Faisal Al Yafai writes: Analysts of terror groups like ISIL often make one of two framing errors. They either perceive the group as inherently irrational, lashing out without thought or planning. Or they assume extensive strategic thinking on the part of the group, imagining them to be cunning and far-sighted, able to intuit how governments will react to their provocations and planning accordingly.
But terror groups are at root political groups and the dynamics of power, planning and policy remain constant. As with political groups, there are disagreements that lead to miscalculations, decisions that turn out to be erroneous or counterproductive.
It is in that light that the Paris attacks should be seen. For ISIL may have miscalculated the impact of the attack – not in France or in the West, but within the militant group itself.
The Paris attacks represent a new departure for ISIL. The distinction between Al Qaeda and ISIL, which has superseded Al Qaeda as the dominant group in international jihad, lies in their political ambitions.
In Afghanistan, Al Qaeda had sought to create a base from which to launch attacks against the West in order to force the West to change policy and leave the Muslim world. Al Qaeda’s focus was not on creating a state and seeking to draw recruits to it.
ISIL, on the other hand, claims to already have a fledgling regime. And their insistence on declaring it a “caliphate” and referring to it as Al Dawla, Arabic for “state”, suggests they see themselves as creating an effective state, one that can defend its borders and run its own internal affairs.
The Paris attacks, then, are initially puzzling. Why seek to provoke a war while still in the process of building and securing a state? [Continue reading…]
Whenever anyone talks about “giving the terrorists what they want,” the presupposition is that a reaction that matches ISIS’s expectations and hopes will necessarily serve its interests — as though ISIS is incapable of acting against its own interests.
Moreover, implicit in the idea of “giving the terrorists what they want,” is the notion that this means falling into a carefully laid trap and thus coming under the control of ISIS.
But while it’s important to try and understand ISIS’s intentions and expectations, the only question that actually needs to be asked of any strategy for combating ISIS is whether it can accomplish its goals.