The Islamic State’s renewed war on the West is not merely a military or terrorist campaign to kill “infidels.” It also aims to undermine American democracy by turning the American public against itself and instigating discrimination of Muslims – the vast majority of whom oppose such violence in the name of Islam.
By provoking the United States to act contrary to its proclaimed values, IS is hoping to demonstrate to Muslims in the West and particularly the Middle East that the only true governing system is the group’s self-declared caliphate.
“They try to exploit fault-lines – they want to divide their enemies and have them debate themselves and debate each other, rather than focusing on the war,” says Hassan Hassan, coauthor of a book on the group.
Unlike Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attack, after which Democrats and Republicans held hands on the Capitol steps and sang “God Bless America,” the Orlando mass shooting has prompted immediate polarization in Congress and a rare tirade from President Obama.
And while then-President George W. Bush visited a mosque and announced “Islam is peace,” presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is expanding calls for a ban on Muslim immigration and accusing American Muslims of refusing to report suspected terrorists. For IS, it is a win to see the fallout of an attack it inspired but did not direct, paralyze US politics and bring the country’s tactics in its war on IS into question.
IS video features Trump post-Orlando
As the self-declared caliphate loses territory in Iraq and Syria, it aims to sow divisions over the way Western nations are handling the battle against terrorism and security at home, encouraging publics to question their leaders – and punish them at the voting booth.
A recent video published by Al Battar, an unofficial propaganda arm of IS, featured Donald Trump responding to the tragedy in Orlando and calling Obama's leadership into question. Observers say IS is counting on such backlash against Muslim populations, furthering their narrative of a ”war on Islam” and providing potential recruits.
“The crusaders claim to bear the standard of ‘liberty’ and ‘justice’ for all the oppressed peoples of the world, when in fact their tyranny knows no limits when directed against the Muslim ummah,” IS wrote in the most recent edition of their Dabiq propaganda magazine, released shortly after the Brussels attacks in March. The ummah refers to the global community of Muslims.
As part of its campaign against Western values, IS aims to provoke a strong military response, including an uptick in airstrikes that kill innocent civilians, in order to paint the West as careless with Muslim lives. It also seeks to embroil the US in a ground war in Iraq and Syria, which would serve their end-of-days narrative that the fight is the prophesied apocalyptic battle of Dabiq, a clash between Islamic armies and “Romans,” or Westerners, in northern Syria that will prompt the beginning of judgment day, as mentioned in a hadith attributed to the prophet Muhammad.
“The Last Hour would not come until the Romans would land at al-A'maq or in Dabiq. An army consisting of the best [soldiers] of the people of the earth at that time will come from Medina [to counteract them],” Abu Huraira, a companion of the prophet Muhammad who is seen by Sunnis as a strongly reliable narrator, cited him as saying.
“There is nothing that would galvanize public opinion and support in the Middle East like the presence of foreign ground troops,” says Robert Pape, director of the University of Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism. “It would further their narrative of a clash of civilizations: that this is a war against Islam and they are the band of rebels defending Islam.”
IS hit list: How it's different from Al Qaeda's
That was also a key goal of 9/11, according to Al Qaeda.
“The attempt to provoke America was ... the goal of the operation. It led them to send boots on the ground instead of steering the war from behind the curtains,” wrote Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in the September 2014 issue of its propaganda magazine, Inspire. “The Mujahideen understood what ‘boots on the ground’ meant, what the economic consequences of such a decision were.”
But from that point of common ground, IS’s worldview diverges significantly from Al Qaeda, the organization from which it split more than two years ago.
Whereas Al Qaeda viewed some in the West more as lost souls that could be saved through Islam, and has in the past even called for the release of Western aid workers and journalists, IS sees them as strictly enemies – kafr, or infidels, whose blood can be shed indiscriminately.
“The death of a single Muslim, no matter his role in society, is more grave to the believer than the massacre of every kafir [infidel] on earth,” IS writes in Dabiq.
The group also labels Muslims who do not support the caliphate, and especially those living in the West rather than attacking it, as apostates whose blood should be shed.
And whereas Al Qaeda takes months or even years to prepare for a single attack on carefully chosen targets, IS is instead looking to inflict or inspire attacks whenever possible. Al Qaeda’s “kill-lists” include targets of theological or economic importance, while IS and its followers issue lists of civilians, police officers, and local county board members.
IS has issued nine kill lists in the past four months alone, including the names and addresses of 3,600 New York residents, 15,000 Texas residents, and 11 Tennessee county board members – an apparently random list of names and address easily accessible online.
“While Al Qaeda chose targets of symbolic importance, ISIS is simply looking for the largest number of soft targets it can find,” Mr. Pape says.
Cultivating its appeal among lone wolves
IS’s first direct calls for attacks against the West came in September 2014, as the US-led international coalition against IS began its first bombing runs against the group in Iraq.
“If you can kill an infidel American or European – especially the spiteful French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic state, then rely upon God and kill him in any manner or way,” spokesman and senior leader Abu Mohammed Al Adnani said in a recorded message, promising to drag the coalition to its “destruction.”
IS has carried out 22 attacks on Westerners since October 2014, including four this year alone, according to an analysis compiled by The New York Times.
After putting its initial focus on creating a caliphate within Iraq and Syria, the group has begun to change its tone about its long-term strategy on the West, as voiced in the latest issue its Dabiq magazine.
“Having heeded the lessons of years spent fighting the harshest of wars in modern times, the soldiers of the Islamic State promise their adversaries dark days of death and destruction in their own lands,” IS writes.
“The damage to their economy, their infrastructure, and their sources of income will make their lies harder than they now imagine.”
As IS hones its attacks, experts warn that despite military losses in Iraq and Syria, IS’s war on the West may ramp up.
“They want to bleed the West, they want to undermine its security and raise the stakes – whether it takes 10 years, or 20 years or 30 years,” says Mr. Hassan. Even as the flow of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq has dropped significantly, IS is cultivating its appeal among lone wolves in the West.
“The organization is still developing its foreign operations, foreign cells, and foreign appeal,” says Hassan. “And unfortunately, we will likely see more of these attacks rather than less.”