ISIS Is Losing, And Its Last Chance Is To Stigmatize Muslims. Don't Let It.
On Tuesday, Europe was struck by yet another high-profile terrorist attack, leaving dozens of people in the Belgian city of Brussels dead and hundreds more injured. While the attack happened just days ago and is still being investigated, ISIS quickly claimed responsibility. The available information about the attackers is suggestive ― one of them, suspected ISIS bomb maker Najim Laachraoui, was also suspected of involvement in the Paris attacks last November. There's a reason for this sudden exportation of headline-grabbing attacks: ISIS is losing, and stigmatizing Muslims in the West is the group's last chance at what it deems "success."
It's easy to lose sight of that right now, for understandable reasons. Like anyone who follows the news closely, the thought still crosses my mind sometimes when I'm out and about — say, hopping on a train or sitting in a theater. The people who have endured this kind of violence, from Belgium to France to less-reported and massively deadly atrocities throughout West Africa and the Middle East, need no introduction to just how much terror and grief a few violent people can inflict with a handful of guns and explosives. But even at a time when there's a risk it could sound premature, or dismissive to say, it's important to recognize that things are not going well for ISIS or its dreams of ruling an Islamic caliphate.
And there's no reason to think ISIS will turn things around. Unless we let it.
In broad strokes, ISIS is reorienting toward terrorist actions on foreign soil ― big, bloody, horrifying attacks that dominate international news and set political forces in motion ― because they're quickly losing ground throughout Iraq and Syria under the weight of months of American, French, and Russian airstrikes. When John Kerry essentially said this during an interview with CBS News' Vladimir Duthiers, it sparked criticism from some conservative outlets that the administration was trying to downplay ISIS's danger.
But the facts on the ground do seem to support this interpretation. According to Washington Post Beirut bureau chief Liz Sly, who detailed the terrorist group's diminishing force throughout Iraq and Syria on Thursday, U.S. officials say that ISIS has been suffering heavy losses among its leadership, with about one member killed by airstrikes every three days, and it hasn't run a successful offensive in almost nine months. Sly quoted Iraqi lieutenant general Abdul-Ghani al-Assadi, who described changes the country's counter-terrorism forces have seen in ISIS militants in recent months:
They don’t fight. They just send car bombs and then run away. And when we surround them, they either surrender or infiltrate themselves among the civilians ... Their morale is shaken. We listen to them on their communications devices. Their leaders are begging them to fight, but they answer that it is a lost cause. They refuse to obey orders and run away.
No group hellbent on creating an international theocratic state is going to go out quietly, however, and that is what Kerry was alluding to. There's a basic, brutal reality about terrorism — or really, about violence of any stripe. It's hard, if not impossible, to be absolutely sure that somebody won't try to harm you, kill you, or kill others, and if you have no way to anticipate it, it's damn hard to protect yourself. As long as a person's extremist motivations stay hidden away safely, it's distressingly simple to cause panic, chaos, and bloodshed. And when a country's counterterrorism systems aren't up to snuff, as some U.S. officials have alleged about Belgium in the aftermath of Tuesday's attacks, the likelihood of heavily orchestrated violence goes up.
But it's crucial not to lose sight of the why, and by all appearances, the answer is that ISIS is lashing out to try to reassert itself, to gain publicity, notoriety, and credibility among new potential recruits who might look at their declining hold in Iraq and Syria and think, "No thanks."
Also, consider the expertise ISIS has proven in its media efforts ― its grisly, high-production beheading videos forced the group into the American psyche in a way that few things short of the 9/11 attacks have managed to. It's pretty obvious that they understand the benefits of inciting fear abroad. There's a presidential election going on in the U.S. right now that's giving voice to virulent anti-Muslim attitudes, and ISIS is plainly aware of that. You need only view their propaganda videos, more than one of which have used the words of Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, to understand the strategy.
By blaring anti-Muslim vitriol from would-be world leaders while pulling off a handful of high-profile, chilling attacks, ISIS is trying to mask its own swift decline. Furthermore, they're trying to intensify the persecution of Muslims both throughout Europe (where anti-Muslim and anti-refugee sentiments are in full force) and in America (where they're escalating quickly). A stigmatized, shunned, and abandoned population is all the more ripe for radicalization, and that's what ISIS needs right now: an influx of new recruits from foreign lands who believe in their bones that the group is on the rise, rather than retreating into a smaller and smaller shell. It's a desperate gambit for an organization in increasingly dire straits.
And the twisted thing about it is that it only works if we all let it work — if the violence splashed across 24/7 cable news networks convinces enough people that Muslims (and particularly Syrian refugees) are on the whole nefarious schemers who are unworthy of respect, compassion, or humanity, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. So I beg you: Salute and remember the people who've been killed by terrorist violence, not just in Western countries, but all over the world. Memorialize them, and send as much love and tenderness out into the world as you can. But don't get sucked into what could be the so-called Islamic State's last, best bluff, because that could make for a far worse future for everyone.