Read the Islamic State’s propaganda and you wonder if the followers might be getting ahead of their caliph.
Islamic State channels pushed out official statements Saturday praising the attacks. Many have read this message, which gloated and moralized and promised a torrent of future attacks, as a claim of credit. The assassins are described as “a group of believers from the soldiers of the Caliphate,” and the message notes that the Islamic State is pleased with them (“They were truthful with Allah — we consider them so”).
But the statement gave no indication of having planned or funded the attack, and indeed the message contained no information other than what the authors could have learned from reading their doorstep copy of The Washington Post. It did not give the martyrs their customary send-off to Paradise, with smiling photos showing hairy faces and index fingers extended to heaven, nor an interview, or even mention of a nom de guerre. Moreover, the statement contained infelicities of style and spelling, as if it had been written and translated without the Islamic State’s usual editorial punctiliousness. (Marc Hecker of IFRI, in Paris, tells me the IS materials in French often fail to match the standards of their IS English counterparts.)
One explanation for this hurried claim of credit or endorsement may be that there exists a third possibility, somewhere between “IS did it” and the increasingly far-fetched “IS didn’t.” That possibility is something like “IS was surprised by what its supporters did — and maybe not altogether pleased.”
As in the case of the downing of Metrojet Flight 9268 over Sinai last month, the IS statement that initially claimed credit lacks critical details to confirm its truth. And we might, in the end, find that IS supporters carried out these operations semi-autonomously, with at most partial appreciation of the group’s larger strategy. And they may have seriously imperiled that strategy by attacking a Western target in such spectacular fashion.
So we have no evidence that this third option is the case. But the break from previous strategy is pronounced. IS’s previous inspired attacks on the West have been spectacular duds, averaging perhaps one corpse apiece. Consider the sinister clownish incompetence of Ayoub El Khazzani, who according to varying accounts either did not know how to unjam his rifle or did not think to lock the train lavatory door while loading it; the Garland, Texas, assassins, who were both shot dead by a local cop; or Man Haron Munis, whose mental problems were apparent to all when he took over a chocolate shop in Sydney.
If IS intends the highest possible body count, as the attackers clearly did in the machine-gunning of a crowd last night, its own propaganda and doctrine have crippled it. Anyone who has spent time with IS messages knows that the first obligation impressed on followers is immigration to the Caliphate, and only if immigration is impossible should they attack at home. On this point, the propaganda has been relentless. Dabiq, the infamous in-flight magazine of the Islamic State, stated:
Come, make your way to dārul-islām [the abode of Islam]. And I remind you of the individual obligation on every Muslim and Muslimah to make hijrah from dārul-kufr [the abode of disbelief] to dārul-islām…. Either one performs hijrah to the wilāyāt of the Khilāfah or if he is unable to do so, he must attack the crusaders.
Since an even minimally functional person can direct his browser to Expedia and get a ticket to IS territory in Sinai, Syria, Iraq, Libya, or Nigeria, those who remain to attack are often incompetent.
The Paris attackers, alas, showed real competence. They planned, and they acquired weapons not easily found in Europe. And if their attack, and the downing of commercial flights as in Sinai, truly represent a new modus operandi for IS, then IS has completely reworked its strategy — or re-estimated its ability to withstand a direct military assault by a NATO alliance. Needless to say, the threat of another nightmare like yesterday could provoke exactly such a response. Unless God intervenes on IS’s side, a full assault on IS in Syria and Iraq will not end with IS still holding its beloved territory and administering a Shariah-compliant state. The Taliban, after all, might still control Kabul today, if they had kept Al Qaeda’s atrocities local. And that is one good reason why the decision-makers in Raqqa might have aggressively lobbied their foreign fighters to immigrate to Syria and join the battle there, rather than stay in Europe and commit their atrocities at home.
Shadi Hamid of The Brookings Institution posed a solution to this paradox today on Twitter: “ISIS’s state-building & apocalyptic messianism had co-existed in uneasy tension. Perhaps, yesterday, the latter finally eclipsed the former.” That would be one explanation: IS has mustered such confidence in its prophetic vision that it is ready to test its strength against the most powerful of earthly enemies. Of course, its recent setbacks against Kurdish fighters might give it pause, zealotry notwithstanding. A further possibility is that IS’s own supporters have put it in a strategically uncomfortable corner by carrying out an attack more gruesome and successful than its leaders wished.
We may yet find that IS’s leaders were simply fools, and that they ordered exactly this attack and were pleased with its results, even if their PR department wasn’t quite ready to capitalize on it. But in the meantime the possibility remains that their ability to inspire got ahead of their ability to control the results of that inspiration. Along with its loud rejoicing over Paris, IS in Syria may also be quietly worrying about what comes next.
Courtesy of Graeme Wood, Politico.