ISIS' Big Mistake: Why Going Global Might End Badly

For a group like ISIS, the first reason to go global is ideological. The Islamic State claims to champion the world’s Muslims against their enemies, and neither group is confined to Iraq and Syria, or even to the Middle East. Indeed, the process is circular: as ISIS became more threatening, the United States, France, and other countries stepped up their intervention against it. In turn, ISIS had even more reason to strike at them.

A resident of Tabqa city touring the streets on a motorcycle waves an Islamist flag in celebration after ISIS militants took over Tabqa air base, in nearby Raqqa city August 24, 2014.

Initial reports about the Paris attacks suggest a disturbing possibility: that the Islamic State (also called by its old acronym ISIS) is changing its strategy and going global. Although this might seem like a no-brainer—hasn’t it always hated America?—in reality, ISIS has long focused its energies locally and regionally. The group gained the spotlight in 2014, when it surged across Iraq and Syria, conquering swaths of territory. But it has existed with different names (al Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and so on) since at least 2004. For over a decade, it has conducted guerrilla and conventional war against the Iraqi and later Syrian governments, battled the moderate Syrian opposition and Kurdish fighters, and brutalized Muslims, particularly Shia, that it deemed as enemies. It also lashed out at Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other neighboring states to exacerbate sectarianism, punish governments for opposing the group, and win over supporters. ISIS did regularly call for attacks in the West, but such operations were largely the work of lone wolves.

So far, the Paris attack does not seem to fit this pattern. Although individuals acting in the name of ISIS have tried to strike elsewhere in Europe, few have had any real ties to the organization. And the ties that did exist were often between the terrorist and a low- or mid-level ISIS figure, rather than the leadership. We still don’t know much about the Paris attacks, including whether they were a top-down ISIS operation or organized from lower or middle ranks. Nor do we know if this is a one-off or part of a broader campaign. While France and its allies sift through the mountains of evidence and try to understand what happened, it is worth looking at the benefits and risks to ISIS of going global.

THE APPEAL OF THINKING BIG

For a group like ISIS, the first reason to go global is ideological. The Islamic State claims to champion the world’s Muslims against their enemies, and neither group is confined to Iraq and Syria, or even to the Middle East. Indeed, the process is circular: as ISIS became more threatening, the United States, France, and other countries stepped up their intervention against it. In turn, ISIS had even more reason to strike at them.

Going global also offers a host of recruiting advantages. Be it Danish cartoons that mock the prophet MohammadRussian brutality in Chechnya, or France’s limits on Muslim women wearing veils, ISIS can tap into a range of grievances beyond the Iraq and Syria conflict. The January 2015 attacks on Charlie Hebdo, for example, were an attempt by jihadists linked to al Qaeda’s Yemen branch to tie their cause to a popular source of outrage.

ISIS is also unusually well positioned to go global because it has so many foreign members. U.S. counterterrorism officials reported in February that over 20,000 foreign fighters had joined the fray in Syria to fight with the rebels, with most going to help ISIS. Of these, 150 or so are from the United States and over 3,000 are from the West. In other words, ISIS has a hammer, and looking for nails makes sense. So part of ISIS’ logic for attacking France may simply be that it was able to attack France. 

Finally, going global elevates the group’s status, improving its self-image and making it more attractive for young recruits. Anti-Western terrorism grabs headlines in a way that local fighting does not. The death of over 125 people in Paris is gaining far more attention in jihadist circles than the daily slaughter in Iraq and Syria that has killed more than 250,000 people. If you want to continue to inspire thousands of foreigners to come to Iraq and Syria to fight, such bloody propaganda is invaluable.

THE COSTS OF GOING GLOBAL

For all these supposed benefits, there are few global terrorist groups. And there are very good reasons for this.

An immediate problem is command and control. Having a global network requires global communications, and that exposes militants to counterterrorism. Already, U.S. and allied forces regularly kill ISIS leaders, so this is a considerable risk. The alternative is to give local operatives more freedom of action, but that leads to two problems. First, they’re more likely to mess up, since they can’t ask the mother ship for help. Second, they’re more likely to pick the wrong targets—civilians instead of soldiers, children instead of adults, and so on. Al Qaeda found that when it could not control its affiliates, they often engaged in brutal savagery that turned off many Muslims. ISIS seems to embrace brutality far more than al Qaeda did, so this may be less of a concern for its leaders. Still, the risk of alienating potential supporters is always there.

Going global also raises the problem of priorities. Think of it from the perspective of an ISIS finance officer: do you devote your money to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the affiliate in Sinai, or fighters attacking the West? Sure, you can do more than one operation at once, but if you are trying to fight every enemy, you are likely to win against none.

A man carries a candle and a placard with an image of the Eiffel tower in tribute to the victims of the Paris attacks in the town of Duma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus November 14, 2015.
Bassam Khabieh / Reuters

A man carries a candle and a placard with an image of the Eiffel tower in tribute to the victims of the Paris attacks in the town of Duma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus November 14, 2015.

Taking on more enemies also means that more enemies focus on you. French President François Hollande’s statement that the Islamic State’s attack is an “act of war” is unlikely to be mere rhetoric: France will probably try to hit back hard. And it will press the United States and other allies to do the same. Al Qaeda saw this problem after 9/11, when its global networks were rolled up in a worldwide manhunt and it lost its safe haven in Afghanistan. Journalist and author Lawrence Wright reports that al Qaeda lost almost 80 percent of its members in Afghanistan in the final months of 2001. One common mistake that terrorist groups make is that they assume that their enemies are already doing all they can to fight back. In ISIS’ case, the world may have only just begun. 

With so many factors counseling against going global, it is perhaps not surprising that two of the most successful terrorist groups in recent years, Hamas and Hezbollah, both focused first and foremost on their immediate regions, with Hezbollah over time becoming much less global in its operations. Neither gave up violence—quite the opposite, in fact—but Hamas has de facto control of Gaza, and Hezbollah is a leading player in Lebanon in part because these groups were judicious in the scope and scale of their targeting.

If ISIS is becoming more ambitious, the world should be on the alert for more horrific attacks. At the same time, however, everyone should recognize that the shift may prove costly to ISIS, leaving it farther from achieving its ultimate goals in the long term.

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