What ISIS Wants from Paris and Brussels

Photo: Zuma/Alamy

It is a tragedy that events such as the attacks in Brussels are becoming increasingly frequent in the news. In addition to recent attacks in Paris and Ankara, Brussels now joins a long list of peaceful cities which have been the target of terrorist organizations seeking to kill civilians. A question that often arises in such situations is: what does ISIS really want from such attacks? Why, indeed, are they doing this?

A common response from politicians is that ISIS are a group of psychopathic monsters; they are crazies who simply want to kill for no reason. Such explanations are not only unsatisfactory, but also dangerous, because this is exactly the response that ISIS wants from such attacks. They want to be painted as psychopathic monsters, since this will provoke fear of Muslims, and necessitate that the West get increasingly bogged down in conflicts from which it cannot extricate itself.

Like any other armed group in the world, ISIS is driven by the strategic necessity of gaining recruits and resources so that it can continue fighting. This is the reason that it commits attacks, so that it can increase its profile and attract new recruits. However, the mechanisms by which this occurs are counterintuitive. ISIS is not killing civilians simply to attract other psychopathic monsters to their cause, far from it.

The twin aims of such attacks are (1) to spread fear and (2) to increase hatred of ISIS, and Muslims in general. It may seem strange that this could increase support for ISIS, but it is important to think through the process of how the armed group operates. By increasing fear of Muslims in the West, politicians with xenophobic policies rise to the fore. Individuals like Donald Trump in the USA or Geert Wilders in the Netherlands make a name for themselves by spreading fear of Muslim communities. When such political figures rise, drumming-up anti-Muslim rhetoric, the Muslim minority communities of Western countries become increasingly isolated and targeted. When people feel targeted by all around them, they are more likely to turn to someone who claims to be protecting them.

This is the reason that ISIS allies and affiliates, such as the Somali group al-Shabaab, use Donald Trump in their propaganda videos. When prominent politicians spread messages of fear and hate against Muslims, it confirms the worldview that ISIS presents, a world in which Westerners hate and fear Muslims, and persecute them at home while attacking Muslim countries abroad.

This is the third reason that ISIS attacks small countries like Belgium. In a world populated by monsters, the only response is to fight back. Inevitably, when countries like the US or France go to war, they cannot simply find the terrorists and "smoke them out", to use George W. Bush’s infamous phrase. Deploying thousands of soldiers to a conflict, or using drones to strike villages, will inevitably involve targeting the wrong people. It is simply impossible for modern militaries to avoid killing civilians when they are deploying the kind of firepower that they do. This will also drive even more recruits into the arms of ISIS, who are more than ready to embrace them.

To return to the initial question, what does ISIS want? It wants Western countries to further marginalize and isolate Muslims within their borders, and make them feel alienated and disenfranchised from the societies in which they live. At the same time, ISIS wants Western countries to continue launching attacks on Muslim countries. It is worth remembering that over the last several years, Western armies and air forces have conducted a range of expeditionary operations in the Islamic world, including: Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Mali, Somalia, Pakistan and others. To an individual suspicious of Western governments, that is a pretty dubious track record.

To paraphrase the counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen, the question we should not be "Will there be another attack?" Instead, it should be “When will the next attack be, and how will we respond?”

Given that future attacks are imminent, we need to be prepared for how we respond, and we need to remember that the Brussels attack didn’t occur because ISIS recruits are monsters — it occurred because the ISIS leadership wants us to see them as monsters.

Will Plowright

Will is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the University of British Columbia. His research looks at how armed groups conceptualize and act towards international actors.

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