Because most people think of Islamic State, al-Qaeda and their ilk as being crazies motivated solely by hatred, they are not puzzled by recent terrorist attacks on the West like those in Paris, Brussels and Los Angeles. Like the villains in comic books, the terrorists are simply evil, and no further explanation is needed. But in the real world, being violent and fanatical does not make you stupid.
The small group of Arab Islamists who started fighting the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 were by 2014 the rulers of a new country of some five million people that they call Islamic State, which suggests that they are clever people who pursue rational strategies. And yet they go on backing terrorist attacks in the West, which no longer seems like a rational strategy.
It was a perfectly sensible strategy once. By the year 2000 the Islamist revolutionaries of the Arab world were close to despair. They had been trying to overthrow the dictators and kings who ruled the Arab countries for a quarter-century, and there was blood all over the walls – around 300,000 Arabs were killed in the struggles between the Islamists and the regimes in 1975-2000 – but they had not managed to overthrow a single regime.
Their main strategy was always terrorism, simply because they lacked the resources for anything more ambitious. In theory their terrorist attacks should have driven the regimes into extreme repression, which (again in theory) should have alienated the population and driven them into the arms of the revolutionaries. Then the people, led by the Islamists and united in their wrath, would rise up and drive the oppressors from power.
The Islamists had a few early successes – the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981 – but their strategy did not work. The Arab regimes did indeed become more oppressive, but the revolutionaries did not get mass support. Their doctrines were too weird, and their behaviour too extreme. So by the late 1990s the Islamists were looking for a different strategy.
It was Osama bin Laden, the founder of Al-Qaeda, who came up with a new strategy: attack the West. The ultimate goal was still to come to power in the Arab world, but rather than revolution in the streets the Islamists would now win power by leading a successful guerilla resistance movement against an invasion by infidel foreigners.
Bin Laden had hit on this strategy because he had fought in Afghanistan as a volunteer, and that was exactly how the game played out there. The Russians invaded in 1979; Islamist extremists took over the resistance movement; after a long and bloody war the Russians went home in 1989; and the Afghan Islamists (the Taliban) then took power because they were the heroes who had driven the infidel foreigners out.
To relive this triumph required getting some other infidel army to invade a Muslim country, and the obvious choice was the United States. Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington in 2001 gave Americans the necessary motivation, and two US invasions followed in rapid succession, in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The mass-casualty terrorist attacks against Western targets continued for a long time (Madrid, Bali, London, etc.), presumably in order to give Western countries a reason to keep their troops in the Middle East. But the attacks gradually diminished as Al-Qaeda’s fighters in Iraq came closer to their goal of creating their own state: that would clearly be easier to do if most of the Western troops had already gone home.
The creation of Islamic State and the proclamation of the “Caliphate” in 2014 was the culmination of this long struggle, and it should have ended Islamist terror attacks on the West. Now they have a real state, they are seeking to expand in Syria and Iraq by military force, and the last thing they need is Western troops around to make matters more difficult. So why didn’t the attacks on Western countries stop?
The only plausible explanation is the great split in the Islamist movement in 2014, when Islamic State broke away from Al-Qaeda. Since then there has been a ferocious competition between them both for recruits, and for the loyalty of Islamist organisations across the Muslim world. (The main Islamist organisations in both Egypt and Nigeria have switched their allegiance from Al-Qaeda to Islamic State in the past two years).
In this competition, the best and cheapest way of showing that your organisation is tougher, more dedicated, more efficient than the other lot is to kill Westerners in spectacular terrorist attacks. So, for example, Al-Qaeda sponsored the “Charlie Hebdo” attack in Paris in February, 2015, and Islamic State replied with the much bigger attack in Paris last November.
There is no strategic cost in these attacks, since Western and Russian forces are already bombing both Islamic State and Al-Qaeda’s local franchise in Syria, the Nusra Front. The material cost of the attacks is negligible: neither organisation is devoting even one percent of its resources to them. So they will continue for a while, and the West will just have to deal with them as they occur.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“Their main…strategy”)