“Hillary Clinton’s weakness while she was Secretary of State has emboldened terrorists all over the world to attack the US, even on our own soil,” wrote Donald Trump on Facebook after the bombing in New York on Saturday. “They are hoping and praying that Hillary Clinton becomes president, that they can continue their savagery and murder.”
Mrs. Clinton replied on Monday by branding the Republican presidential candidate a “recruiting sergeant for the terrorists.” Indeed, in an interview on Israeli television this month, Mrs. Clinton said Islamic State was praying for a Trump victory. There’s clearly a lot of praying going on, but whose victory are the jihadi fanatics really praying FOR?
There’s no point in asking them, because they are likely to lie about it . At least half of them are smart enough to realise that if Islamist extremists openly express a preference for one candidate, American voters will tend to back the other. (Tactical voting is a time-honoured practice, but it does encourage tactical lying.)
Besides, it’s really hard for the opinion pollsters to contact a statistically valid sample of the fighters of Islamic State by phone. We’re going to have to figure out their views without their help – but happily, this is not very hard to do. Their weapon is terrorism, and there is a clear, universally acknowledged doctrine on how that weapon works.
Well, it was universally acknowledged in the 1970s and the 1980s, when the world was littered with revolutionary movements using terrorist methods. The leaders themselves wrote about how terrorism served their goals, and a generation of Western military leaders studied how best to combat it. Unsurprisingly, they came to the same conclusions about how terrorism actually worked – and that it didn’t work very well.
So the revolutionary movements either won (occasionally) or else gradually faded away. The generation of Western military leaders who had actually confronted terrorism and learned how to respond to it got old and retired, and the knowledge was lost.
Some truly stupid things were said and done in the first years after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. “They are attacking us because they hate our values!”, for example, or “We’ll invade Iraq and root them out!” (There were no terrorists in Iraq before the invasion.) But a new generation of Western soldiers has finally grasped how terrorism works. The terrorists themselves, of course, knew it all along.
Three basic facts about terrorism. First, it is the weapon of choice for the weak, because it does not require a large army, sophisticated weapons or a lot of money.
Secondly, without those assets, terrorists must not engage in frontal assaults and stand-up battles against powerful opponents (usually governments) who do have them.
Thirdly, it can therefore only succeed by tricking those more powerful forces into doing things that really serve the terrorists’ purposes.
What is the ultimate goal of Islamic State and similar jihadi groups? Obviously, it is to come to power in various parts of the Muslim world. If they ever manage to become a government they may develop further ambitions (for then they would have a large army and lots of money), but taking power is the crucial first step.
Clearly the terrorists do not have mass support in their own countries, or they would already be in power. In order to build that mass support – it doesn’t have to be majority support, but they do need a lot of people behind them – they need a villain that will push people into their arms.
That villain can be either the government that currently rules the country, or a foreign power that invades the country, but in either case it must be provoked into behaving very badly. Only torture chambers and/or cluster bombs will make the mass of the population so desperate that they turn to the revolutionaries for help.
To get the torture and the bombing going, the target government must become so frightened and enraged that it starts using them on a large scale. That’s what the terrorism is actually for: to make governments over-react and behave very badly. Then the terrorists might actually build enough support to win.
Terrorism is not just blind hatred. It is a technique used by ruthless but intelligent leaders with coherent strategies and clear political goals, and the violence is never “senseless”. Bin Laden’s strategy in carrying out the 9/11 attacks, for example, was to provoke the United States into invading Muslim countries.
It worked, and the invasions gave a huge boost to the popularity of the jihadi movement. Indeed, Islamic State and its clones could never have gained power without those invasions.
All terrorism is a kind of political jiu-jitsu, in which a relatively weak group tries to goad a far stronger force into doing something very big and stupid. Terrorism doesn’t just thrive on over-reaction. It cannot succed without it.
So now ask yourself: which of the American presidential candidates is more likely to over-react to a terrorist provocation?
Okay, so now you know whose victory the terrorists are really praying for.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Well…lost”)