Last week’s attacks in Paris have left the world upset and anxious about terrorism. That, of course, was just what ISIS intended. Yet a sober examination of the incidents reveals an almost pathetic weakness in ISIS’ operations and strategy. Carefully examined, ISIS’ actions reveal a lack of long-term stability or growth strategy, and may prove to be a fatal mistake in the future. To understand the matter, it’s important to go back to the basics about terrorism.
Terrorism, of course, is about fear. But more than that, it’s about using fear as a policy for the advancement of desired goals. There are, in basic, five types of terrorist groups, with different structures, motives, and life cycles. First is state-sponsored terrorism, used by repressive governments to justify heavy use of military force in their own country. A group is funded by the government to represent a threat which the government puts down with force. This group may not even realize they may be funded and directed by the very government they oppose. The second type is the insurgent terrorist, who seeks to destabilize a target government, either for invasion by a foreign state or through revolution, by eliminating confidence and support for the government through directed violence against innocents The third type is the mercenary terrorist, who finds terror a way to wealth and personal power (the PLO of the 1970s-1980s is an example of this kind of group) . The fourth type is the wilding group, a group which loves the chaos and thrill of causing widespread death and pain. The fifth is the cult, a group which kills on command from a charismatic leader. ISIS is more and more proving itself to be in the fourth category of terrorist group.
ISIS came into existence largely as an insurgent group directed by former Baathists from Iraq and Syria, but it has since spun out of control of its original directives. This is obvious by the change in operational actions by ISIS, moving from kidnappings and targeted territory seizures to more frequent large-scale acts of violence against innocents. The ISIS which was low-key and focused in 2014, has devolved into a decentralized collection of murderers. Chaos for its own sake has led ISIS to desert all rational strategy and abandon even former allies. As Sunnis, ISIS had already provoked Iran and other Shiite-heavy nations in the Middle East, and as indiscriminate murderers of Muslims throughout the region, ISIS has ostracized itself from the established governments and NGO’s, to the point that even Al Qaeda released statements denouncing their actions as non-Islamic and harmful to the cause of Jihad. The original presumed motive, to create a viable Islamic State in the Levantine region, is now so far from feasible that terrorism experts have mostly abandoned trying to make sense of their behavior.
Ultimately, the structure of ISIS was damaged by targeted assassinations of their leaders by western intelligence operations, which have largely been ignored in the media. The cells and their regional leaders were left with essentially three options: quit and go home, try to reform with a new nucleus, or operate at a minimal level of coordination, which modern technology makes possible. ISIS has clearly chosen the third option. The recent attacks, the bombing of a Russian airliner and the Paris attacks, may well be retribution for the apparent death of Jihadi John, the ex-British murderer who used internet videos to spread fear and violence. As horrible as the recent terrorist attacks have been, though, the level of the attacks reflects a dismal limit on ISIS’ capability – they lack the means to strike at the military of major western governments and intelligence agencies. It’s possible the terrorists cannot yet even identify the agencies which have harassed them so effectively in the last few months. In the end, if you cannot strike directly at your enemies but can only anger them through senseless violence against innocents, amounts in the end to nothing more than organized suicide.
I compared ISIS to the Manson family, not only for the blood lust which is obvious, but also for the unique character of personal mentorship of protégé monsters. The existing leaders of ISIS have come to the apparent conclusion that they will be killed by western forces sooner or later for their actions, and so they are breeding not only fanatical hate against their enemies but plans of vengeance after their own demise. So, in the same way that Charles Manson achieved a kind of vengeance after his arrest through the attempts by his family on President Ford, we should be on guard against specific attacks against government leaders and first responders by ISIS cells. While it is unlikely that ISIS would be able to launch effective attacks against major national leaders, the possibility of assassinations of governors, senators, or federal judges must be keeping security agencies nervous. The good news is that in the end, such violence cannot be maintained for endless duration and burns out the will and means of the attackers. We can only hope that the preparation and reaction of the appropriate agents will be sufficient to prevent a high cost for ending this particular threat. It should also be understood that ISIS does not represent a direction all terrorist groups will take, meaning that extant terrorist groups will take the opportunity to advance their own political and personal objectives if we become too distracted by ISIS.