Terrorist Strategy 101: a review

What if ISIS acts like our worst nightmare because it needs us to attack?

It’s been ten years since I wrote “Terrorist Strategy 101: a quiz” explaining how Osama bin Laden’s apparent insanity actually made sense. In retrospect, I overestimated Al Qaeda’s ability to launch attacks in the U.S. — a popular mistake at the time — but the general framework holds up pretty well. Replace “Bin Laden” with “al-Baghdadi” and “al Qaeda” with “ISIS”, and the main points still apply today.

The core message of TS-101 is that if you are a violent extremist with a big dream, your toughest problem isn’t that there are violent extremists on the other side ready to oppose you. Your toughest problem is that almost all the people who (at least at some level) share your big dream have better things to do with their lives. They have jobs and kids and classes, bands that might hit it big, possible lovers to flirt with, and novels they’re sure would be best-sellers if only they could get them finished.

If you’re a would-be Supreme Leader, it’s a huge challenge: Around the world, people would rather get on with the business of living than give their all to the Great Struggle.

Somehow you have to screw that up.

So your big mission — which, ironically, you share with the extremists on the other side of the spectrum — is to flatten the bell curve. In order to bring your air-castles to Earth, you need to make the center untenable. All those folks who consider themselves moderates — if you let them, they’ll muddle along while you get old and the Great Historical Moment slips away. You need everyone to realize right now that compromise is impossible, the other side can’t be trusted, and we all have to kill or be killed.

Perversely, your best allies in this phase of the struggle are the people you hate most, who also hate you. Of course you’d never actually conspire with them, minions of Satan that they are. But you don’t need to, because the steps in your dance are obvious from either tail of the distribution: rachet up the rhetoric and escalate an attack-and-reprisal cycle until compromise really is impossible and everyone is radicalized. Only after the center is gone do the two extremes meet in the second round of the play-offs. It’s a very basic pattern of history, and it never changes: from Caesar/Pompey to Bin Laden/Cheney, extremists have to come in pairs, because they need each other.

What ISIS has.

OK, so now imagine you’re Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of ISIS. At the moment, you control a large swath of not very much. In Iraq, the Shiite government holds the southern oil fields around Basra, and the Kurds have the northern fields around Kirkuk. You’ve got the western desert. In Syria, flip it around: All the good stuff is in the west, and you’ve got the east. You made headlines by expanding your map-area really fast, but that’s because there wasn’t much there in the first place. (John McCain and Lesley Graham describe your territory as “the size of Indiana“, but a better analogy would be the parts of Nevada that don’t include Reno or Vegas.)

But you do have one important asset. You are the current holder of the Big Dream: a re-unified Caliphate, all the Muslims in the world (or at least the Sunnis) joined in the kind of empire that made Harun al-Rashid a storybook legend. Once, before the West cut the Dar-al-Islam into little pieces and put puppet kings and sticky-fingered generals in charge of each one, Baghdad was the jewel of the world, the center of the greatest empire on Earth.

It could be again.

Lots and lots of the world’s billion-or-so Muslims share that dream at a low level, the way suburban Methodists share the dream of Jesus’ return. It’ll happen someday and that’ll be great, but … you know … I’ve got to get ready for that thing at the office Monday afternoon, and then there’s little Jamal’s soccer game in the evening.

You need to screw that up — all the distracting stuff that gives Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia more to live for than the dream of the Caliphate — and you can’t do it alone. You need help if you’re going to radicalize enough idealistic young men and women to overthrow the current governments of Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and a dozen other places.

A restored Islamic Caliphate.

You need America.

In particular, you need a big, blundering, violent America that kills children and calls it “collateral damage” as if Muslims weren’t human at all. You need American troops kicking down doors of innocent families and looking under the chadors of virtuous women in case they might have weapons down there. You need the American president acting like he’s Emperor of the World, drawing other countries’ borders and deciding who can be involved in their governments.

You need an America that says it’s at war with all of Islam — not just you, all of it. Nobody believes you when you say that, but when Americans say it, they will.

You need an America that won’t let its own Muslims assimilate, that harasses them whenever they try to fly or build houses of worship or just walk around looking like Muslims.

You need an America that is scared of you. Nobody cares if you proclaim yourself Grand High Poobah of Everything. But if Americans are on global TV, telling the world that you’re the Baddest Baddy in the History of Badness … you can work with that. That looks great on your website. Deep down, lots of the people whose allegiance you are seeking wish they had what it takes to make U.S. senators quiver with fear or quake with anger. If you have that special something, they’re going to want to identify with you.

Maybe you need to wave a red handkerchief at the American bull to get him to charge. So don’t just execute the Americans you find. (Any thug can do that.) Cut off their heads and put the videos on YouTube. You and I both know that it makes no difference — dead is dead, after all, whether the instrument of death is a barbaric sword or a civilized missile from a high-tech aerial drone. But Americans go crazy when you do shit like that. Maybe crazy enough to come back and start killing people again, crazy enough to return their soldiers to places where ordinary people can get a shot at them. And then the cycle will become self-stoking, because the dead can’t have died in vain, can they? Once you get the feedback loop started, death justifies more death.

So far, it seems to be working.

And so you don’t have to be a mind-reader to know what al-Baghdadi is thinking right now: Thank you John McCain and Lindsey Graham. Thank you, Joe Biden. Thank you, Phil Robertson and Sean Hannity. Thanks to all the other crazy right-wing Christian preachers far too numerous to list. Thanks to everybody who is making it impossible for President Obama to follow his own advice not to “do stupid stuff“.

The stupid stuff ISIS needs from America is on its way, so al-Baghdadi is grateful to all of you. You’re doing a job he could never do for himself.

But he owes you nothing, because it’s a fair trade: He’s radicalizing your followers just like you’re radicalizing his. The bell curve is flattening. The center is becoming untenable.

It’s amazing what extremists can accomplish when they share a common goal.

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  • Bobby Lee  On September 8, 2014 at 12:39 pm

    “John McCain and Lesley Graham describe your territory as “the size of Indiana“, but a better analogy would be the parts of Nevada that don’t include Reno or Vegas.”

    The maps that they show on TV make ISIS territory look like a scary alien with creepy tentacles. Very subliminal. There’s a campaign going on, beating the drums for war. Your voice of reason is appreciated.

    • bkswrites  On September 8, 2014 at 1:27 pm

      I saw those same maps. They have rivulets of territory. Gen. Tony Zinni, in his new book, acknowledges that today’s “existential threat” comprises only “movements” and “gangs,” but he still dreams of geographical dominance. It’s somehow even scarier that our military doesn’t get it as well as amateur observers.

      • Anonymous  On November 20, 2015 at 7:18 pm

        Today’s “existential threat” is climate change.

  • Chris  On September 8, 2014 at 12:42 pm

    Perfectly summed up. Thanks for writing this.

  • bkswrites  On September 8, 2014 at 1:23 pm

    Excellent grasp of the situation. I’ve just reviewed Gen. Tony Zinni’s new book, _Before_the_First_Shots_Are_Fired_, and had a similar response to his recommendation of continued treaties, partnerships, and massive military (even nuclear) threats and operations, even though he acknowledges that the “existential threats” today are “movements” and “gangs.”

  • Gina  On September 8, 2014 at 1:44 pm

    I’m under the impression (correct me if I’m wrong) that the extreme actions of ISIS are recently turning the moderates in their part of the world against them. If that’s true, would they be sanctioned by their own if we could manage to stay out of war and leave them to self-destruction?

    • weeklysift  On September 9, 2014 at 7:46 am

      Hard to say. But if they were, that victory would mean a lot more than if outside forces suppressed them.

      • Bobby Lee  On September 9, 2014 at 11:21 am

        True, but one can’t pray for violence to end violence. None of this is good. As the computer said in the movie “War Games”, the only solution is not to play.

  • Matt  On September 11, 2014 at 10:19 am

    You lose any credibility when you refer to American leaders as “Violent Extremists” and equate Cheney with Bin Laden. Wow.

  • Justine  On September 11, 2014 at 11:13 am

    “the only solution is not to play”. Yea, that worked for the US when Hitler was taking over the world. If we hadn’t finally jumped in when we did the war would have been brought to our shores for sure!

    • bkswrites  On September 11, 2014 at 3:06 pm

      Justine, it’s a different world. It’s easier for extremists to make small strikes against the US, but even more ludicrous to believe that their groups could attack the US with any significant effect. It’s “counting coup,” demonstrating that they can insult the US, and it’s directed to very small groups in their own areas.

    • weeklysift  On September 12, 2014 at 6:55 am

      OTOH, imagine a scenario in which the U.S. doesn’t tip the balance in World War I. Maybe the eventual treaty is not so one-sided, and Hitler never comes to power.

  • Andi  On September 13, 2014 at 6:33 pm

    In large measure I agree with you, and in some cases I would have gone farther. But the strategy of incitement works both ways. The New York Times just broke news that ISIS is claiming responsibility for the killing of a British aid worker. Well done… if President Obama needed help putting together a new coalition of the willing, if we needed friends to go to war with, to have their back while they have ours, ISIS is putting that puzzle together for us. My fear is this… there will be (more) war; it’s going to be more brutal, more destructive, and more lasting than any we have seen. We write history too quickly with our broken foreign policy and our knee-jerk armchair policy-making.

  • Phoenix Woman  On September 13, 2014 at 10:07 pm

    A few points:

    1) The Kurds and the Shiite-dominated Iraqi army have been begging for months for some help against ISIS. Even many Sunnis are souring on them, as ISIS likes to kill even Sunnis who don’t meet their purity standards.

    2) As you yourself noted in your original piece, not every terror attack, not even those by Al Qaeda, is about tricking people into invading Iraq. The Madrid and London bombings were done, as you said, to make Spain and the UK stand down, not double down on their involvement.

    3) ISIS is not Al Qaeda. They’re just one of many Sunni groups working the armchair-jihadi grift in the Middle East. They got kicked out of Jordan because the Jordanian security apparatus was a lot tougher than they were, so they fled to the jihadi-filled area just east of the Golan Heights (an area that for some reason never gets attacked by the IDF that rains bombs down upon Gaza, even though it’s well within IDF missile range) and to the largely empty wastelands in western Iraq. They hit the jackpot two years ago when the Saudis and Kuwaitis started their efforts to topple Syria’s Assad Baathist government, but even with boatloads of Saudi money they still couldn’t topple Assad, so they contented themselves with nabbing a few undefended oil towns on the Syria-Iraq and Kurdish frontiers so they could keep the money rolling in. (Trouble is, they killed too many engineers and the oil production machinery is starting to fall apart: http://edition.cnn.com/2014/09/03/business/defterios-oil-isis/ )

    4) If you think that US bombing is going to increase ISIS’ numbers, I suggest you think again. From http://pando.com/2014/09/03/the-war-nerd-the-long-twisted-history-of-beheadings-as-propaganda/ :

    IS was on a roll, overrunning lightly armed Peshmerga and village militias, before the US ruined everything by authorizing drones and airstrikes. It must have been damned annoying, being an IS fighter, bouncing over the plains in your Toyota Hilux, as the terrified Iraqi Army forces vanished ahead of you in a cloud of panicky dust. Quite a rush for the mix of AQI survivors and European-Muslim war tourists who fill IS’s ranks.

    And then all of a sudden, you go from the dashing light-armor knights of the Iraqi plain to the biggest, most vulnerable targets imaginable—thin-skinned vehicles crawling over a completely flat, treeless plain while the drones buzz overhead, armed with Hellfire missiles, just waiting for authorization from a desk jockey in suburban Virginia before they release a weapon designed to destroy much bigger, tougher, Soviet tanks. Suddenly, you, with your Sunni Lawrence of Arabia war-tourist dreams, are nothing but a bug getting zapped by an automated pest-control device.

    It’s insulting. And the kind of young men who join IS are romantics, of a sort. They might not mind dying in the abstract—most guys don’t, at that age, until they find out what it feels like to get shot in the stomach—but they hate the idea of dying in such an unchivalrous way.

  • russellgrainger  On November 16, 2015 at 11:08 pm

    Reblogged this on penfoldsblog.

  • Isaac Levanon  On November 18, 2015 at 10:16 am

    Such a shallow analisys. What do you suggests, to turn the other chick? Terrorism you fight hard and decisively. And you do it full force when they are small and just started to do what you’ve described.

    • Sensical in a Common Way  On November 19, 2015 at 1:26 am

      Peoplemlikemthismqre dangerous.

  • Dave  On November 19, 2015 at 12:34 am

    This guy is incredibly naive. This type of deluded thinking led everyone not to take the Nazis seriously. How did that work out? They stuck their head in the sand and lived in a fantasy world, thinking if they just be nice, this nightmare will all go away, as a result of their ‘restraint’ over 6 million Jews were exterminated, and nonsense like this is why terrorists have been so successful. This guy is absolutely clueless about radical Islam and how to deal with it. The terrorist attack in Paris, and the over 100 that died in that attack, was aided by stupid articles like this that preceded it. People who repeat this rubbish have blood on their hands.

    • Sensical in a Common Way  On November 19, 2015 at 1:26 am

      People like this are dangerous.

  • Sensical in a Common Way  On November 19, 2015 at 1:24 am

    OK. So ISIS “controls” the wasteland. However, they are killing innocents, lately by the hundreds at a clip. We’re not going to let them scare us, or intimidate us, or change our way of life. We don’t want to war-monger our reaction to this.

    We know they are twists, and they aren’t representing Islam.

    So, what do you do? How do you neutralize the killings. And th cause for the mass sodas from Syria. You know, because we are humanitarians.

    I’m looking for the direct answer … not the typical deflections and empty analogies.

    You’re looking at a few hundred more murders over the next few weeks.

    What … do … you … do?

    • weeklysift  On November 20, 2015 at 7:15 am

      In the slightly-over-a-year since I wrote this, it has been interesting to watch Obama proceed. He seems to get the idea that you try not to make it worse, which a re-invasion of the region by American troops would do.

      Assuming that you have to do something, you do a lot of the things Obama has been doing: support regional coalitions, bomb targets that are clearly military, but avoid collateral damage, even if that does seem to tie your hands. You resist declaring war on Islam or giving ISIS the dignity of representing “radical Islam”. Every move has to be calculated against the possibility that you will break more than you will fix.

      So far, the result has been about as good as could have been expected: ISIS’ territory is slowly shrinking.

      Even so, I’m not sure that Obama isn’t being drawn back into the quagmire. Each re-assessment says that we need to do just a little bit more. Is that because there is some right level of involvement, or will we always tell ourselves that we could succeed if we did just a little bit more?

      Feeling that you have to do something doesn’t guarantee that there is a real plan that will accomplish what you feel you have to do. That’s a judgment call for the real military experts, and the president needs to push back against the military’s genetic can-do attitude.

      And at some point, if you look at your real options and realize that they all are more likely to make the long-term situation worse, then you have to have the courage to do nothing.

  • Sara McCutcheon  On November 19, 2015 at 2:57 am

    I was curious about the map of the restored caliphate, and it seems to be a poorly informed forgery. This article about it breaks down what you’re seeing pretty well. It was also educational!



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