By claiming devastating attacks on French and Russian targets in recent days, the Islamic State has embraced what appears to be an irrational strategy: It has angered and provoked two military powers that had been reluctant to engage in an all-out war with the self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
Vowing revenge, France has already responded with a flurry of airstrikes on Raqqa, the Islamic State’s capital in Syria. And Moscow may intensify its air campaign if it concludes that the Islamic State did, in fact, blow up a Russian airliner.
Expanding the conflict may seem like a self-destructive move. But to some analysts, it is squarely in keeping with what the group advertises as its overriding, apocalyptic mission: to lure the world’s unbelievers into Syria for a final, Armageddon-like battle.
In the short term, the Islamic State is almost certainly betting that it can survive a counterattack. Whatever losses the group may suffer will be far outweighed by the propaganda value of its newly proven ability to infiltrate other countries and kill hundreds of civilians, according to counterterrorism analysts and U.S. officials.
“The more the West strikes, the more people are killed [in Syria], it only builds into the narrative that the end is coming,” said Matthew Henman, managing editor of IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center in London.
He added that Islamic State leaders have already won bragging rights to say, “You can carry out all these cowardly airstrikes in the air, but we’ll come to your capital cities and we’ll kill large numbers of your civilians on the ground. And you cannot stop us from doing it.”
Others cautioned that it is difficult to ascertain the Islamic State’s strategic motives or what it might have been hoping to accomplish with the Paris attacks and the downing of the Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula.
The attacks could reflect a simple decision to “inflict pain” on France and Russia and deter them from further involvement in the region, said William McCants, an analyst at the Brookings Institution and the author of a new book, “The ISIS Apocalypse.” Or, conversely, it could mark an attempt to draw them deeper into the fight.
“It’s one of the hardest questions to answer,” he said. “It’s totally unclear. We don’t know their motivation or what is motivating the decision-making at the top of the organization.”
The Islamic State has attracted tens of thousands of fighters from other countries since it announced in June 2014 that it had established a caliphate — or a new Islamic empire — based in territory under its control in Syria and Iraq.
According to the group’s extremist ideology, the caliphate will eventually triumph in a great war against infidel forces, culminating in a final end-of-days battle in Dabiq, an obscure Syrian town near the northern city of Aleppo.
The group’s online propaganda magazine is titled “Dabiq.” Each edition features the same prophetic quote about how the conflict will unfold: “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify — by Allah’s permission — until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.”
Wanting to avoid a repeat of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which led to a long and bloody occupation, the White House has resisted sending large numbers of ground troops to fight the Islamic State. But the bombing attacks in Paris have increased pressure on the Obama administration to intervene more forcefully.
During a visit to Turkey on Monday, President Obama said the United States and its allies need to stick with their strategy of relying on airpower and friendly local forces to gradually roll back the Islamic State’s territorial gains.
“We play into the [Islamic State] narrative when we act as if they’re a state, and we use routine military tactics that are designed to fight a state that is attacking another state,” he told reporters at a news conference.
“The more we shrink that territory, the less they can pretend that they are somehow a functioning state, and the more it becomes apparent that they are simply a network of killers who are brutalizing local populations.”
In recent months, the Islamic State has seen the boundaries of its caliphate slowly recede as Kurdish and Iraqi forces — backed by U.S. airpower and military advisers — have retaken control of some key towns.
That loss of territory in Syria and Iraq has undermined the Islamic State’s legitimacy and increased pressure on the group to demonstrate its potency in other ways, U.S. officials said.
“It has not had that type of momentum inside of those two countries,” CIA Director John Brennan said Monday in Washington during a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Which is why I think they are looking abroad now to have these spectacular attacks.”
Some analysts suggested that the Paris attacks reflect an acute and continuing need for the Islamic State to attract fresh recruits. Some U.S. officials have estimated that more than 20,000 Islamic State fighters have been killed over the past 15 months.
Until several months ago, the group had little trouble finding replacements as streams of volunteers poured into Iraq and Syria from other countries. But the group’s ability to attract fighters from some Western countries appears to have waned.
U.S. counterterrorism officials, for example, say that the number of Americans seeking to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State has declined since last year.
Looking ahead, however, the Islamic State will try to exploit the Paris bombings as a “tremendous” recruiting tool, said Daniel Byman, a Georgetown University professor and terrorism expert.
“If you are a young Muslim who is angered by the attacks on Sunnis in Syria, this is a group that is showing it’s fighting back by hitting [your] enemies,” he said. “You’re demonstrating your relevance over your rivals’. So your organization gets stronger because you can say you’re the defender of Muslims. You’re the state that’s responding to threats to the religious community.”
The Islamic State’s tactics can seem counterintuitive in other ways. The group advertises its brutality — it boasts about beheading captives, raping women and killing other Muslims — and shows little inclination to modify its ways to win popular support in the territory it controls.
Yet it would be a mistake to analyze the group’s apocalyptic ideology through the lens of Western rationality, said Matthew Levitt, head of the counterterrorism program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“They don’t see being way too brutal as a bad thing,” he said. “Brutality is working for them. They don’t see taking over the world as overstretching. This is part of the divine mission.”
Joby Warrick contributed to this report.