Fighting the caliphate.

Photographer: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

What Does Islamic State Think It Is Doing?

Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security, education and food for Bloomberg View. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper's letters editor.
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If Islamic State was directly responsible for the attacks in Paris that have killed more than 130 people, it is a serious change in strategy.

“It’s not just about inspiring any more, but motivating,” Patrick Skinner, a former CIA official now with the consulting firm Soufan Group, told the Financial Times. “They are projecting their terror further and more deliberately.”

Indeed, coordinating at least eight terrorists for attacks on six locations is a whole different level of sophistication than urging Canadian Muslims to carry out random hit-and-runs on men in uniform.

Coming shortly after attacks in Ankara and Beirut for which Islamic State is taking responsibility, as well as its possible bombing of a Russian passenger jet over Egypt, it appears that Islamic State is taking its holy war to new battlegrounds.

But if Islamic State was behind these attacks and those in France, the big question is: Why?

Remember one of the keys to Islamic State's rise after the 2006 death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian street thug who founded its predecessor organization, al-Qaeda in Iraq. The group survived and thrived with a laserlike focus on establishing a caliphate in the Sunni borderlands of Iraq and Syria.

While other jihadi groups carried on the war against the West, new Islamic State leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri cared only about carving out a political entity. (Zarqawi himself had been fixated on the career of Nur al-Din Zengi, a 12th-century Syrian ruler famous for his ruthlessness in turning back European Crusaders.) But the goal was more than purely political. Zarqawi and Masri insisted that their Islamic State would pave the way for the return of the Mahdi, the otherworldly redeemer who will bring about the eschatological Day of Judgment.

Such doomsday cults have been around for millennia, but Masri and his successors adapted the model to today's world through a mix of garbled scriptural interpretation and murderous ruthlessness that left even Osama bin Laden appalled. In particular, Islamic State's leaders justified the indiscriminate murder of other Muslims, both Shiites (whom they consider heretics) and fellow Sunnis who stood in the way of their nation-building goals.

This bloodthirst has led to the conventional wisdom that Islamic State is more willing to murder innocents than al-Qaeda was. But al-Qaeda has always been happy to murder without constraint so long as the targets are in the West: the World Trade Center, the London underground, Madrid transit. It only shows discretion when it comes to Muslim societies.

In delineating the difference between the two groups, the journalist Graeme Wood described al-Qaeda this way: "Bin Laden corporatized terror and franchised it out. He requested specific political concessions, such as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia."

Yet now, in taking responsibility for the Paris attacks, Islamic State warned that such violence would continue until France gave up leadership of "the convoy of the Crusader campaign." Looked at this way, the Paris and Metrojet attacks show Islamic State expanding its mission beyond a regional political goal, now also taking on al-Qaeda's mantle of antagonist of the West.

It is getting the expected result: French President Francois Hollande has pledged to "lead a war that will be pitiless." It's a fair bet that others will join, and that the Obama administration's efforts to keep U.S. boots off the ground in Iraq and Syria will be sorely tested.

Thus, while Islamic State has now proved an unexpected capacity for overseas attacks, the end result will almost certainly be a quicker demise of the original political-messianic project. Why did striking out at foreign powers suddenly become a higher priority?

I can think of a few possible explanations. For one, the battle to carve out the new homeland has hit some rough patches.

The euphoria after the taking of Mosul in June 2014 has faded, and the conquering of Falluja last summer has yielded no real strategic advantage. Indeed, it has begun to unite Islamic State's fractious enemies: the Iraqi military, Iranian-backed militias and Kurdish forces.

Meanwhile, Russia's military intervention to prop up Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, even if it has been more directed at U.S.-backed Syrian rebels than Islamic State forces, bodes ill for the jihadis, especially if current talks involving Iran, Russia and the U.S. lead to a cease-fire in the civil war. Most important, even as the terrorists were carrying out their spree in Paris, Kurdish peshmerga forces were mopping up after successfully taking the key Iraqi city of Sinjar this week.

All these developments may cut deeply into the narrative of scriptural inevitability that Islamic State uses to attract and keep its followers. The problem with a doomsday cult is that you have to keep your followers on edge, believing that the Apocalypse is just around the corner even though the sun keeps rising every day. As William McCants of the Brookings Institution put it in his excellent new book "ISIS Apocalypse," "end-time prophecies were an especially inviting target for fabricators." And while the group's current caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is in fact a scholar of Islam, the illiterate Zarqawi was nothing if not a fabricator.

In any case, as Islamic State and its supporters congratulate themselves, seeing a barbaric victory in Paris, they are forgetting the fate of another extremist Muslim group, one that had actually come much closer to achieving its dream of a lasting fundamentalist political entity, but got mixed up in a spectacular terrorist attack against the West. One suspects that, in hindsight, the Taliban rues the day it gave Osama bin Laden sanctuary to plan 9/11. Let's hope that someday soon, as its last adherents die or slink away, Islamic State feels the same way about 11/13.

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

To contact the author of this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net