What is ISIS trying to achieve?

It seems like not a day passes without hearing about yet another atrocity carried out by the group known as ISIS (or ISIL or IS). The level of horrific actions, such as the most recent brutal beheadings by ISIS of a large number of Egyptian Christians, seems to be steadily increasing and designed to provoke the west and draw them further into the conflict. It seems likely that ISIS is going to keep upping the shock value of their actions until they get what they want. But what do they want exactly and why would ISIS want to goad the world’s largest military power into a fight against them?

In a post from last October, I discussed where I posed this question to Tufts University Middle East historian Hugh Roberts. He thinks that ISIS has cold-bloodedly calculated that the US has no stomach for actually sending in ground troops but can be forced to take the only other action they can under pressure to do something, which is to increase their bombing campaign. This will lead to wider civilian deaths and bolster ISIS’s main recruitment argument, which is to say that the west is fighting Islam in general because it is bombing Muslim countries and does not care about killing Muslim civilians and that they are only ones defending them.

To his credit, president Obama seems to have recognized that particular danger and has refrained from saying that ISIS represents Islam or that the US is at war with Islam, something for which he has been harshly criticized at home by those who seem to feel that labeling the fight as against ‘radical Islam’ is somehow important.

But there is another theory by Alastair Crooke who agrees with Roberts that ISIS is deliberately goading the west but argues that it actually does want the US to send in ground troops to the region. He says that they feel that this action will fulfill a long-standing apocalyptic prophecy and thus give it greater legitimacy.

As I explained last year when I cited an article by the Lebanese paper Al-Akhbar on the topic, a hadith (a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad), asserts that the “long-awaited Hour (of Resurrection)” will not arrive for believers until after the Byzantines have landed in al-Amaq (Southern Turkey), or in Dabiq (a Syrian village located to the north of Aleppo). Indeed, there is a conviction that is widely held across disparate sects (including Christians) in the Middle East today that the foretold signs, prefiguring the coming of redemption, are evident in contemporary world events. ISIS’ followers take their understanding of the Dabiq “saying” by the prophet to mean that the great battle will take place between the “Crusader West” and Islam — and that this struggle has been made imminent by ISIS’ declaration of the khilafah (caliphate).

For ISIS, the term “Byzantine” is held to stand for today’s “Crusader West” and its acolytes. Islamic State fighters assert that this epic “War of the Cross” will unfold with a “crusader” strike on them inside Syria; but that ultimately, the forces of Islam will prevail — as the prophecy foretells — and that the coming of the redeemer will then ensue.

The Islamic State takes this hadith literally — as a biblical prophecy, which it would hope to see materialize literally — and if this were to occur, in its view, it would signal to the world that ISIS truly stands as the end-of-world caliphate, and the beginning of the longed-for redemption of the world. But for this prophecy to be actualized, ISIS needs the Crusader forces (i.e. American or coalition boots) to be on the ground — and for these forces to be visibly defeated as “proof” of ISIS’ divine guidance. The latter therefore need to persevere through the coalition air attacks sufficiently intact (to signal, firstly, the air attacks’ ineffectiveness) and secondly to leave the West with no option but to put boots on the ground.

If this is ISIS’s goal, it looks like they are succeeding. A CBS News report on the results of a poll shows steadily rising support for sending US ground troops to fight ISIS. For the first time, a majority of Americans (57%) support sending ground troops to fight ISIS.

The pressure to send more ground troops is accentuated with senator John McCain, now the chair of the senate Armed Services Committee and someone who has never met a war he does not like, pushing for 10,000 troops. Ohio governor John Kasich, weighing a bid for the Republican presidential nomination, is another voice calling for sending in ground troop.

Daniel Larison argues that the warhawks are being disingenuous and that their cost-benefit calculations about escalating US involvement are seriously flawed.

Despite his support for sending Americans into yet another ground war in the region, Kasich tries to get away from the implications of his own position:

It is probably something that can be addressed without an extended affair and without nation-building or any of that.

This suffers from all the usual flaws of hawkish policy arguments. It assumes a best-case scenario as the most likely outcome, minimizes the likely costs, dismisses the possibility of unintended and unexpected consequences, and refuses to consider seriously that a war can change and expand beyond anything that its supporters originally imagined. Kasich’s position is essentially that the U.S. should escalate its involvement in the war, including possibly putting troops into Syria, but he wants us to believe that somehow the war won’t turn into an “extended affair” and won’t involve “nation-building” because it would be politically radioactive to admit that this is where his preferred policy will most likely take us. This position is in some respects worse than a forthright demand for a prolonged commitment of U.S. forces, since it puts the U.S. in a position of making such a commitment while deceiving the public that the war will be a short and cheap one. This is more or less exactly the con that advocates of the invasion of Iraq used in 2002-03, and Kasich is just updating their arguments for a new war.

As we have seen so many times before, it is fairly easy for warhawks to get the US public to support military action. With conservatives, you do that by scaring the hell out of them that unless ISIS is defeated over there, it is only a matter of time before they invade the US and starts beheading people in Kansas. With liberal interventionists, you argue that something, anything must be done on humanitarian grounds. Pretty soon, the pressure to take action becomes irresistible. But as we know, going into war is much easier than getting out.


  1. mnb0 says

    “they invade the US and starts beheading people in Kansas”
    American commitment will only increase the chance that this might happen. See, IS is finished. Oh, it will take several years and countless atrocities, mainly due to IS’ opponents being divided. But if you get Kurds and Turky cooperating (Kobani) you seriously have f**ked up. At the moment every local political and military power is against IS.
    There is something the USA can contribute though. IS must pay for its weaponry like everybody. Track down its monetary flow and cut it off. Then finishing off IS might happen much faster.

  2. Lady Scientist says

    I think that ISIS is definitely playing into the U.S. military industrial complex’s permanent war strategy.

  3. Nick Gotts says

    The Islamic State takes this hadith literally

    Well no, it doesn’t. The logical conclusion from a literal reading of the hadith, since the Byzantines no longer exist, is that the “Hour of Resurrection” will never arrive -or at least, not until the Byzantine Empire is reconstituted. Taking into account that the Byzantine Emperors never used that designation themselves, but (while speaking and administering the Empire in Greek) insisted to the end that theirs was the Roman Empire, you’d need a Greek-speaking Empire, claiming to represent the power of Rome, ruling from Constantinople/Istanbul. If I were Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

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