As ISIS loses ground in the Middle East, it might step up spectacular attacks on foreign countries in order to create the perception that it is winning, experts say.
The Friday-night attacks in Paris, in which terrorists killed 129 people and injured hundreds more as they took hostages, detonated suicide vests, and shot people across the city, could have been a move to distract from the losses ISIS (also known as the Islamic State) has taken in its core base of support.
“If an extremist group that has seized territory starts to lose it, it will be highly incentivized to turn to terrorist operations that allow for maximizing effects at a lower cost,” Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and former Army infantry officer, wrote for War on the Rocks.
The Islamic State propelled its recruitment and resourcing over the past three years by sustaining the initiative, growing its state through battlefield successes and acquisitions. But the group has now peaked: It is losing territory, many of its fighters are dying in battle, defections from their ranks continue to increase, recruitment flows are slower and smaller, and new regional Islamic State affiliates in countries like Libya and Egypt now provide a range of options for potential recruits to join a group locally rather than travel to Syria.
To sustain its brand and supporting global fan base, the Islamic State needs to show success. If it cannot achieve battlefield victories and broadcast them on social media, then its affiliates and global network need to pick up the slack with terrorist attacks that capture the imagination of mass media.
Other experts have echoed this assessment.
The Paris attack “strikes at those who are fighting [ISIS],” Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counterterrorism analyst and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, told Business Insider over the weekend. “It increases their prestige in the jihadist movement, thus diminishing Al Qaeda and raising ISIS’s stature. It energizes their base, it presents this perception of a [win] particularly when they have been losing ground in their caliphate holdings.”
Will McCants, an expert on jihadist groups and author of the recent book, “The ISIS Apocalypse,” told Business Insider on Friday that ISIS might try to retake territory to offset its losses, and that the US-led anti-ISIS coalition’s recent efforts in the region could “damage … its claim to be continually expanding.”
Over the weekend, he pointed out that ISIS has also carried out other high-profile attacks against its foreign enemies in recent weeks. The group has also claimed responsibility for the downing of a Russian passenger plane over Egypt at the end of October and for suicide bombings against Hezbollah in Lebanon.
“All of that suggests that ISIS wants to put pressure on those governments,” McCants said on Saturday.
ISIS’s strategy to expand its caliphate and mount spectacular attacks on its enemies in the West plays into the group’s grand plan to drag the West into a final apocalyptic showdown in Dabiq, Syria.
“In a prophecy attributed to Muhammad, the Prophet predicts the Day of Judgment will come after the Muslims defeat Rome at al-Amaq or Dabiq, two places close to the Syrian border with Turkey,” McCants wrote for the Brookings Institution last year. (“Rome” could be understood to mean Western nations in general.)
In his book, McCants further explained the apocalyptic fervor of ISIS:
The US invasion of Iraq and the stupendous violence that followed dramatically increased the Sunni public’s appetite for apocalyptic explanations of a world turned upside down. A spate of bestsellers put the United States at the center of the End-Times drama, a new ‘Rome’ careering throughout the region in a murderous stampede to prevent violence on its own shores. The main antagonists of the End of Days, the Jews, were now merely supporting actors. Even conservative Sunni clerics who had previously tried to tamp down messianic fervor couldn’t help but conclude that ‘the triple union constituted by the Antichrist, the Jews, and the new Crusaders’ had joined forces ‘to destroy the Muslims.’
Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, also mentioned ISIS’s apocalyptic vision in light of the Paris attacks.
“ISIS and its ilk want to fashion a clash of civilizations,” Hamid told CNN. They want this to be ‘us versus them.’ They want to exploit growing anti-Muslim and anti-refugee sentiment to push a narrative that French Muslims and Western Muslims more generally will never be fully accepted by their countrymen.”
He continued: “ISIS is rather clear about this intent: They wish to extinguish the ‘grey zone’ and provoke a sort of apocalyptic world war, where Muslims are forced to choose sides.”
As Russia, France, and the US become more deeply involved in Middle East, increasing airstrikes in Syria and in some cases sending in ground forces, ISIS recruits more and more people with the message that they’re fighting the “infidels” in the West as a means to fulfil a centuries-old prophecy.
And Hamid cautioned against bargaining with dictators like Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, who has resorted to attacking and bombing civilians as he struggles to maintain power.
“Perhaps these politicians are unaware that the point of terrorism is to provoke target populations to do things they otherwise wouldn’t do,” Hamid said. “Let’s start by not doing it for them.”
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