At first glance, the actions of the self-described Islamic State seem more than a little baffling. Even when viewed through the logic of a terrorist organization, they appear self-destructive.
ISIS has done its best to taunt much greater powers, to provoke and pressure world leaders to launch a war against them. They seem determined to stir fury in democratic countries and create support for a grand international coalition, stoking the public’s determination to back military action to destroy the terrorist group.
The recent ISIS attacks in France, the downing of a Russian plane in Egypt, believed by Russia and others to be an ISIS operation, and the bombings in Turkey aim to achieve short, medium and long-term objectives, from creating fear, boosting its image and enhancing recruiting to triggering a much wider, cataclysmic war.
Anyone who thought refraining from drawing offensive cartoons would provide protection seem to be hearing a macabre message, from the terrorists themselves: The only way to be safe from radical Islamist extremists is to destroy them.
Is that what ISIS is trying to tell us; is that what it wants?
The rapid advance of ISIS on the battlefield shows that while the group operates on the logic of depravity and murder, it is not lacking in coherent strategic thinking. What, then, should we make of its seemingly counterproductive operations outside the immediate battle ground in Syria and Iraq? The answer tells us a lot about how ISIS wants the conflict to unfold.
The multiple operations in Paris last week were not lone-wolf operations; they were planned at the highest levels of ISIS in its Syrian “capital,” Raqqa, at least according to the French government.
That means the attacks constituted pivotal elements of ISIS strategy. By causing mass casualties in multiple locations — and possible striking at the president of France — they ensured that France would increase its attacks in Syria, despite what ISIS may claim.
In the recording claiming responsibility for the attack, ISIS suggested that one of the reasons for targeting Paris was France’s participation in the anti-ISIS coalition. But everything suggests ISIS, in fact, would like that coalition to fight with more conviction. Just to be sure to fire up the rage of the man leading the response, they insulted the French president, saying the soccer match they attacked, where “Crusader German and French teams” were playing, was attended, “by the idiot of France, Francois Hollande.”
Then there was the curious case of the Syrian passport found near the body of a suicide bomber. Who takes a passport to a terrorist operation? Someone who wants it to be found.
ISIS chose Paris, according to that missive, because it is “the capital of prostitution and vice.” But Paris is also a member of NATO, whose charter calls on all members to act together in mutual defense. It is also capital of a European country with a large Muslim population and, like other European nations, one where there have been tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims, as well as concerns and controversy about how to respond to the large wave of refugees, mostly from Syria.
Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.