What does ISIS really want now?

Jessica Stern writes: In the latest issue of Dabiq, ISIS’s on-line magazine, the organization sets forth two principal but contradictory goals, which it labels “options.” The first is to spread a totalitarian caliphate throughout the region and, ultimately, the world. The second is to polarize Muslims against one another, to incite internal divisions within the West, and to turn the West against Islam, with the ultimate goal of “goad[ing] the West into launching an all-out ground attack, thereby setting the scene for the final battle between Muslims and the crusaders prophesized to be held at Dabiq in Syria.”

Helpfully, ISIS has described for us those steps it regards as necessary to achieve the second option. As an ISIS author — writing under the name of British hostage John Cantlie — observes, option two would likely require “an operation overseas that is so destructive that America and its allies will have no alternative but to send in an army. This would have to be something on the scale, if not bigger, than 9/11. Then again I’m just guessing, American ‘hawks’ may very well come to Dabiq on their own without the Islamic State needing to blow up any dirty bombs in Manhattan.”

Mohammed al-Adnani, official spokesperson of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has repeatedly urged Muslims to carry out a jihad at home. The goal of attacking the West, ISIS says, is to eliminate the “grayzone” of moderate Islam and to force Muslims living in the West to either join ISIS or “apostasize and adopt the kufri religion.” To date, the majority of these attacks have been carried out by self-starters, or “lone wolves,” with little direction from central leadership. But it was only a matter of time before ISIS would attempt to coordinate attacks outside its territory. Indeed, U.S. and European officials say that Abu Mohammed al-Adnani’s role is to now oversee ISIS-directed attacks outside of Iraq and Syria.

Sophisticated attacks outside ISIS-controlled territory require trained fighters, as evidenced in the November 2015 attack in Paris. But such attacks are significantly easier to carry out with operational assistance of local personnel. For ISIS, finding labor is less taxing when they can recruit from an existing pool of disenfranchised Muslims. In examining ISIS recruitment, many of my colleagues have focused on ISIS’s “winner’s” narrative and the carefully choreographed branding whereby ISIS advertises — and attempts to create — a utopian state. This line of argument suggests that ISIS’s defense of its territory is critical to its ability to recruit Westerners. But I would suggest that ISIS attempts to create a somewhat different narrative — the redemption of the oppressed. [Continue reading…]

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