ISIS Wants a Global Civil War

From the murder of a French priest to the slaughter of 80 Shia Muslims in Kabul, ISIS has one goal: to create a spate of religious civil wars across the world.

© Rupak De Chowdhuri / Reuters

LONDON — Did anyone at the Democratic National Convention notice the slaughter of 86-year-old Father Jacques Hamel, as jihadists slit his throat in his own church in Northern France during morning Mass? Well… here’s why they’d better start paying attention.

For our own future’s sake, we must understand what jihadists are seeking to achieve through sowing the seeds of such chaos. What possible military strategy could there be in mowing 84 innocent people down to death using a lorry in Nice? How is “the cause” at all served by murdering 325 mainly Shia Muslims in Baghdad? Or by killing 80 mainly Shia Hazara Muslims in Kabul?

In fact, since the start of Ramadan last month, and till the time of writing on July 27, 2016, there have been 75 attacks in 50 days by various jihadist groups globally. This amounts to attacks in 21 countries at a rate of one-and-a-half per day, leaving over 1,169 dead, not including the injured and maimed. The 21 countries and territories attacked have been Jordan, Iraq, Bangladesh, Syria, Israel, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Libya, France, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Malaysia, Turkey, Mali, Palestine, Cameroon, Saudi, Thailand, and Germany. Sixteen of those are Muslim-majority territories.

Yes, these attacks were organized by disparate jihadist groups—all professing the same ideology—and many of them have a distinct command and control structure. But sowing the seeds of indiscriminate chaos among their enemy is a tactic modern jihadist groups now all share. So what could they possibly be hoping to achieve? Sadly, there is jihadist method to this madness. ISIS-adopted playbook Idarat al-Tawahhush, or the Management of Savagery, elaborates.

The so-called Islamic State, widely known as ISIS, seeks not to spark a World War, but to ignite a World Civil War.

This book on jihadist war theory first appeared online around 2004 and was attributed to an ideologue who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Bakr al-Naji. Naji instructed followers to incite ethnic, sectarian, and religious hatred throughout the world so that societies end up dividing along mutual mistrust and a desire for revenge. Naji’s hope was that Sunni Muslims would then largely be blamed—as they now are—as the cause of this intolerance and violence, rendering them hated and left isolated. Naji even highlights the importance of provoking heavy state military responses against Sunni Muslims everywhere, so that entire populations of Sunnis feel suspected and attacked by everyone else around them, and turn in on themselves. The idea is that through such division Sunnis would find no refuge from angry non-Muslims and over-reacting states, except in jihadists who would embrace them. In turn, Sunnis would end up swelling the ranks of jihadists’ militias as they began to protect themselves against reprisal attacks.

Behold, a world divided along sectarian religious lines, the ideal conditions for a “caliphate.”

If you think this is wishful thinking on the part of ISIS, think again. It is precisely by managing chaos—the Management of Savagery—in this way that ISIS became the most effective jihadist group in post-Saddam Iraq. So uncannily did Iraq’s Shia majority government under Nouri al-Maliki follow ISIS sectarian game plan, that they unwittingly created a climate north of Baghdad in which Iraqi Sunni’s felt isolated, under siege, disempowered, and brutalized by Maliki’s Shia majority state as it clamped down on jihadist terror. Of course, the government of Iraq was merely reacting to the ever-increasing mass-casualty atrocities orchestrated by jihadists based out of Fallujah against the beleaguered Shia Muslims in Iraq. But crucially, the Iraqi government reacted through a sectarian lens, and failed to isolate the terrorists from Iraq’s general Sunni Arab population. These Sunni Arabs eventually turned to ISIS in the hope that they would be a strong hand against the Iraqi regime. There was a grain of truth to that.

Fresh from their success in Northern Iraq, ISIS repeated their method of chaos in Syria. Early on, at the start of Syria’s civil war, ISIS had not been the main fighting force against Bashar al-Assad. But by continuing to pressure Assad’s brutal regime to overreact, and Assad’s eagerness to oblige (a penchant that had been handed down from father to the son), ISIS managed to convince enough of the Sunni Arab population in the south of Syria that they were the only effective fighting force able to resist Assad on the ground, while the international community stood aloof. There was a grain of truth in that.

This is how chaos, division, savagery, and hatred suit ISIS. The only master that chaos submits to is the total tyrant.

Perpetual civil war, rather than perpetual war between states, suits those who wish to build a new world order carved out of existing states. Equal treatment on a citizenship basis means nothing to jihadists. There is no better way to kickstart dividing people along exclusively religious lines than by committing atrocities in the name of Islam. The hope is that everyone else also begins to identify Sunni Muslims primarily by their religious identities, in reaction to the atrocities. In this way, religious identity has won and citizenship becomes redundant.

Unprovoked mass slaughter is a provocation designed to spread panic and fear, aimed at inching Europe closer to a religion-based civil war.

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Brace yourselves, for there will be many more such provocations.

Chaos breeds fear, which creates panic, which leads to both paralysis and spasms of over-reaction simultaneously. We now either witness total denial in that this problem “has nothing to do with Islam,” or a gross generalization that the problem includes all of Islam and every Muslim. Both of these reactions are born of fear. Doing barely enough, and doing too much, will both exacerbate tensions. Neither are sensible. Of course the problem of jihadist terrorism has something to do with Islam. And course it is a problem that Muslims need to play a very active role in solving, alongside everyone else.

Meanwhile, we have never been more divided. Too many Muslims still insist that to challenge Islamist extremism breeds anti-Muslim bigotry, while they fail to grasp that it is the Islamists themselves who provoke anti-Muslim hatred thorough their divisive agenda, and by insisting on defining Muslims against others primarily by our religious identity. Our collective task will be to robustly stand against the division caused not just by the far-right who seek to isolate Europe’s Muslims, but to challenge the very same division promoted by the Islamists themselves within our Muslim communities. Only by reasserting the universality of our secular liberal democratic citizenship are we able to protect the multiplicity of identities, as opposed to the exclusionary religion-based identification that Islamists and anti-Muslim bigots thrive on.

No insurgency can survive without a level of ideological support within the community it seeks to recruit from. To isolate the terrorists from their host population must be a priority for us all. One needn’t be black to condemn racism. Likewise, one needn’t be Muslim to condemn any expression of theocratic Islamism. All of us must stand together to condemn all forms of hatred and bigotry, without exception. But this will be a generational struggle against the Islamist ideology in its entirety, and not merely against the latest jihadist terror group. For years my colleagues at Quilliam and I have been screaming at every opportunity of a global jihadist insurgency that cannot be defeated merely by law or war, but requires a full-spectrum civil society struggle against it. Understanding this makes it incumbent on us to begin working in earnest to actively avoid this civil war before certain vested interests on the far-right and Islamist extremes succeed in sparking it.

For if you were wondering what this global jihadist insurgency looks like, look around you, we’re in the thick of it.