied a connection between the perpetrator Omar Mateen and ISIS, many media outlets and politicians declared that the gunman had acted on behalf of the terrorist militia. ISIS then took responsibility, although they apparently had not heard of Mateen before the shooting and despite it being extremely doubtful whether its ideology and propaganda were decisive causes of the attack, given that Mateen “praised both the IS and its archenemy, Dschabhat al-Nusra (new Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) as well as the common enemy of both organisations, the Shiite Hezbollah. There is no coherent view behind this; this is a half-digested news thunderstorm.” (Yassin Musharbash, “Aber er hat doch IS gesagt!“, Die Zeit, 14.06.2016, own translation).
In the case of the murder of regional public health officials at a Christmas party on 2 December 2015 in San Bernardino, California, it seems as if ISIS prematurely assumed responsibility as well. Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik killed 14 people with automatic weapons and planted a homemade bomb that fortunately did not explode. The two perpetrators were subsequently killed in a firefight with police. Although ISIS praised both perpetrators as “Soldiers of the Caliphate” and the press reported an alleged oath of allegiance to ISIS, the FBI denies that the couple made such a pledge. A connection seems doubtful. (Shane Harris, “Was the San Bernardino Massacre Really ISIS-Inspired?“, The Daily Beast, 16.12.2015).
Media, politicians, and supposed terrorism experts should therefore investigate much more diligently instead of rashly calling the self-proclaimed Caliphate responsible for an attack. This only helps spread the IS propaganda message that the group can kill “infidels” virtually anywhere, anytime. In addition, the classification of the acts, in connection with the excessive media exposure, risks inciting further potential perpetrators.
Ultimately, we are all responsible. In order to not fall into the trap set by the terrorists, we must reject the simplistic, apocalyptic narrative of a clash of civilisations between the West and Islam. At least 35 of the 86 fatalities of the Nice attack were Muslims.