It’s been a particularly bloody week in ISIS’s history of violence. Since Tuesday, we’ve seen an attack on Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, a slaughter in Bangladesh that was carried out by radicalized elites, an apocalyptic bombing in Baghdad that was mostly overlooked, and the suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia, including near the Prophet’s Tomb in Medina, Islam’s second-holiest city. As of this writing, ISIS has yet to claim responsibility for the Medina bombings, which means it may not have been an attack planned by ISIS, but rather one “just” inspired by it. However, the wave of bombings throughout Saudi Arabia is indicative of some coordination.
This has led, understandably, to a lot of talk about the next phase of ISIS. Speaking to the CFR last week, John Brennan “warned that the trajectories for the ISIS religious state, or caliphate, and global violence point in opposite directions. ‘As the pressure mounts on ISIL,” he said, “we judge that it will intensify its global terror campaign to maintain its dominance of the global terrorism agenda.'” The headline to the Times piece linked above captures most of the analysis: “As ISIS Loses Land, It Gains Ground In Overseas Terror.”
I think this is largely true. There’s no doubt that they are doubling down on large-scale overseas attacks, and are mutating to the point where it is hard to say what ISIS even is: is it caliphate-based and centrally-coordinated like pre-9/11 al-Qaeda, or is it franchised out, like Qaeda starting in the middle of last decade? Or, perhaps more frightening, is it just a particularly carnage-based idea?
I think it is the latter, which is why I think we’re seeing the endgame of what ISIS has been. Note that endgame doesn’t mean the world is particularly close to defeating ISIS, mostly because I don’t think “defeating” is even possible. It’s a generational battle to have the ideology be discredited and to have them stop serving as an inspiration for those who feel that life should be offering more.
Because that is what they do: they offer a sense of greatness in a world that seems to have lost its moorings. This doesn’t mean that they only appeal to the poor and dispossessed; if the last 100 years have taught us anything, it is that the truly scary people are the ones who are comfortable and feel guilty about it, or feel that they shouldn’t be comfortable, but be truly great. Think of the middling student who reads Ayn Rand and begins to believe that his relative failure is due to a conspiracy of the weak. That’s the mindset.
That’s why these attacks, during Ramadan, are so important to ISIS, but also represent their eventual breaking apart. Going after Medina, and attacking largely Muslims (the Bangladesh attack partially notwithstanding) is key to their success. That’s how they attract the truly dispossessed, because they further cut up the world, slicing belief into an ever-narrower portion. It’s exciting to say that, yes, the Turks are Muslims, but bad ones. I mean, Ataturk should pay, symbolically, for being secular. It’s thrilling to say that bombing Baghdad is the blood price that has to be paid for a more just world. It’s radical and dangerous to attack the holy cities. That’s the kind of sick passion that inspires people into being radicalized: the idea that they are the most committed. It makes up for a lifetime of drifting, even if (especially if) that lifetime is only 19 or 20 years. A wasted year or two seems longer to the young, and a certain kind of mindset wants to rectify that through absolute purity.
(It’s important to remember that in many ways the modern radical Islamic movement wasn’t kicked off by the Iranian revolution, which was more concurrent, or even by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but by the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, also in 1979. It’s weirdly a footnote now, but this audacious attack on the corrupt monarchy was inspirational to the future leaders of al-Qaeda.)
Why this represents their eventual breaking apart, though, is the same reason any revolutionary group ends up either coalescing into an actual political entity (Hezbollah) or burning itself out (Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda). The need to up the ante constantly, to keep swimming, means that you’ll alienate more people than you attract. The entire Muslim world seems to be speaking out against the Medina attacks. The well from which they draw their legitimacy- the well of violence- is the one that will eventually poison them, and they’ll discredit themselves.
It’s a long and uphill battle, and whether through direct coordination or through inspiration, it’s one in which we’re all on the undrafted frontline. As they break apart, and as the slowly lose militarily (and don’t expect progress here to be a straight line), they’ll increase these attacks in an attempt to maintain primacy. It’s no comfort to the dead that this will also be their downfall.