Friday’s Paris attacks were the culmination of a week of violence perpetrated across three countries by militants from Islamic State. After last week’s multiple bomb attacks on Baghdad, we had a suicide bombing in Beirut that killed 43 and injured 240, another suicide bombing in Baghdad that killed 19, and then the attacks in Paris with 129 victims and 430 injured.
In addition to this, the most recent reports on the downed Russian airliner, Metrojet Flight 9268 strongly suggest it was bombed, most likely by the ISIS affiliated Ansar Bait al-Maqdis group who have been active in the Sinai Peninsula since the 2011 Egyptian revolution. Last month also saw suicide bombings by ISIS in Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Yemen.
The violence ISIS has been inflicting on the Middle East appears not only to be intensifying but also metastasizing, increasingly spilling across national borders. In addition to the above incidents, the Boko Haram group, who have pledged their loyalty to ISIS, have also been exceptionally active of late, attempting 4 suicide bombings in Chad and Cameroon just this month, and possibly being behind a bombing in Nigeria that has just come in as I am writing this. There is little evidence, at least at the moment, of on-the-ground ISIS advisers to the group, but it is nevertheless the part of a worrying trend.
Previously, I have written that while ISIS may opportunistically promote terrorist attacks in western countries, it would prefer to focus its efforts on the war in Syria and Iraq, at least for now. So what has changed?
Winning and Losing
On Friday the 13th of November, Peshmerga, PKK and Yazidi fighters retook the northern Iraqi city of Sinjar from ISIS. After 15 months of occupation, ISIS apparently ceded the city with minimal resistance. The PKK reported that the military commander of the city was lambasting his troops, reminding them that deserters would be beheaded.
This is only one of many recent embarrassing defeats for ISIS. Over the summer, a joint offensive between the Free Syrian Army and Kurdish YPG took the strategically vital town of Tell Aybad and have managed to hold the town despite numerous attempts by ISIS forces to retake it. The newly formed Syrian Democratic Forces – an alliance of militias from the YPG and Free Syrian Army who are specifically targeting ISIS – launched an offensive in October against the Syrian town of Al-Hawl, which is situated in a strategic location on the border with Iraq. The SDF captured the town and 500 square miles of territory, denying ISIS what was formerly a major stronghold. In a mostly symbolic but still significant victory, Syrian Army forces in combination with Iranian and Russian forces retook the Kweyris military airport earlier this month.
ISIS are isolated in terms of their alliances, as well. While there is a bewildering array of rebel forces – with varying motivations and state backers – and a number of groups and nations backing Assad, ISIS stands curiously alone from the crowd. While I have noted suspicions before that Turkey and ISIS have a closer relationship than either would be willing to admit, it is still mostly an arrangement of convenience, not of military necessity or shared goals and mutual respect. Equally, while the Gulf states may have had a hand in sponsoring ISIS’s early forays into Syria, it now represents more of a threat to the groups they openly back than an opportunity to be exploited. ISIS is also contentious within the larger Islamic radical scene, with many of the “old-guard” jihadists and preachers lending their support to Al-Qaeda rather than their upstart rivals.
ISIS is thus alone, and surrounded by enemies on every side. While it is too early to tell whether these setbacks will translate into a larger strategic collapse for ISIS, based on the information that is available, the situation at the moment is not good for them.
This situation has been exacerbated by the international intervention in Syria. While Russia’s goals are more the preservation of the regime than combating ISIS, and thus they have been concentrating on the other Syrian rebel groups, anything that strengthens the regime (backed by Iran and Hezbollah, or Shiite apostates in the eyes of ISIS) is ultimately to their disadvantage. The bombing raids by the US-led coalition, especially in coordination with Kurdish groups on the ground, are having had a more significant impact.
In 2014, when I was working for the Human Security Centre, I gave evidence to Parliament regarding the future military strategic position of the UK. At the time, I noted that any significant international intervention in Syria generally or against ISIS in particular would likely cause the group to recalculate the costs and benefits of carrying out terrorist attacks abroad.
Given the commitment and planning especially in the case of the Paris bombing, this shift in strategic focus looks to have occurred. Faced with losses on several fronts, ISIS desperately needs to project an image of invulnerability and confidence, of inevitable victory. Of course, any group that is reduced to clandestine terrorist actions overseas is already terribly weak, militarily speaking, but the carnage and violence often gives the opposite impression.
There is also another factor to consider. In some respects, the funding of terrorism is like venture capitalism, to grossly oversimplify a complex topic. While ISIS have significant wealth from their oil smuggling activities, they also appear to receive support from key individuals in the Gulf states, who have made funds available to them via Kuwaiti banks. These “investors” in terrorism want to be reassured that their funding of ISIS is being put to good use, and that they are not backing yet another faction who talks a good game but ultimately fails in exporting the radical Islamist revolution. Attacks like Paris can be used to show they are still a capable group, despite current setbacks. It also works as propaganda, attracting potential recruits from overseas and allowing ISIS to position itself as the successor to Al-Qaeda.
Returns on investment – the larger strategy of the Paris attacks
Beyond all this, there may also be further reasons for the Paris attacks, and specific elements of the attack.
ISIS are an intensely active group on social media. As the Anonymous efforts against ISIS accounts on Twitter and Facebook show, their supporters are prolific and numerous, and their sophisticated media presence has been the subject of some discussion in the past. One of the reasons ISIS moved to a tactic of beheading hostages, and specifically using foreign fighters to carry out the executions was they knew the impact this would have on the western press, and how this would gather much more attention and discussion than their more generic murders.
It would therefore be reasonable to conclude ISIS pay close attention to the western press, what they report on, what they say and how they say it. And so, it seems unlikely that the Syrian refugee crisis and European and American reaction to that crisis over the summer and going into this autumn, was unknown to them. ISIS are very aware of concerns in the west about terrorist infiltration under the guise of seeking asylum, as unlikely as that fear is.
It is therefore quite amazingly convenient that a perfectly preserved Syrian passport was found near the body of one of the attackers. Such a find confirmed the worst fears of many who had argued against giving asylum to Syrian refugees.
To their credit, the French investigators treated this find with a certain level of scepticism, an appropriate response given all the attackers appear to be French or Belgian nationals, and that the same passport was found in Serbia and the Daily Mail was able to find 8 identical passports.
This is not the first time ISIS would have used existing social tensions to further their objectives. In their previous incarnation as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, they proved adept at stoking tensions between Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite community. Their most infamous attempt at this was the al-Askari mosque bombing in 2006.
The al-Askari mosque, sometimes called the Golden Dome mosque for its distinctive gold roofing, or the Tomb of the Imams, is a Shi’a holy site in the city of Samarra in Iraq. As the burial place of the 10th and 11th Imams, it is one of the holiest sites in all of Shiite Islam. In February 2006, terrorists dressed as Iraqi Special Forces soldiers bombed the mosque, destroying its distinctive golden dome and collapsing most of the building.
The bombing of the mosque unleashed an orgy of violence notable even by the previous standards of the Iraqi insurgency. Because the terrorists were dressed as Iraqi Special Forces and no-one came forward to claim responsibility, conspiracy theories abounded. Shiites attacked Sunnis for their perceived culpability in the bombing, while Sunnis turned to radical Islamist groups for protection from what they saw as government backed Shiite death squads. Thousands died in the following days and the insurgency took a dangerous turn that wasn’t resolved until the ‘Iraqi Awakening‘ in 2007.
This kind of strategy has a long pedigree in terrorism, going right back to the Russian Narodnaya Volya or “People’s Will.” As they saw it, the strategy of terrorism was designed to incite state violence in response to their provocations, but entirely out of proportion to their attacks. The state would, however, make mistakes in its response, it would harm innocent people and it would use far too much force to try and crush the threat, thus driving people to agree with the terrorists about the tyrannical nature of the state.
ISIS’s strategy is adapted for more modern circumstances, but it is still possible to see the echoes of this self-aware approach to political violence in their actions. Such an attack during the existing refugee crisis, especially with evidence that suggests the involvement of a Syrian refugee, will create a backlash against those seeking asylum and safety. Whether it’s governments or thugs on the street, Syrians will feel under siege and betrayed by the governments they turned to in hope of safety. It plays perfectly into ISIS’s propaganda, that the west hates Muslims, that the interventions in Syria are a war on Islam and that the only capable defender of Islam is ISIS.
Doing ISIS’s work for them
Political violence is often initially hard to understand. The shock and trauma of unexpected violence is the emotional equivalent of a punch to the gut, making us focus only on the immediate events.
But there is always a strategy behind what appears to be senseless carnage, even if it is not readily apparent. The Paris attacks have allowed ISIS to check off multiple objectives, as I hope I have demonstrated in this article. The question that should always be asked is “what do they hope to gain from this?” Understanding an adversary’s strategy is the first, absolutely necessary step in countering it.
This is not some mere theoretical statement, either. In the events of the Mumbai attacks in 2008, someone spoofed a call from the Indian Foreign Ministry, threatening war with Pakistan over the attacks. This put Pakistan on an immediate war footing and caused troops to be moved to the border. Had common sense not prevailed, hawks in India could have used the troop movements to argue that Pakistan had sponsored the attack by Kashmiri militants and was using the distraction to resume hostilities over the province. India and Pakistan – two nuclear powers – could have moved to the brink of war, a move which would have only have benefited the Kashmiri militants behind the violence.
Equally, when Anders Behring Breivik bombed Norwegian government buildings in Oslo in 2011, this created the expectation of protection being provided to the Labour Party Youth camp on Utoya, an impression Breivik exploited to deadly effect by impersonating a police officer sent to guard the young party activists there.
While I am not arguing that in these specific cases that the overall strategy could have been easily divined (the case of Breivik is especially difficult to anticipate), it is nevertheless the case that the violence was logically planned to aid in obtaining larger objectives and that understanding those objectives could have or did prevent even more violence.
ISIS hope to create tension and violence between Muslims and non-Muslims. The ideal world, from the view in Raqqa, is one where everyone in the world has to pick a side between ISIS and its adversaries. It is the reduction of available political reactions to simple binaries: yes/no, support/object, radical Islam/western racism. Their biggest allies in this cause are the useful idiots currently agitating that refugees be rounded up in concentration camps, the thugs trying to push Muslims in front of trains, the “brave” counterjihadists threatening to fire-bomb mosques. Both sides want a civilizational conflict, somewhat ironically given the lack of civilized values they both demonstrate.
In a sense it is ironic, given how both Islamic and far-right terrorism feed off each other. Neither on their own is an insurmountable problem, but the combination of the two, in the current political environment, could end up doing irreparable damage on a national and international level for decades to come.
I don’t have all the answers, or the solutions to defeating ISIS. But a good first step is not reacting as expected, not breathing life into what could well be a dying organization by lashing out, harming and attacking those who are fleeing the very violence that group has caused.
Please contact your elected officials. Donate to refugee charities. After the events of the last week, anger is more than understandable, it is justifiable. However, letting anger blind us into stupid, cruel and counterproductive actions is not. If you want to hurt ISIS, do so by helping those they have terrorized.
Put pressure on your representatives to do the right thing.
That’s a good start.