The attack on France may very well prove to be ISIS’s first obvious, huge mistake, at least from a caliphate-building perspective. That said, while many outside observers might think ISIS made a major miscalculation, the group—or whatever part of it directed the attack—probably doesn’t agree. Otherwise, why would they have done it?
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For a remarkably brutal, absolutist, and apocalyptic organization, ISIS had pursued a strategy that was deliberate, insistent, and ultimately successful. It was able to carry out, as Charles Lister writes, “a very methodical and multi-staged strategy of recovery, growth, expansion, and consolidation.” Yet, it was also fond of its apocalyptic fantasies, which featured prominently in the group’s propaganda and even seemed to affect specific battlefield decisions. ISIS’s state-building and messianism coexisted in uneasy tension. There was little to suggest this was sustainable in the long run (although, as ever, it raises the question of how long the long run is). As Will McCants, author of The ISIS Apocalypse, put it to me recently: “The caliphate may require caution but the apocalypse requires abandon.” Can an individual—or, for that matter, an entire organization—be, at once, both cautious and in the throes of reckless abandon?
The question of why ISIS would want to goad the West is a challenging one for precisely this reason. We don’t know exactly how “rational” ISIS is, particularly in the absence of real insight into the group’s internal deliberations. And, in any case, rationality may take on a different meaning for those who believe not just in the imminence of the end times (which is fairly common in the Middle East), but also that the day of reckoning can be hastened.
These caveats notwithstanding, let’s try to imagine ourselves in the position of the terrorists. Oddly enough—in what was perhaps a first for a U.S. president—this is exactly what Barack Obama did just a month after the beheading of the American journalist James Foley.
Obama hypothesized that if he were “an advisor to ISIS,” he would have released rather than killed hostages like Foley, with notes pinned to their chests no less, saying “stay out of here.” It is a self-evident banality that very few American politicians take seriously: Understand your enemy in order to defeat him. Obama should be lauded for being both able and willing to imagine himself in diverse political contexts, but the statement was remarkably naive, suggesting a readiness to apply a straightforward “rational actor” lens that doesn’t necessarily apply in the fog of jihadist war. This role as analyst in chief is one the president has warmed to. He regularly insists, for example, that world leaders are acting against their own rational self-interest, whether it be Vladimir Putin, with his “reckless” interventions in Ukraine and Syria, or the Israelis, for failing to support an Iranian nuclear deal that Obama thinks will make them safer. As for the Iranians, once the nuclear deal was struck, the hope, sometimes explicit but always somewhere underneath the surface, was that Iran would “moderate” and be induced to become a constructive partner in the resolution of regional conflict. Being “constructive” was in their interest, after all, just as it was in America’s, and just as it was in Russia’s.