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.
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.
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.