ISIS is self-destructive, for a scary reason

Updated 4:03 PM EST, Wed November 18, 2015

Story highlights

Frida Ghitis: The recent actions of ISIS appear to be courting retaliation and ultimately an apocalyptic battle with the West

She says it is the ultimate suicide mission

Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. Follow her @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

CNN —  

At first glance, the actions of the self-described Islamic State seem more than a little baffling. Even when viewed through the logic of a terrorist organization, they appear self-destructive.

ISIS has done its best to taunt much greater powers, to provoke and pressure world leaders to launch a war against them. They seem determined to stir fury in democratic countries and create support for a grand international coalition, stoking the public’s determination to back military action to destroy the terrorist group.

The recent ISIS attacks in France, the downing of a Russian plane in Egypt, believed by Russia and others to be an ISIS operation, and the bombings in Turkey aim to achieve short, medium and long-term objectives, from creating fear, boosting its image and enhancing recruiting to triggering a much wider, cataclysmic war.

Anyone who thought refraining from drawing offensive cartoons would provide protection seem to be hearing a macabre message, from the terrorists themselves: The only way to be safe from radical Islamist extremists is to destroy them.

Is that what ISIS is trying to tell us; is that what it wants?

Strategy of ISIS

The rapid advance of ISIS on the battlefield shows that while the group operates on the logic of depravity and murder, it is not lacking in coherent strategic thinking. What, then, should we make of its seemingly counterproductive operations outside the immediate battle ground in Syria and Iraq? The answer tells us a lot about how ISIS wants the conflict to unfold.

The multiple operations in Paris last week were not lone-wolf operations; they were planned at the highest levels of ISIS in its Syrian “capital,” Raqqa, at least according to the French government.

That means the attacks constituted pivotal elements of ISIS strategy. By causing mass casualties in multiple locations – and possible striking at the president of France – they ensured that France would increase its attacks in Syria, despite what ISIS may claim.

In the recording claiming responsibility for the attack, ISIS suggested that one of the reasons for targeting Paris was France’s participation in the anti-ISIS coalition. But everything suggests ISIS, in fact, would like that coalition to fight with more conviction. Just to be sure to fire up the rage of the man leading the response, they insulted the French president, saying the soccer match they attacked, where “Crusader German and French teams” were playing, was attended, “by the idiot of France, Francois Hollande.”

Then there was the curious case of the Syrian passport found near the body of a suicide bomber. Who takes a passport to a terrorist operation? Someone who wants it to be found.

ISIS chose Paris, according to that missive, because it is “the capital of prostitution and vice.” But Paris is also a member of NATO, whose charter calls on all members to act together in mutual defense. It is also capital of a European country with a large Muslim population and, like other European nations, one where there have been tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims, as well as concerns and controversy about how to respond to the large wave of refugees, mostly from Syria.

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Objectives of Paris operation

The Paris operation had multiple objectives. The passport was a way of provoking the West to turn against refugees. The attack sought to provoke France, NATO and Europe to fight ISIS and the public to turn against the Muslim population and against refugees. ISIS wants a war between Islam and the rest of the world, with Muslims on its side, as a way of creating and expanding its so-called “caliphate.”

ISIS wants the world’s Muslims to feel they are at war with the modern world. It also wants to stop the flow of Syrians to the West, because it’s more than a little embarrassing that Muslims are fleeing its utopian Islamic “state.”

The attacks also serve other short-term objectives. They make ISIS seem courageous and efficient, able to carry out massive operations. That is a powerful recruiting tool and it cements its position as the leading Jihadi group, ahead of its main rival, al Qaeda.

But there’s more. ISIS had taunted the United States and Britain by theatrically beheading American and UK citizens on camera, and it’s now taunting other powers, seemingly risking everything it has obtained, including control of large swaths of territory.

A couple of weeks before Paris, a Russian passenger plane was shot down over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The Russian government says it has strong evidence that ISIS is responsible. If Russia is right, ISIS has essentially forced Moscow to launch violent reprisals.

Russia has been fighting in Syria, but before this attack it had mostly avoided attacking ISIS positions. In fact, that was one of the major criticisms the U.S. and its allies had against President Vladimir Putin’s decision to enter the Syrian civil war. Putin wants to defend Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but more than 90% of Russian airstrikes had targeted not ISIS but its rivals.

ISIS must have known that shooting down a Russian plane would make Putin turn his guns against the perpetrators, which is exactly what has happened. By attacking Russia, ISIS is doing the unimaginable, making Putin and the West start working together – against ISIS.

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’Risking it all’

Similarly, ISIS suicide bombings in Turkey, a NATO member, have put President Recep Tayip Erdogan in a position he doesn’t want, having to aid in the fight against ISIS. In fact, Erdogan has been very reluctant to help fight ISIS. Instead, he has been targeting Kurdish forces, who are the enemies of ISIS. By attacking Turkey, they press Erdogan to turn against them.

ISIS seems to be risking it all, creating the conditions for an overwhelming international attack, by the United States, Russia, France, Turkey, perhaps all of NATO, against its ragtag army. If this happens, it could lose it all.

Why would it risk this outcome?

The answer gives a glimpse into the group’s long-term objective. While ISIS is, in fact, trying to build an Islamic State and is working to capture and govern territory, its ultimate vision is an apocalyptic one. A strategy that looks self-destructive is, in fact, destructive, but perhaps less baffling than it seems as first glance. As many scholars have noted, ISIS’s long-range vision is of an end-of-days battle with the West – what it calls “Rome.” It is the ultimate suicide mission, one that sees the entire world involved in a grand final conflagration.

Note: An earlier version incorrectly referred to the “shooting down” of a Russian plane over Egypt. The plane is believed to have been brought down by a bomb, according to Russian authorities.

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