Misleading Masterminds

There’s a Machiavellian Method to the ISIS Madness

Like communists of yore, the soldiers of the caliphate are seeking to ‘exacerbate the contradictions’ of those ranged against them.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters

PARIS — Saudi King Salman bin Abdelaziz sounded at once angry and plaintive as he marked the end of this blood-drenched month of Ramadan.

The so-called Islamic State, ISIS, had just staged attacks in three Saudi cities, hitting near the U.S. consulate in Jeddah, a Shia mosque in Qatif, and even a mosque in the holy city of Medina.

Two days before, a car bomb in Baghdad and the fire that followed had killed more than 250 people. Before that, attackers in Bangladesh slaughtered Western patrons and locals at a popular Dhaka café. Days earlier came the stunning attack on Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, and before that the murder of a husband and wife from the French police in front of their 3-year-old son in a Paris suburb. Still earlier: the horrific slaughter at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

All that happened in one month on the Muslim calendar, all in the name of Allah.

Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, the ISIS spokesman and second in command, had declared Ramadan a time of “conquest and jihad.”

“Get prepared, be ready… to make it a month of calamity everywhere for the non-believers,” he said in a recording released in May. But as usual, most of the slaughter targeted other Muslims.

King Salman, “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” vowed this week to meet these threats with “an iron fist,” as of course he would. But his statement acknowledged the heart of the problem with a more original and more memorable phrase: the “biggest challenge,” he said, is how to keep young people away from the “masterminds of misleading ideas.”

Salman also called for Muslim unity to face the ISIS menace. But given that the Saudis’ proxy wars with Iran from Lebanon to Syria to Iraq, in Bahrain and in Yemen are waged with sectarian vehemence, the king’s call for “Muslim unity” sounds oxymoronic, a true contradiction in terms.

And contradictions, in fact, are the foundation that ISIS is built on.

The so-called Islamic State chooses its targets and tailors its terror to reach specific audiences. To do this, it tries, as communist revolutionaries once did, to “exacerbate the contradictions” among its rivals: build on suspicions, inflame resentments, inspire violence and repression that engenders more violence and rebellion.

In a global war of attrition, which is what we’re looking at, the key to defeating ISIS—aside from killing its operatives—is to resist absolutely and unequivocally its strategy using terror to divide and demoralize.

But that’s no easy feat. There are just so many contradictions in Arab and Western society, and ISIS understands them better, it seems, than many Arab and Western leaders do. Its “masterminds of misleading ideas” employ what the French call la polique du pire, a policy that provokes a society to turn on itself, aiming eventually to make the masses ungovernable, and daily life unbearable.

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In the last few weeks, as ISIS has come under pressure on the ground in Iraq and Syria, its response has not been a blind, senseless lashing out. It has been a carefully calculated campaign using a wide array of available human tools, some of them acting under direct orders, some of them loosely affiliated, and some merely inspired to carry out mass murder against a backdrop of psycho-sexual confusion—but always serving the interest of the self-anointed “caliphate” that ISIS claims to be.

Let’s go down the list from this gruesome month of fasting, prayer, and slaughter:

The Saudi Attacks—Conspiracy theories abound, which is part of the ISIS game sowing suspicion and doubts. But the basic messages are straightforward: a bomb near the U.S. consulate draws attention to the longstanding Saudi-U.S. alliance, and pretends to threaten it. A bomb near a Shia mosque in Qatif suggests there may be those in Saudi willing to attack Shiites in the same manner they’ve been attacked in Iraq, Pakistan, and elsewhere, thus exacerbating sectarian tensions inside the kingdom. And the attack in Medina is a direct affront to the monarchy, showing the Custodian cannot defend the Two Holy Mosques.

According to a fact sheet from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia has suffered more than 25 terror attacks in the last two years, and ISIS has declared two Saudi provinces, along with Bahrain, part of its caliphate. In response, some 2,800 alleged terror suspects have been arrested since 2015, and some have been beheaded. Yet Medina is hit by a suicide bombing. That is a particular embarrassment to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the interior minister and longtime U.S. ally in the counter-terror wars.

Bin Nayef is now in an ill-concealed power struggle with Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s favored son, who is minister of defense and holds the economic portfolio as well. Heightening the friction between MBN and MBS, as these two princes are called, is an added plus from the ISIS point of view.

The Kerrada Bombing in Baghdad—For more than a decade, the core strategy of ISIS and the organization from which it sprang, Al Qaeda in Iraq, has been to incite sectarian war between Shiites and Sunnis, with the idea that in the end, and not least for self defense, the Sunnis would side with ISIS.

But the record-setting carnage in Kerrada, where the bomb ignited a crowded shopping center with no fire exits, has had a deeper impact than what might be described, in Iraq, as the usual atrocities. And it comes days after the government’s reconquest of the nearby city of Fallujah, an ISIS stronghold since 2014, which was supposed to have made people in Baghdad more secure.

Among other aftershocks, Interior Minister Mohammed Ghabban, a member of the Badr Organization widely seen as a front for Iran, has been forced to resign. Even if someone else from Badr replaces him, ISIS can score that as a victory.

But as blogger Sajad Jiyad wrote, the effect of this incident, on top of so many others, is deeply, fundamentally corrosive:

“The recriminations are underway, politicians using the tragedy for score settling or to outdo each other in their condemnations and even sectarian innuendo. People are disgusted at the entire ruling system in Iraq, blaming them as much as Daesh [ISIS]. Perhaps that is the biggest change I’ve seen over the years in such attacks, a paradigm shift where the first point of responsibility is the government rather than the terrorists who conducted the attack.”

The Bangladesh Hostage Taking and Murders—As Daily Beast columnist Maajid Nawaz pointed out, the killers struck at a moment when the political establishment already has been torn asunder by the heavy-handed rule of Sheikha Hasina’s Awami League, which has seen to the execution of several of its Islamist rivals.

From the jihadist point of view, Nawaz wrote, “The killing of the leader of the country’s oldest Islamist group is too good an opportunity to pass up. It provides perfect justification for the jihadist notion that secularists are ‘at war with Islam’ everywhere, which is why Muslims must fight back. Call jihadists anything, but bad at propaganda they are not.”

ISIS immediately claimed the murders in Dhaka’s Holey Artisan Bakery, which left 22 people dead, some of them reportedly after gruesome torture. That the gunmen came from relatively well-to-do families and had not previously been associated with ISIS does not in the least affirm that some other group was involved. Indeed, the use of previously unaffiliated killers has become standard operating procedure for the masterminds of misleading ideas.

The Attack on Istanbul’s Airport—In Turkey, ISIS has taken a different tack. The intelligence services of Ankara and Washington have little doubt that the so-called Islamic State, which borders Turkish territory in many places, was behind the attack that killed 44 people and injured 240 people on June 28. Indeed, specific operatives from Chechnya and from former Soviet republics have been named and arrested.

But ISIS has not claimed responsibility, most likely, because it is punishing what had been an important tacit ally, the Turkish government and security services under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The ISIS leadership had virtual carte blanche to import fighters through Turkey and export oil across the Turkish border to fill its war chest in 2014 and 2015.

Under pressure from the United States and Europe, the Turks have been cracking down on these routes in recent months. But ISIS may yet think it can renew the old arrangement, and is punishing the Turks in hopes they will see the wisdom of such a deal. A claim of responsibility would make that more difficult.

This is almost standard operating procedure in the Middle East, where plausible—or even implausible—deniability has long been a favorite tool of those who use terror as a means of communication. Atrocities can be carried out, pressure exerted, and then agreements struck, with both sides eventually agreeing that somebody else must have been responsible, as long as no one explicitly claims credit in the first place.

The French Cop Killer—The murderer who stabbed to death a French policeman and his wife, who also worked for the police, in their home in Magnanville outside of Paris on June 14—with their 3-year-old son watching—chose easily available targets. At the time, French cops were not allowed to take their service weapons home, so they were basically defenseless. (That rule has since been changed.)

The murderer fit a by-now familiar profile in France and Belgium, one common to the men who carried out the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket massacres in January 2015, the Paris slaughter in November and the Brussels atrocity in March: He was already known as a radical Islamist and a potential threat, but managed to keep a low enough profile long enough for the authorities to lose interest in him. Then he struck, and in this case live-streamed his diatribe on Facebook.

His message to would-be emulators? Killing like this is “so easy,” people should give it a try. The strategy: to show the French that even with their state of emergency and cops and soldiers all over the place, they are still vulnerable.

As if to underscore this point, a report by a French parliamentary committee investigating the earlier attacks concluded this week that the French intelligence services need to be reorganized because they are “not up to” the jihadist challenge.

The longer strategy served by such attacks is to force the French to pull out of the fight against ISIS, and eventually to provoke such internal repression against Muslims that there will be civil war here. Whether that will work is doubtful, but the jihadists certainly will keep trying.

Orlando—The ISIS strategy in the United States, thus far, has been to encourage lone wolves, or, as veteran counter-terror analyst Brian Jenkins calls them, “stray dogs,” to strike when and where they can. Little direction is given. The notion is to show that ISIS can reach into American life one way or another and sow terror, pure and simple, then to see what “contradictions” emerge.

If people with personality disorders, high-powered rifles and pistols want to claim allegiance to the ISIS cause, so much the better. And if Donald Trump or any other American demagogue wants to exploit the fear provoked, that’s truly the cherry on top of the cake.

Omar Mateen’s rampage in Orlando fit neatly into the ISIS worldview, in which LGBT people should be thrown from building, stoned, or exterminated in other ways. But Mateen’s own demons appear to have played a major role in his decision to lay waste the Pulse nightclub, killing 49 people, and the FBI has found no direct orders given to him by ISIS.

From the point of view of ISIS, which did claim Mateen as its own, after the fact, it didn’t matter that there’d been little or no contact with him before. Indeed, that’s the genius of that organization. The masterminds don’t need to give explicit orders, they just spread their “misleading ideas.” And the war goes on.