ISIS Strategy is to Divide and Conquer

Francois Hollande

© Shutterstock

December 17, 2015 23:58 EDT

The attacks in Egypt, Lebanon and France show that ISIS feels threatened and is shifting its strategy to exert a cost on the coalition powers.

Over two weeks, the Islamic State (IS) carried out three attacks of global significance: downing a Russian passenger airliner over Egypt’s Sinai desert, killing 224 passengers on their way to St. Petersburg; bombing a marketplace in Beirut, which claimed the lives of 40 civilians; and killing at least 130 people in Paris, the worst terrorist attack in French history.

The fear that IS instills is fueled by a profound lack of understanding of the group’s motives. Many have marked the violence as irrational and nihilist. A former NATO official, for example, described IS as “not great strategists; their policies are often haphazard, reckless, even preposterous” and contests that “we are not only horrified but baffled.” Similarly, the group’s goals are inflated; for example, in the remarks of US President Barack Obama that “this is an attack on all of humanity and the values we share.”

But in order to craft an effective strategy to fight the Islamic State, we must go beyond a mere assertion of nihilism and understand what IS hopes to achieve. How does the group aim to deploy terrorism as a strategy to achieve political ends?

Carving Out a Plan

Terrorism experts Peter Neumann and M.L.R. Smith outline a framework of strategic terrorism, in which terrorism is to be understood as: “[T]he deliberate creation of a sense of fear, usually by the use or the threat of use of symbolic acts of physical violence, to influence the political behavior of a given target group.” While the Islamic State is undeniably a religious group, its brutality—however nihilistic it may seem to us—is geared toward a political goal: the consolidation of the caliphate that the group has declared in Syria and Iraq.

IS has begun to explain its grand strategy through its online magazine, Dabiq, communicating its military strength, showcasing its governance programs and spreading its vision of what the caliphate will become. These efforts underline the Islamic State’s desire to demonstrate its capacity to govern the territory under its control and withstand the military challenges of its adversaries.

The Islamic State’s leadership has coldly calculated its religious beliefs with the aim of controlling and expanding its territory and attracting new recruits. Files recovered from Syria detail how Islamic law, the use of religious courts and prescribed piety all serve the goal of surveillance and control over the population. Using takfiri doctrine, IS seeks to purify the world. Muslim “apostates” have been its most common victims, precisely because it is predominantly Muslim populations that inhabit or border the territory that IS seeks to control.

But the recent attacks in Egypt, Lebanon and France show a shift in IS strategy: from attacking regional countries toward international terrorism. These attacks are born out of weakness more than strength. In recent months, IS has suffered losses of territory, increasing defections, stalling recruitment efforts and many battle deaths.

These developments, as well as the decision of Russia to join the fight against IS, have changed the calculations of the organization’s leadership. Going beyond attempting to inspire, the group now seems determined to actively coerce and divide its adversaries by means of a global terrorist campaign—with three key steps.


The first step by which terrorists look to achieve their ends, according to Neumann and Smith, is disorientation: Making citizens distrust their authorities by portraying them as incapable of providing public order and defending their population, “leaving the individual confused, fearful and alienated.”

Disorientation has been evident since the Paris attacks. The Financial Times’ Simon Kuper openly questions whether he and his family can safely stay in Paris after two terrorist attacks have occurred in 2015. Many, such as the editor of French newspaper Le Figaro, have blamed the attacks on the French government for turning a blind eye to the “war” it is engaged in and have castigated the lack of progress on counterterrorist measures.

The Islamic State’s capacity to disorient comes from three sources.

First, it is skilled in its use of social media to radicalize young Muslims and create what is called “homegrown” terrorism. As reported in The Atlantic, Sheikh Abu Muhammed al-Adnani, for example, encouraged Muslims in Western countries to find an infidel and “smash his head with a rock” or “run him over with a car,” blending ancient practice and modern technology. That IS takes responsibility for each of these attacks makes it appear as a potent, omnipresent organization; however, many of these attacks were conducted by “lone wolves” and IS took responsibility only after they occurred.

Attempting to inspire homegrown terrorism predates IS. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—the al-Qaeda brand responsible for the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January—called for “open source jihad” in its magazine, Inspire, which featured articles with suggestive titles like, “Make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom.” It also advised to draw on the experience of the Fort Hood shootings.

IS, however—and this is its second capacity to disorient—has taken open source jihad to a next level. It employs tech-savvy fighters using modern communication tools such as Twitter, PlayStation 4 and Skype to persuade both men and women to travel to the self-declared caliphate. Behind closed doors, many Western security services are not dissatisfied with having their radicals travel to Syria—rather than planning attacks in their own countries. But those who return are battle-hardened criminals that have networks which can link them to IS’ central leadership. And as none of these supposed fighters wears a uniform, the fear that those who wish to harm Western societies live among us gives way to a feeling of powerlessness.

Third, the recent attacks in Egypt, Lebanon and France appear to have been carefully planned by IS leadership. The planning of the French attacks occurred in Syria and Iraq, and the downing of the Russian airliner took place only weeks after Moscow had joined the fight against IS. Will McCants, author of The ISIS Apocalypse, emphasizes that the three terrorist attacks are directly linked to developments in Iraq and Syria, as the Islamic State “is putting its major adversaries on notice that if they continue to impede its state-building … they will pay a price.” This seems to be confirmed by a statement released after the Paris attacks, in which IS warned France that the attack is the “first of the storm” and vowed to continue attacking the country “as long as they lead the convoy of the Crusader campaign.”

Paris attacks

© Shutterstock

The possibility that IS’ vast resources are now used in a global terrorist campaign are disorienting, indeed. But it is important to stress that this is precisely how IS wants us to feel. And for IS to achieve its goals, a lot depends on the reaction of governments that are currently in its crosshairs.

The Syrian quagmire

The second step of strategic terrorism is the “target response”: To “set the target a series of (military) dilemmas and challenge it to respond.” Neumann and Smith state that most governments will be tempted to overreact, believing that “they possess overwhelming power as well as the legitimacy to crush any challenge to its authority.”

The danger of overreaction looms large in the immediate response of the French government. President Francois Hollande was quick to declare a state of emergency, and he denounced the attacks as “an act of war, committed by a terrorist army” and vowed a “merciless response.” French warplanes almost immediately bombarded Raqqa, the stronghold of IS.

Hollande has employed the same rhetoric as George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. But the “War on Terrorism” was an ill-conceived concept from the start, and 14 years of ongoing aerial campaigns have not prevented jihadist groups from emerging in the Greater Middle East. To be sure, there have been “lessons” from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: Ground troops are out of the question for France, or any other member of the G20 for that matter.

This leaves France with virtually no other option than an intensification of the bombing campaign, for which it has dispatched the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier. There are, however, three immediate problems with this strategy.

First, upping the airstrikes will increase the flows of refugees to the European Union, which already seems desperate to “regain control over its external borders” and has recently offered Turkey €3 billion to patrol its borders. But Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan continue to struggle with millions of refugees on their own territory. IS knows there is a real risk at further destabilization and disintegration of these countries, and the bombing in Beirut was clearly geared toward that.

Second, extending airstrikes to the Syrian heartland will increase civilian casualties. Since the Paris attacks, IS has prevented civilians from leaving Raqqa. The US previously decided against bombing Raqqa, but it now provides targeting intelligence for France’s campaign, even though it knows that civilian casualties fuel the discontent IS feeds on.

If dividing French society is part of the Islamic State’s strategy, sticking together is the right response. Zero risk remains an illusion in an open society. That means committing to the values of egalité, fraternité and liberté that make la République great.

Third, increasing airstrikes is not a change in coalition strategy, but just a minor increase of the US attempt to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State. This may be effective in the long-run; containment as a strategy against terrorist group has worked against al-Shabab in Somalia and the central leadership of al-Qaeda in the tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. But this will be a long-term effort that leaves IS in possession of vast resources, a safe haven to train and plan international terrorist attacks, and the motives to carry out those attacks precisely because it is slowly squeezed out of the territory it holds so dearly. In short, things might get worse before they get better.

A more effective strategy would be to add serious diplomatic, economic and ideological elements to what has been a predominantly military response to squeeze IS out of its territory. At the same time, France is using its diplomatic momentum to craft a true global coalition that directs its unequivocal attention to combating IS. France has pushed the United Nations Security Council to adopt Resolution 2174 condemning violent extremism and urging the need to prevent travel and support for foreign fighters.

But many countries do not go beyond paying lip-service to the necessity of fighting IS. There are reports that Turkish intelligence services, occupied by the Kurdish regional aspirations, provide support to IS. Russian President Vladimir Putin has actively opposed the installment of a no-fly zone in Syria and has predominantly targeted the rebel groups that the US has relied on for taking the fight to IS. Cooperation between Russia and Turkey, coincidentally, suffered a severe blow when Turkey shot down a Russian jet on November 24. And the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—condemned by NATO countries and the Gulf Cooperation Council, but supported by Russia and Iran—hangs over the negotiations like a sword of Damocles.

A part of the diplomatic push needs to focus on cutting off the financing of IS. So far, the West has turned a blind eye to Turkey, which has facilitated oil sales—a major source of revenue for IS—across its borders. And it means addressing the problem that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait never stopped arming and funding IS, despite being part of the anti-IS coalition.

The revenue streams of IS are unlikely to be sustainable in the long-run. Financial accounts show that almost half of its revenue comes from “confiscations,” primarily of its own population, and another large part derives from antiquity looting. But again, without addressing the larger revenue stream, this will amount to a long and slow squeeze that leaves IS capable and determined to attack Western interests.


© Shutterstock

Finally, there must be an ideological response. In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, the narrative of a “clash of civilizations” reemerged. The evidence, however, points into a different direction. Muslims from across the world condemned the Paris attacks and Muslim populations express disdain for IS. It is, therefore, no surprise that those fleeing IS territory chose to come to Europe, which exemplifies the stability and security they have lost in Syria and Iraq. And even many foreign fighters have become utterly disillusioned with life in the Islamic State, but know they cannot return.

Any serious ideological response must, therefore, be inclusive toward Muslims. However, electoral considerations at home push Hollande in the exact opposite direction.

The French snake pit

The final step, as Neumann and Smith describe, involves the wider response to a terrorist attack, in which many governments suppress moderate, nonviolent opposition. The repression can radicalize a minority of the population and increase the belief among some in the illegitimacy of Western governments that IS preaches. Terrorizing French society becomes instrumental in IS’ strategy.

Some repressive measures are already taking shape. Under the extended state of emergency, there have been at least 1,233 house searches, 165 arrests and 266 people have been placed under house arrest.

It is understandable that a swift and strong response is demanded from the French government, especially considering the popularity of the far-right. The leader of the National Front, Marine Le Pen, has said that France must rearm, ban Islamist organizations, close radical mosques and expel “illegal migrants that have nothing to do here.” Former President Nicolas Sarkozy said he wants to “electronically tag” all the 11,500 people on France’s watch list.

With a Muslim population of 8%, however, France must avoid blindly lashing out. While heightened security can be justified in the short-term, France must be careful not to legalize minority repression in the long-term. Lashing out is what IS hopes for, because it has the potential to alienate the wider Muslim community and provide fertile grounds for radicalization.

Avoiding overreaction and repression is all too hard, for no politician wants to see another attack occur on their watch. But research shows that terrorist groups primarily targeting civilians do not achieve their political objectives. So from a strategic perspective, restraint is required. The Islamic State aims to provoke governments into using extra-legal actions that, in the long-run, increase the support and legitimacy of the organization. The prime example is, of course, Guantánamo Bay, which became a primary tool in jihadist propaganda.

And as the US Patriot Act showed, measures for increased security and surveillance are very hard to repel. France already used the emergency laws to put climate activists under house arrest during the COP21 summit earlier this month.

If anything, the Paris attacks have exposed the flaws in France’s reliance on internal and external intelligence services to identify all leads on violent extremism. There is a necessity to shift the focus toward prevention, addressing radicalization before it occurs.

This means that France will have to face the fact that its post-colonial integration policies have failed. Disgruntlement among the young in the banlieues has been evident for years, most notably during the 2005 riots in Paris. Other countries face this problem too. The support cell for the Paris attacks was traced back to the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, a region in Belgium that has suffered from segregation and a lack of integration. For the young generation of Muslims that faces high unemployment and limited opportunities, IS’ online propaganda provides escapism from the burden of existence.

One possible example is the “PREVENT program” that British government set up to counter extremist messaging. It has a multicultural and community-based focus and, as the name suggests, attempts to detect individuals before they radicalize. While the PREVENT program has had its own problems, such as making the Muslim population into a “suspect community,” there is evidence that orthodox and non-violent extremist organizations can be engaged at the local level to help a government pick up early on radicalization of individuals in Muslim communities.

If dividing French society is part of the Islamic State’s strategy, sticking together is the right response. Zero risk remains an illusion in an open society. That means committing to the values of egalité, fraternité and liberté that make la République great. Above all, it means defending the very civil liberties that IS attempts to destroy.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Frederic Legrand – COMEO / Orlok /

Fair Observer - World News, Politics, Economics, Business and CultureWe bring you perspectives from around the world. Help us to inform and educate. Your donation is tax-deductible. Join over 400 people to become a donor or you could choose to be a sponsor.

Support Fair Observer

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.

In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.

We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.

Will you support FO’s journalism?

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

Donation Cycle

Donation Amount

The IRS recognizes Fair Observer as a section 501(c)(3) registered public charity (EIN: 46-4070943), enabling you to claim a tax deduction.

Make Sense of the World

Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

Support Fair Observer

Support Fair Observer by becoming a sustaining member

Become a Member