Today’s Brussels attacks represented only the latest in an ever-more effective series of hits intended to foment chaos in Europe and thereby “Extinguish the Grey Zone,” in the words of a 12-page editorial in ISIS’s online magazine Dabiq in early 2015.
The Grey Zone here is the twilight area occupied by most Muslims between good and evil—in other words, between the Caliphate and the Infidel—which the “blessed operations of September 11” brought into relief. The editorial quotes Osama bin Laden, for whom ISIS is the true heir: “The world today is divided. Bush spoke the truth when he said, ‘Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,’ with the actual ‘terrorist’ being the Western Crusaders. Now, the time had come for another event to… bring division to the world and destroy the Grayzone everywhere.”
The idea is for ISIS to fill the void wherever chaos already exists, as in much of the Sahel and Sahara, and to create chaos that it can then fill—as its working to do in Europe.
A welcome to Syrian refugees fleeing this chaos would clearly represent a winning Western response to this strategy of division, whereas wholesale rejection of refugees just as clearly represents a losing response. Remember when Ted Cruz talks about having Americans cops “patrol and secure” Muslim neighborhoods, when Donald Trump talks about a Muslim ban, that they are literally taking a page from the ISIS playbook.
The following axioms are taken from “The Grey Zone”, and from The Management of Chaos-Savagery, published in 2004, that’s become required reading for every ISIS political, religious and military leader, or amir. The group’s actions have been, and likely will continue to be, consistent with these axioms:
Diversify the strikes and attack soft targets—tourist areas, eating places, places of entertainment, sports events, and so forth—that cannot possibly be defended everywhere. Disperse the infidels’ resources and drain them to the greatest extent possible, and so undermine people’s faith in the ability of their governments to provide security, most basic of all state functions.
Motivate the masses to fly to regions that we manage, by eliminating the “Gray Zone” between the true believer and the infidel, which most people, including most Muslims, currently inhabit. Use so-called “terror attacks” to help Muslims realize that non-Muslims hate Islam and want to harm all who practice it, to show that peacefulness gains Muslims nothing but pain.
Use social media to inspire sympathizers abroad to violence. Communicate the message: Do what you can, with whatever you have, wherever you are, whenever possible.
I suspect that ISIS is planning a coordinated attack across multiple cities in Europe to ramp up the process of extinguishing the gray zone, and to also shift the focus of its possible adherents away form its increasingly noteworthy military containment in Syria and Iraq.
Unlike Al Qaeda, whose attacks in Europe and elsewhere were largely instigated by inspiration rather than direct command and control, ISIS is now able to remotely command as well as inspire with the idea of a utopian Caliphate in the here and now (something Bin Laden earnestly rejected as long as the U.S.A. was powerful enough to contain and thereby delegitimize it). It has infiltrated immigrant neighborhoods, ridden piggyback on refugee pipelines and tapped into the ennui of a Western society that hasn't know war or real struggle over values for 70 years and the anomie of a seemingly endless, genderless, culturally indistinct adolescence.
The Islamic State radically terminates all of this with clear red lines and spectacular violence that its foreign adherents experience as breaking personal chains and those of humanity.
In the absence of a devout alternative of passion and significance, many who join ISIS seem to say: “Better an end to suffering the status quo, with hope for something better, whatever suffering and horror it takes.” That, of course, is the heart of the apocalyptic mindset; that to save this world it may be necessary to destroy it, and postpone hope to the next life.
It is an ultimate expression of the power of seemingly preposterous ideas made real: that privilege of absurdity to which no creature but man is subject, but which renders all creatures subject to His whim, including fellow men.
Military action to contain and degrade ISIS in its heartland—and, crucially, to do without the massive introduction of American troops—is a necessary condition of defeating the group, albeit one that will be far more difficult to achieve than is commonly conveyed by our politicians and military leaders.
Even that, by itself, won’t be sufficient if we hope to avoid losing generations to come. The best hope we have to counter the lure of ISIS and its ilk in the long run will come from a global push for community-based initiatives led by trained young activists who are equipped to offer an alternative expression of idealism founded on adventurous, festive and glorious forms of “peace-building” as enticing as war.
Or we can send out more of Cruz’s cops to patrol Muslims, and brace for more and worse to come.