To understand the Islamic State’s attack on Paris, we must understand its timing. Why did the attack occur when it did? There are two major reasons.
1. The Islamic State needs new recruits.
Recent counterterrorism efforts have hurt the Islamic State. For example the United States has increased airstrikes against Islamic State-controlled oil production and refineries.
In addition, as more Syrians have left the country since Russian airstrikes began, there are fewer civilians who could become radicalized and join the Islamic State. Because membership is the primary resource of any terrorist organization, it’s no surprise that the Islamic State has released several videos criticizing those who flee to the ‘infidel’ and ‘xenophobic’ Europe.
If the Islamic State needs new recruits, attacking France is attractive. France is already a leading exporter of volunteers for the Islamic State. As of April 2015 there were an estimated 1,550 French fighters in Iraq and Syria.
And France is also deeply involved in counterterrorism, having led airstrikes against the Islamic State since late September. Terror attacks by the Islamic State are only likely to provoke further airstrikes and counterterrorism efforts — as last week’s attack already has.
The more France retaliates, the easier it may be for the Islamic State to mobilize new recruits. Violent counterterrorism radicalizes moderates and produces calls for vengeance that militant groups exploit to recruit supporters. This is why al-Qaeda recognized mobilization as “the dividing line between success and failure” and the Islamic State shares this view. This cycle of counterterrorism and subsequent mobilization has emerged in Northern Ireland, Turkey, Israel, Brazil, and El Salvador, among other examples.
2. Francoise Hollande was politically weakened.
President Hollande and his Socialist Party have struggled in the polls, whereas Marie Le Pen’s National Front has gained ground. If the National Front performs well in the December regional elections, which it is poised to do, Le Pen poses a credible challenge in the 2017 presidential elections.
This threat to Hollande’s political survival is what the Islamic State arguably sought to exploit. Jihadists are well versed in Western politics and use this knowledge to assess the socio-economic, political and physiological impact of terror attacks.
In this case, the Islamic State may have calculated that a weakened Hollande would be especially likely to respond aggressively — and therefore unintentionally help the Islamic State attract new recruits. As Hollande would be well aware, using military force often galvanizes support for the incumbent party, and manufacturing political capital is most valuable as elections approach. In many other countries — including Britain, Egypt, Indonesia, Israel, Jordan, the Philippines and Russia — the public increasingly supported assertive national policies and actions following terrorist attacks.
This shows why counterterrorism is a challenge. Hollande cannot ignore the Islamic State’s heinous attack. A weak response signals a government’s inability to protect its citizens. But an aggressive response may also empower the Islamic State.
And even if Hollande’s response were more measured, the Islamic State could still benefit. Terrorist attacks polarize the electorate and increase support for right-leaning parties. This could give the National Front a boost in the upcoming regional elections and in the 2017 presidential elections. A stronger National Front likely increases anti-immigration legislation, thereby further isolating Muslims in France and helping the Islamic State radicalize and recruit new members.
Ultimately, the attacks in Paris demonstrate both the Islamic State’s brutality and its pragmatism. These attacks may leave France with options that will only sustain the Islamic State — and may help it grow.
Graig Klein is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Binghamton University.