After the Paris attacks, politicians are combative. But what if Islamic State’s goal was an escalation of conflict and Western boots on the ground?
French President François Hollande declared the attacks in Paris an “act of war.”
Angela Merkel pledged to “fight against those who have carried out such an unfathomable act.” David Cameron said: “Together we will defeat these terrorists.”
European politicians’ rhetoric is combative, and it might seem that Islamic State’s fear tactic backfired: Europe is united and ready to fight.
True, if the end goal was fear. But what if IS’s actual goal was exactly what some would like to see now — an escalation of conflict, increased media attention and a major war?
Since its creation, IS’s ideology has been based on an impending apocalypse. Think of it as one of the apocalyptic sects that we also see in Western countries. The difference is in scale.
For a combination of reasons, including lack of education and poverty, notions of salvation through total destruction of life — to start a holy war and lift those who are worthy to the gardens of heaven — have found some supporters in the Muslim world.
It’s the source of IS’s power. Fundamentalist religious ideas thrive in an ideological vacuum. So in regions where there is political and social disruption, IS has little difficulty recruiting people who are disappointed in modern religion, in dictators, in the primacy of oil interests over human interests and even in the outcomes of the color revolutions.
The idea that the end of the world brings salvation comes from an ancient prophecy that some believe dates from the early days of Islam in the seventh century. The prophecy said a caliphate would rise in the East, led by a direct descendant of prophet Mohammed.
Although one might prefer to disassociate Islamic State from Islam, the Sharia laws that they are applying, while not part of the Koran, are rooted in Islam. Almost all of their trappings — the black flag, the long hair — are based on interpretations of the prophecy. But fundamentally the prophecy dictates that the caliphate has to have its own land and it should constantly expand.
That is not happening. The territory that IS controls is shrinking in the face of attacks by Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi and Syrian armies. Kurdish forces have retaken the strategically important city of Sinjar and gained control over Highway 47, the only road connecting the two largest cities controlled by IS, Raqqa and Mosul.
Boots on the ground?
These setbacks are blows to IS’s goal of territorial expansion.
The prophecy also states that the final battle between the warriors of Islam and the armies of “Rome” will take place near or in the city of Dabiq (also the name of IS’s propaganda magazine). IS would like to face Western forces there. But the West’s reluctance to undertake ground operations in the region and to limit their involvement to air strikes deprives IS of that opportunity.
For many potential supporters of IS, these are signs that this caliphate is not “the one,” undermining support for the cause. IS is seeking a fresh start, a signal that the “end of days” is actually coming. That, rather than a simple fear tactic, is most likely the primary reason for the Paris attacks.
IS is counting on an immediate, emotional response from France and the rest of Europe because their end goal is to have Western boots on the ground so they can engage in the Big War.
Rashad Mammadov is PhD candidate at Indiana University’s Media School, with a research focus on political communication. He holds a master’s degrees in journalism and mass communication. He worked as a reporter and editor for almost a decade in newspapers and magazines covering international politics and media economics.