There are two ways to think about the November 13 Paris attacks. The first is that ISIS has taken a strategy to hit Western countries in order to pull them out of the game, to dissuade them from further airstrikes in greater Syria.
The second way to understand this is as a strategic miscalculation that will raise Western resolve. Let’s explore both strategies and what is then likely to happen.
How can ISIS achieve its goal of establishing an enduring, real-world polity in the Middle East based in the same geography as the historical Muslim caliphates of the past? One way is for ISIS to focus solely and entirely on the Middle East. Its message to potential foreign fighters could simply be, “Come and join us. Come to greater Syria, come to Iraq and help build the new caliphate. Don’t disrupt your old home countries, but leave them and come and build a new Islamic civilization with us.” This approach should make Western leaders resist involvement in Syria and Iraq because why should London and Paris (and Brussels and Madrid and Ottawa) get sucked into something that does not directly involve them? In other words, ISIS would be clearly stating a principle of “self-containment,” offering the West a deal: stay out of this and you will not stir up a hornets nest.
One can easily see how this approach would have been savvy and rooted in historical precedent. The West was very hesitant to engage in Africa’s wars of the 1990s such as Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (former Zaire). In DRC, it is estimated that 3 million people perished, but the West largely lectured from afar whilst African partisans waged bitter wars.
The self-containment logic also motivated many antagonists in the Balkans in the 1990s. This is the tragedy of Srebrenica and dozens of other locations across the former Yugoslavia: local strongmen were largely free to do as they pleased without much interference by Western powers.
Consequently, the “self-containment” strategy should have had a logical appeal to ISIS. They would focus on building a caliphate in the Middle East taking chunks of unstable Syria and Iraq, fighting against stateless Kurds but without attacking Israel or any Western country. They could publicly let it be known that they were self-containing this war.
Indeed many in the West could be justified in thinking, or soothing their consciences, that ISIS was doing our dirty work taking down the Assad regime and fighting Shia Iran at the same time. In fact, one could imagine a situation where ruthless ISIS over two or three years built a cruel but effective governing polity based on Islamist principles. ISIS might be harsh and authoritarian, but no harsher or more autocratic then repressive regimes like Burma under its military, the old Albania under Communism, or various African and Middle Eastern dictatorships.
However, it is clear that this is not what ISIS has done. ISIS had stoked Western fears of lone-wolf terrorists attacking the United States and its allies, similar to the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris early this year. We must see the Paris strikes not as an isolated incident, but in tandem with the recent attack in Beirut and the bombing of a Russian airplane departing Cairo.
Furthermore, the Paris attack is distinctly different, demonstrating a level of militant coordination, planning, and execution more reminiscent of al Qaeda on 9-11 or the Mumbai attacks four years ago. Not only is this a more sophisticated assault, as President Hollande reflected, it is a true declaration of war. This is not the PLO hijacking an airplane to spring a few fellow criminals, and it is not an individual lone-wolf attack instigated by an online radical preacher. This was a coordinated group assault. It is a major game changer.
But will this change of strategy work for ISIS?
Instead of building a caliphate in the Middle East that terrorizes local populations, the Paris attack suggests ISIS is willing to strike abroad against Western governments and suffer the logical consequences. ISIS has obviously made a strategic calculation that a self-containment strategy does not work.
It is possible that Paris, London, and other national capitals will feel pressure particularly from the political Left to ease off the pressure on ISIS and stop bombing targets in Syria and Iraq. The campaign promises to be fulfilled by newly elected Justin Trudeau in Canada are a case in point. It appears that the Canadians are going to cut and run. ISIS may be counting on a similar approach by other Western powers. However, in this case they may have miscalculated. It is just as likely that the horror of these attacks will stiffen the resolve of France and its allies, as seen in President Hollande invoking the common security clause of the European Charter.
Indeed, these attacks may be a sign that ISIS is desperate and consequently taking more risks. It is only recently that ISIS has begun to lose ground, including significant territory within Iraq. This has largely been facilitated by Western airstrikes. Hence, ISIS may have attacked Paris because it was feeling intensifying pressure at home.
This suggests that the West must keep the pressure up on ISIS. We must continue supporting our Kurdish allies and fight ISIS on the ground. We must raise our level of support for Iraqi military units taking on ISIS. And whenever possible we need to degrade them from the sky. The Paris attack may not be a sign of ISIS’ strength but of its weakness.
Let’s pray and work for Western resolve to help ensure the Paris horrors turn out to be the crest of terror for an ultimately defeated ISIS.
Eric Patterson is a contributing editor of Providence and dean of the School of Government at Regent University. He has authored and edited a number of books including Just War Thinking and The Ashgate Research Companion to Military Ethics
Image: Screen Capture of Le Parisien cover after terrorist attacks.