It’s “the first of the storm”, says Islamic State. And little wonder. For the chaotic scenes on the streets of Paris and the fearful reaction those attacks provoked are precisely what Isis planned and prayed for. The greater the reaction against Muslims in Europe and the deeper the west becomes involved in military action in the Middle East, the happier Isis leaders will be. Because this is about the organisation’s key strategy: finding, creating and managing chaos.
There is a playbook, a manifesto: The Management of Savagery/Chaos, a tract written more than a decade ago under the name Abu Bakr Naji, for the Mesopotamian wing of al-Qaida that would become Isis. Think of the horror of Paris and then consider these, its principal axioms.
Hit soft targets. “Diversify and widen the vexation strikes against the crusader-Zionist enemy in every place in the Islamic world, and even outside of it if possible, so as to disperse the efforts of the alliance of the enemy and thus drain it to the greatest extent possible.”
Strike when potential victims have their guard down. Sow fear in general populations, damage economies. “If a tourist resort that the crusaders patronise … is hit, all of the tourist resorts in all of the states of the world will have to be secured by the work of additional forces, which are double the ordinary amount, and a huge increase in spending.”
Consider reports suggesting a 15-year-old was involved in Friday’s atrocity. “Capture the rebelliousness of youth, their energy and idealism, and their readiness for self-sacrifice, while fools preach ‘moderation’ (wasatiyyah), security and avoidance of risk.”
Think of the group’s appreciation of focus on cause and effect: “Work to expose the weakness of America’s centralised power by pushing it to abandon the media psychological war and the war by proxy until it fights directly.” Ditto for France, the UK and other allies.
There is a recruitment framework. The Grey Zone, a 10-page editorial in Isis’s online magazine Dabiq in early 2015, describes the twilight area occupied by most Muslims between good and evil, the caliphate and the infidel, which the “blessed operations of September 11” brought into relief. Quoting Bin Laden it said: “The world today is divided. Bush spoke the truth when he said, ‘Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists’, with the actual ‘terrorist’ being the western crusaders.” Now, it said, “the time had come for another event to … bring division to the world and destroy the grey zone”. The attacks in Paris were the latest instalment of this strategy, targeting Europe, as did the recent attacks in Turkey. There will be more, much more, to come.
With that in mind, it is critical that we understand what is really going on.
Radical Arab Sunni revivalism, which Isis now spearheads, is a dynamic, revolutionary countercultural movement of world historic proportions, with the largest and most diverse volunteer fighting force since the second world war. In less than two years, it has created a dominion over hundreds of thousands of square kilometres and millions of people. Despite being attacked on all sides by internal and external foes, it has not been degraded to any appreciable degree, while rooting ever stronger in areas it controls and expanding its influence in deepening pockets throughout Eurasia.
Simply treating Isis as a form of “terrorism” or “violent extremism” masks the menace. Merely dismissing it as “nihilistic” reflects a wilful and dangerous avoidance of trying to comprehend, and deal with, its profoundly alluring moral mission to change and save the world. And the constant refrain that Isis seeks to turn back history to the Middle Ages is no more compelling than a claim that the Tea Party movement wants everything the way it was in 1776. The truth is more complicated. As Abu Mousa, Isis’s press officer in Raqqa, put it: “We are not sending people back to the time of the carrier pigeon. On the contrary, we will benefit from development. But in a way that doesn’t contradict the religion.”
Isis is reaching out to fill the void wherever a state of “chaos” or “savagery” (at-tawahoush) exists, as in central Asia and Africa. And where there is insufficient chaos in the lands of the infidel, called “The House of War”, it seeks to create it, as in Europe.
It conscientiously exploits the disheartening dynamic between the rise of radical Islamism and the revival of the xenophobic ethno-nationalist movements that are beginning to seriously undermine the middle class – the mainstay of stability and democracy – in Europe in ways reminiscent of the hatchet job that the communists and fascists did on European democracy in the 1920s and 30s. The fact that Europe’s reproductive rate is 1.4 children per couple, and so there needs to be considerable immigration to maintain a productive workforce that can sustain the middle class standard of living, is a godsend for Isis, because at the same time there has never been less tolerance for immigration. Therein lies the sort of chaos that Isis is well positioned to exploit.
As I testified to the US Senate armed service committee and before the United Nations security council: what inspires the most uncompromisingly lethal actors in the world today is not so much the Qur’an or religious teachings. It’s a thrilling cause that promises glory and esteem. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: fraternal, fast-breaking, glorious, cool – and persuasive.
A July 2014 ICM poll suggested that more than one in four French youth between the ages of 18 and 24 have a favourable or very favourable opinion of Isis, although only 7-8% of France is Muslim. It’s communal. More than three of every four who join Isis from abroad do so with friends and family. Most are young, in transitional stages in life: immigrants, students, between jobs and mates, having just left their native family. They join a “band of brothers (and sisters)” ready to sacrifice for significance.
We have “counter-narratives”, unappealing and unsuccessful. Mostly negative, they rely on mass messaging at youth rather than intimate dialogue. As one former Isis imam told us: “The young who came to us were not to be lectured at like witless children; they are for the most part understanding and compassionate, but misguided.” Again, there is discernible method in the Isis approach.
Eager to recruit, the group may spend hundreds of hours trying to enlist a single individual, to learn how their personal problems and grievances fit into a universal theme of persecution against all Muslims.
Current counter-radicalisation approaches lack the mainly positive, empowering appeal and sweep of Isis’s story of the world; and the personalised and intimate approach to individuals across the world.
The first step to combating Isis is to understand it. We have yet to do so. That failure costs us dear.
Scott Atran is an anthropologist at France's National Center for Scientific Research, Oxford University, John Jay College and the University of Michigan. He is co-founder of Artis Research and author of Talking to the Enemy and In Gods We Trust.