The series of coordinated attacks that struck Paris Friday evening may represent a new era of expanded activity for the Islamic State. If the group's claims that it is responsible for the attacks are true, it would be the first time the extremist group has carried out a major attack outside of the Middle East.
And, as such, the attack could spell the beginning of the end for the Islamic State, says William McCants, an expert on Islamic thought and jihadism.
According to McCants, who is a fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy and the author of the recent book "The ISIS Apocalypse," the attacks have galvanized support for a large-scale invasion of territory held by the Islamic State, especially in Syria. But even if that attack doesn't come soon, McCants said he is confident that, in the longer run, the Islamic State's government in Syria and Iraq will crumble.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Does the Paris attack represent a shift in strategy for the Islamic state? Is this kind of attack in character with their previous actions?
No, it isn’t. It represents a shift in their targeting. The Islamic state before this had been primarily focused on building its state in Syria and Iraq, and encouraging other groups to do the same in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa. They’ve sought to inspire attacks against their powerful international enemies, but they have not directed a lot of operational resources to that end. They have focused on state building, as opposed to carrying out attacks abroad. So the attack on the Russian airliner and the attack in Paris, if they were both directed by ISIS central, would represent a major shift.
Is there reason to doubt that the Islamic State is responsible?
The main question for me is not whether people affiliated in some way with the Islamic State did this, but to what extent the Islamic State's central operations in Syria and Iraq had a hand in directing it. Because those are two different things. Fans who are carrying out attacks abroad in your name is a different thing than operatives that you have trained, funded and directed. The sophistication of the attacks suggests that they were directed by ISIS Central, but we’re not going to know for quite some time I think.
What are your thoughts on European intelligence and surveillance? Do we know why it failed in this case?
My suspicion is that it failed just because they’re stretched so thin. The Europeans are pretty good at monitoring subversive activities in their countries, but the scale of this problem is immense. They not only have to keep track of domestic radicals, they also have to keep an eye out for anyone who might be infiltrating across their borders. And it can really stretch a security service so far that they cannot possibly keep an eye on every threat. My guess is that something like that happened here, that they are just watching too many individuals and do not have enough resources to keep track of everybody.
Do you see this as an argument against the flood of refugees into Europe? Are open borders a security concern?
Well, they are a security concern, certainly. How can they not be, when you have so many people coming across? But it’s also a humanitarian concern. Most of these people are fleeing the kind of guys that carried out these attacks last night. So it’s a delicate balance that these governments have to perform, ensuring the safety of their own citizens but also ensuring that citizens of other countries are given asylum as refugees.
How is the attack in Paris connected with what has been going on in Syria and Iraq?
The fight with the Islamic state has been at an impasse for the past year. The organization in Syria and Iraq has only lost about 25 percent of its territory. Despite being repeatedly bombed from the air and fought by militias on the ground, it has hung on. And then of course Russia has militarily committed itself to supporting the Assad regime. And the Islamic State is faced with a decision. Does it continue to try and advance on the ground, and expanding its borders, or is it better to spend some of its capital and human resources on deterring its powerful foreign enemies from attacking, and making incursions into the Islamic State? Given the attacks over the last two weeks, it seems that the latter is their decision. They see these attacks abroad as part of maintaining their territory back in Syria and Iraq.
But it seems like this attack is galvanizing people in the West to perhaps mount a more aggressive offensive against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, which would ultimately threaten their territory. Wouldn't the Islamic state think this attack would provoke a response?
That is the big question, and it’s a question we won’t be able to answer for a long time, if ever. We did not know the purpose of the 9-11 attacks until several years after the attack, for example. These internal deliberations that inform a major strategic shift like this, we just don’t have a lot of visibility on them. And as a consequence, we don’t know what the Islamic State is trying to provoke its enemies into doing. Ideally, you’d want to wait until you had that kind of information, but that could be years. And these countries aren’t going to sit back and be attacked until they can figure out what ISIS really wants.
Hasn't any of their propaganda or other statements hinted at what their real motivation might be?
No, because they’ve said both. They’ve said things like, bring it on, we are at war with the world. On the other hand, they talk about these strikes as a deterrent to further aggression. So it’s not clear from their public propaganda what they would intend by these strikes. An organization like this, it carries out attacks like this to send a signal. And if the signal is vague, the problem is your enemies might react in ways that you don’t want them to. The Islamic State could clear this up, it puts statements out about these attacks, it could be explicit, but it doesn’t. My suspicion is that they see these strikes as a deterrent, but they have miscalculated, and that it will serve rather to galvanize the international community to increase their efforts to destroy its government in Syria and Iraq.
What effect do you expect the Paris attack to have on U.S. or European foreign policy?
Well, I think it might increase support for some sort of large-scale invasion of ISIS-held territory, especially in Syria. But that’s not necessarily the right way to go, either, because that kind of invasion brings along with it its own problems. But I do think it will give political leaders a lot more latitude to do things that they have been heretofore restrained from doing because of their domestic politics. In Europe and the U.S., there’s not a lot of support for large-scale deployment of forces to the Middle East. Everyone is weary of the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. is also weary of the previous decade’s war in Iraq, and in general, at least in this country, there has not been a lot of public support for a major military intervention. Attacks like these can galvanize support.
What kind of problems specifically might result from an invasion of the Islamic State's territory?
Of course, it leads to the death of our own citizens, with soldiers fighting over there. That increases political pressure to bring the troops home, so they can’t stay there long enough to do the job. But also, invading with a large number of forces, you can annihilate a government like the Islamic State, but you let the other governments in the neighborhood off the hook for addressing the problems that led to the Islamic State in the first place. The main problem is the disenfranchisement and the anger of the Sunni-Arab tribes that live in Eastern Syria and Western Iraq. And until their central governments in Syria and Baghdad find accommodation with them, that area will continue to be fertile ground for an organization like ISIS to expand.
You've said in the past that you are confident that the Islamic State's government in Syria and Iraq will eventually crumble. Why are you so confident?
Well, I’m confident because every other example we’ve had of a jihadist statelet being set up, it’s always crumbled because it inevitably antagonizes a powerful foreign nation. Global jihadist groups, whether they are serious about their rhetoric or not, threaten powerful foreign nations. And eventually powerful nations decide they are better without this statelet, and get rid of it. The Taliban, for example. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in northern Mali. The Shabab in Somalia. All of those governed badly and they were brutal, but that’s not why they failed. They failed because they antagonized some powerful foreign nation that decided to come in and clean their clock. The Islamic State is provoking two very powerful nations by attacking Russian civilians and French civilians, and this could be the beginning of the end for them.
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