Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) is now selling “ISIS hunting tags” for $15 apiece through his campaign website. They come with the disclaimer that they are not government-issued hunting permits, so don’t buy that plane ticket to Aleppo just yet. Still, for the price of a large pizza, you too can feel like you’re at war with violent fanatics on the other side of the globe—and contribute to the re-election campaign of a sitting congressman. We’re not at war with ISIS yet. But plenty of people in Washington say we ought to be. Demanding military action against the Islamic State is a sure way to drum up support, whether you’re Zinke or Donald Trump. It’s also exactly what ISIS wants, according to this cogent analysis by Scott Atran in the New York Review of Books.
Fact: ISIS is not equipped to fight a conventional war with the United States. They don’t have a navy. They don’t have intercontinental ballistic missiles. They don’t even have the matériel for a ground invasion of Israel. Like a Marcus Kaarma of the Middle East, ISIS’s only hope for armed confrontation with the West is to make us come to them.
That’s the purpose of terrorism: to change public opinion when war is impossible under present conditions. As military operations, the attacks in Paris and Brussels achieved nothing—only the deaths of civilians and the loss of trained ISIS operatives, along with their networks. As a plan to weaken the West, it can only be seen as a defeat. But as a plan to provoke the West to war in ISIS territory, it’s horribly effective.
The beheading of prisoners and other well-documented atrocities—atrocities documented by ISIS, and publicized worldwide by their social media and semi-official news outlets—work the same way. That kind of brutality is not particularly useful to ISIS at home. But it provokes outrage abroad. We have to stop these people. The problem is that they are doing things we have to stop in order to make us try to stop them.
According to Atran, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi explicitly described this strategy in Idarat at Tawahoush (The Management of Savagery,) a tract he wrote for the Iraqi branch of Al-Qaeda in 2004. “Work to expose the weakness of America’s centralized power by pushing it to abandon the media psychological war and war by proxy until it fights directly,” it says. In other words, force the United States to make the War on Terror an actual war in the Middle East, not a metaphorical war in western security states. That real war—between the soldiers of secular western nations and the soldiers of the self-proclaimed Islamic State—is the only one ISIS can win, because it is the one that forces Muslims to choose a side.
A major strength of this strategy is that it gives American politicians an incentive to advance it themselves. When Commander Zinke sells ISIS hunting permits, he doesn’t just raise money for his campaign. He also encourages civilians in Montana to think as if they were at war with ISIS—and that, by extension, the Christian West is at war with Islam. Insofar as this is a viable political tactic, Commander Zinke’s interests align with the interests of the Islamic State. They are on different sides, but they both pursue the same short-term goal: escalated military conflict between ISIS and the United States.
ISIS is not dumb. They did not take control of large portions of Iraq and Syria by letting their hatred of freedom drive them to mindless violence. Everything they do is to construct and reinforce a duality between Islam and the West. That means making Islam abhorrent in the minds of the American public, through conspicuous brutality in ISIS territory and disturbing attacks abroad. But it also means forcing a literal war to parallel that metaphorical war they’ve been talking about all along. It means positioning themselves as the opposite of western modernity on the battlefield, so that they become its opposite in Muslim minds.
And on this flank we are vulnerable. Our citizens cry out for blood, partly because ISIS is abominable and should be stopped, but also because western modernity has made us easy to manipulate and kind of dumb. We’re scared but warlike. We hold terrorists in contempt but keep playing into their hands. Maybe that’s because there’s something wrong with western modernity—something ISIS offers people that we don’t, despite our obvious superiority. Here’s a 24-year-old French citizen who joined Jabhat an-Nusra in Syria:
They [Western society] teach us to work hard to buy a nice car and nice clothes but that isn’t happiness. I was a third-class human because I wasn’t integrated into a corrupted system. But I didn’t want to be a street gangster. So, I and my friends simply decided to go around and invite people to join Islam. The other Muslim groups in the city just talk. They think a true Muslim state will just rain from heaven on them without fighting and striving hard on the path of Allah.
If we want something better than a war, we need to start offering it to people. People want to fight and strive hard. That’s the urge ISIS is harnessing, among their own people and among ours.