Last Friday, November 13th, the world was confronted with another spate of gruesome attacks in Paris, France. While much remains uncertain, consensus exists on the following: 1) this was likely the work of the Islamic State and 2) most of the attackers were citizens or residents of France or Belgium, with the notable exception of one suicide bomber, who possessed the passport of a Syrian refugee.
The day before the attacks, President Obama declared that the Islamic State (ISIS) was being contained and that the flow of foreign fighters to the organization was declining. The President’s assessments were called into question immediately following the deadly attacks in Paris, with accompanying proclamations that the Islamic State has entered a new phase and started employing game-changing tactics.[i] If Obama’s assessments were correct and ISIS is weakening, how do we account for these new, apparently highly coordinated attacks?
ISIS is clearly willing to engage in a surprising degree of coordination to send a message to the world. Therefore, the motives behind these actions become particularly important to decipher. If we miss the motivation behind the message, Europe’s reactions, and possibly those of the United States, might play right into the hands of the Islamic State.
The Paris attacks demonstrated a level of coordination that was surprising for ISIS, not because the organization has lacked the ability to be coordinated or sophisticated, but because it has typically channeled its sophistication elsewhere. Using complex and interactive social media campaigns, ISIS has significantly invested in international recruitment and public relations, targeting disillusioned Muslims and others particularly receptive to utopic visions.
The major impetus behind these recruitment campaigns is to draw in foreign fighters and support from abroad. The group’s strategy and efforts have focused on bringing people to Syria and Iraq, not on waging external wars against its enemies. This distinction explains why initial assessments suggested that the Paris attacks had the earmarks of Al Qaeda – not ISIS.
Why would the Islamic State change its strategy so markedly? Perhaps for the same reason political candidates change their campaign strategies: because they fear losing. No one changes their mode of operation if they are confident that they can win. There is a great deal of scholarship arguing convincingly that a strong insurgency leans toward conventional warfare and occupying territory, while a weaker insurgency favors terrorist actions – if only because they are unable to make gains against an overwhelming foe.[ii] Acts of horrible, unsettling terror tend to be coordinated from a position of weakness, particularly when the organization has territorial aspirations.
Although this does not imply that ISIS is anywhere near its dying gasps, it does suggest that the group is struggling to meet its territorial aspirations, an assessment consistent with the claim of the Obama administration that ISIS is indeed being contained in the primary arena of Syria and Iraq.
The question then becomes, why was ISIS so eager to carry out an attack on France? Why would it invest in these sorts of activities?
Unlike Al Qaeda, the Islamic State needs bodies to rule over to achieve its aims. Its recruitment efforts and public relations campaigns rely on the buy-in that the Islamic State is a viable entity able to deliver on its glamorized promises. Yet, while the group’s recruitment appeals —promising opportunities for marriage, money, and purpose— are drawing a trickle of people to come and rally around the black flag, streams of Muslims, many of whom are Sunni, are fleeing Islamic State-occupied or contested territory in Syria and Iraq. And where are these Muslims fleeing to? They aren’t going to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, or Qatar, but rather to Europe.
Europe is the ultimate representative of secularism, liberal democracy, global capitalism, and in the eyes of the Islamic State, the foil in its grand narrative and culture war. Initially, the mass migration away from Syria could have been attributed to the Assad regime. But the drama and patently logical migration that has unfolded over the last months is a public relations disaster in ISIS’s recruitment campaign.
So, how does ISIS stop the torrential flood of immigrants fleeing and heading to secular and democratic Europe? How might the organization reestablish to its target audience that it is a viable alternative? One answer appears to be to convince Europe’s largest powers to stop the flow of immigrants themselves. Not only are the immigrants turned back, they are left disillusioned.
Notably, one of the suicide bombers at the site of the Stade de France attack had the passport of a Syrian refugee. There is not enough information to definitively say whether or not the person that blew himself up was actually the person owning the passport. Even so, France, Germany, and other EU countries are tightening the valves on their borders. Possibly linked to how few bodies ISIS has left to freely mobilize in Syria, the fact that only one of the attackers might have traveled the refugee path from Syria to Europe seems significant. Nonetheless, leaders in European nations and even some in the United States are making calls to do exactly what ISIS wants them to do: close their doors to the immigrants who embody how badly ISIS is losing the culture war against the West. Instead, liberal democracies should stay true to their principles and let their doors remain open to those Muslims fleeing ISIS for a better alternative, further exacerbating ISIS’s PR debacle. Security efforts, rather, should continue to be focused on those with verifiable linkages with ISIS and transnational terrorist networks—i.e. the profile of the vast majority of the Paris attackers.
[i] NBC Evening News, November 13, 2015.
[ii] For example, see de Mesquita, Ethan. 2013. “Rebel Tactics.” Journal of Political Economy, 121(2): 323-57; Hultman, Lisa. 2007. “Battle Losses and Rebel Violence: Raising the Costs for Fighting.” Terrorism and Political Violence, 19(2): 205-22.