Rallying against Islamic State.

Photographer: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

How Terror Attacks Weaken Islamic State

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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Turkey’s airstrikes against Islamic State and its decision to allow U.S. warplanes to operate from its air bases are in direct response to terrorist attacks in the Turkish town of Suruc earlier in the week. The cause-and-effect relationship highlights what’s becoming a central strategic dilemma for Islamic State.

Ideologically, the organization embraces the jihadi techniques developed by al-Qaeda, which call for suicide bombings against civilians within regimes deemed to be the enemy. Practically, however, Islamic State’s best chance of survival as a quasi-sovereign entity is to leave its Sunni neighbors alone in the hopes they won’t provide the ground troops that would be necessary to defeat the militant group. The contradiction provides a glimmer of hope for the U.S., which knows that Islamic State can’t be defeated unless its neighbors devote themselves to the fight: Maybe, just maybe, Islamic State will be so foolish as to provoke the very response that the U.S. has been unable to elicit using the logic of persuasion.

The Turkey attack is only the latest example of the dynamic. The horrific burning of a Jordanian pilot downed in December drew an angry and aggressive response from King Abdullah. Islamic State was certainly testing Jordanian resolve -- and getting the answer that the kingdom would take a much more aggressive stance toward Islamic State if its subjects were so tortured.

The bombing of a mosque in Kuwait at the end of June reflected a similar phenomenon. Although the attack was against Shiites, it nonetheless represented a direct threat to Kuwait’s Sunni emir. So far he’s been more cautious than King Abdullah in forming any military response.

The killing of dozens of mostly British tourists in Tunisia on the same day as the Kuwait bombing highlighted the same issues, albeit in a slightly more attenuated way. The Tunisian government now has no doubt that Islamic State is its enemy -- but, for the moment, Tunisia is far from the group’s heartland, and isn’t a credible candidate to send more than a token force against it. The U.K., for its part, is already a strong Islamic State opponent, and Prime Minister David Cameron used the opportunity to emphasize British support for operations against the group. Yet like the U.S., the U.K. has been chastened by the Western failures of Iraq and Afghanistan, and won’t be part of a ground initiative in the foreseeable future.

On the surface, Islamic State stands only to lose from provoking Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait and even Tunisia. So why are these attacks happening? There are several possible answers, which are distinct yet interrelated.

Perhaps the most intuitive is that Islamic State has never rejected the al-Qaeda ideology of suicide attacks. True, Islamic State focuses on conquering and holding territory, in contradistinction to al-Qaeda’s strategy of confronting the enemy at its strongest point. That difference has made Islamic State a much more formidable opponent than al-Qaeda thus far. But many Islamic State followers were previously al-Qaeda members or supporters. There’s no clear ideological dividing line between the two organizations; the difference is mainly in strategy. So it would be extremely difficult as an ideological matter for Islamic State to reject suicide attacks.

A related possibility is that Islamic State’s central command, to the extent one exists, can’t really direct or prohibit the efforts of suicide attackers acting in the name of the organization. At least some recent terrorist attacks seem to have been made by al-Qaeda trained actors who simply announced that they were now representing Islamic State -- like the perpetrator of the attack on the kosher supermarket in Paris in the same week of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. In general, Islamic State benefits from spontaneous decisions by actors around the world to identify with the organization. It may be that Islamic State simply can’t avoid the associated costs of attacks on parties that the group would be wiser to leave alone.

A third and final explanation is that Islamic State is under a powerful strategic imperative to remain defiantly on the front pages of the world’s newspapers -- and can’t always rely on territorial expansion to make news. At the moment, the group isn’t making spectacular territorial expansions. Holding territory and establishing governance is strategically wise. And some headlines can be garnered by acting like a state, collecting taxes, suppressing bribery and the like.

But terrorist attacks are nevertheless an important part of the public-relations strategy, to bring new supporters and streams of sympathetic funding. Recall that Islamic State helped establish its global reputation by the beheadings of Western journalists. These acts served no immediate military strategic advantage. To the contrary, they pushed the U.S. to focus on Islamic State much more than it otherwise might’ve done. Nonetheless, to Islamic State they made a certain sort of strategic sense: They showed that the group wasn’t afraid of the U.S. and the West; they generated vast and lasting publicity; and they became a symbol of a certain utopian/dystopian approach to establishing an idealized Islamic state. The terrorist attacks on the periphery possess some of the same virtues, albeit to a lesser degree.

All this leads to a very slim ray of sunshine on the otherwise bleak horizon of possibilities for defeating Islamic State. In the end, it can only be defeated by a combination of U.S. air support and willing local ground forces. Shiite militias in Iraq, and sometimes Kurdish peshmerga, are so far the only effective ground forces to have been deployed against it. The U.S. badly needs a Sunni Arab force on the ground to win. It’s pretty clear by now that the U.S. lacks the capacity to convince Islamic State’s neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, to provide it. Here’s hoping Islamic State does the persuading on its own. That way, at least, some of the victims of its terrorist attacks may not have died in vain.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net