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Paris attacks: What Islamic State is trying to achieve

Last Friday night’s horrific attacks in Paris have, yet again, pushed the panic buttons of much the Western media and the political leaders of Western countries. If Islamist extremists can strike at will at the heart of Paris then, it seems, none of us are safe. And, of course, we all sympathise deeply with the victims of the attacks.

But while we and our allies work ourselves into another moral outrage, tighten already restrictive security provisions, and drop yet more bombs on distant targets, we seem to be missing the point. And that point is that terrorism is, and always has been, designed to provoke exactly such a backlash. We and our allies are singing from the terrorist’s song-book.

Terrorism is not new and has always had three fundamental aims. One point to preface this, however, is that if these attacks were indeed coordinated by Islamic State, as is being claimed, then this represents a fundamental change of IS strategy.

Islamic State and Al Qaeda both draw from the same radical fundamental well-spring of violent religious inspired ideology. But they split around 2007 over a fundamental strategic difference.

Al Qaeda always viewed the struggle as one for the soul of Islam, by pitting a radical iteration of Islamism against the world, and then, following a global response, seeking Muslims to choose sides in what was intended to be a global war. IS, on the other hand, wanted to build a specific state within a bounded region, and was more concerned with its closer enemies, including other Muslims, than the infidel in the West.

If this is an Islamic State attack, then, it reflects a changed IS’ outlook. In part, this might reflect IS’ own view of itself as now having achieved the institutional status that, in its own eyes, qualifies it as a ‘state’ rather than a terrorist outfit occupying a given territory. Attacks on the state require corresponding attacks on those belligerent states.

The first aim of terrorism – and often warfare – is simple enough. It is to strike at one’s enemies, real or perceived, to punish them for their crimes. We and our allies hurt people – sometimes innocent people – where they live. IS in turn appears to have decided to hurt ‘us’ back where we live.

The second aim of terrorism is to attack specific targets, often individuals, who are seen as representing or being a leader of an enemy.

The third aim of terrorism, which is the most important, is to engender a backlash in order to bring to one’s side those who are not yet committed to the cause. The US-led invasion of Iraq created an extremist Islamist response where one had previously not existed.

This attack is intended to produce a similar backlash, to turn non-Muslim Europeans against Muslims both in Europe and elsewhere, legitimising the claim that there is war between the West and Islam. Europe’s xenophobic right-wing will be strengthened in the process, and the greatest long-term victims will be those people who have been fleeing just such terror in the Middle East.

A further aim of such terrorism is to prove that the terrorists are a force to be reckoned with and that, as such, the West will turn on itself and ultimately divide and weaken itself over its confused responses.

There are no simple answers to terrorism, and in particular this type of Islamist ideology. It is a struggle which, very likely, will be with us for decades. However, buying into a pre-arranged narrative and responding exactly as intended is perhaps the first thing we, as a collective of nations, should not do.

Certainly there should be a series of responses, perhaps including very specific military strikes. But we must not confuse the Muslim victims of such terrorism with the terrorism itself. And we must not allow ourselves to give in to our more base, and less rational, responses.

Whatever complex plan we may develop to deal with this threat, it must have a very clear end goal, and a specific set of steps about how to achieve it.