There’s a tendency, in reporting on and decrying the horror of the terrorist attacks in Paris, to refer to ISIS as a tradition-bound attempt to undermine and roll back modern civilization.
What if we analyzed the activities of ISIS in a different manner, as part of a modern strategy to promote and strengthen the terrorist organization itself?
It’s what struck me when I read this part of Lydia DePhillis’s report on why the group launched its attacks in Paris:
“Those Western government officials and academic ‘experts’ who were claiming that the IS was focused entirely on carrying out operations in territories in Iraq, Syria, or other Muslim countries, thereby suggesting that the group did not represent a serious threat to the West, have been wrong all along,” says Jeffrey Bale, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey who has long studied terrorist behavior. “All one has to do to understand the motives and goals of Islamist groups is to pay attention to what they themselves are openly and, indeed, proudly saying.”
All the same, there is reason to believe that the Islamic State’s defensive posture in its homeland might be related to the group’s growing aggression abroad.
According to Gina Ligon, an associate professor of management at the University of Nebraska who has extensively studied the group’s organizational structure, violence against civilians can be a fundraising tool. The group is “fastidious” about documenting return on investment for its funders, creating promotional videos and collecting news articles about their handiwork to demonstrate impact.
“One of the unfortunate consequences [of the Paris attacks] is that they are getting a lot of bang for their buck, so we imagine they will use the fallout to find more donors so they can finance future attacks,” Ligon says.
But the Islamic State doesn’t need just capital to survive and spread — it also needs labor, in the form of new recruits. Such attacks are a propaganda tool, Ligon says, making the group look stronger in relation to other terrorist groups. “When [the Islamic State] feels like their land is at risk, this is their go-to strategy,” Ligon says.
Now, I’m the first one to be suspicious of attributing too much rationality to economic and social agents. However, within the modern world—even as ISIS seeks to reject many of the central tenets of modernity—it does make sense that a terrorist movement would display at least a degree of modern, rational decision-making in expanding its targets in order to engage in fund-raising and to attract new recruits.