In-Depth: how the response to the Paris attacks made ISIS stronger

Painting a picture with a bloodstained brush intended to cloud and distort all inkling of mutual understanding is the business of information manipulation.

The self-described Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are not only masters of disseminating distorted messages through turning vulnerable participants into electronic proxies, but also by using human suffering to paint a particular narrative. The leaders of ISIL appear to understand the psychology of Western countries extremely well. A spectacle of gore meant to jar an instant reaction and a pervasive backlash against Muslims ensure that a frenzied and disorderly malaise defines the political climate. Similar chaos and discord allowed ISIL to take root in Iraq and expand into Syria, and the same strategy is being deployed in Europe. ISIL seeks to make itself the only voice of reason and order for Muslims the world over. Yet in order to do so it must promote carnage, mistrust and disorder. It must show that the contemporary systems of governance are not only ineffective for Muslims, but openly hostile to the very notion Muslim being. It is clear that ISIL’s main weapon outside their physical geographical sphere of control is equating themselves with Islam in the minds of all non-Muslims. Despite ISIL’s obvious aim of instigating backlash against Muslims, the U.S. government and EU countries persist in humoring the strategy of this extremist group by fostering environments of discrimination against Muslim citizens. The U.S. helped give rise to ISIL with its 2003 invasion of Iraq and to varying degrees with its Syria policy. The political climate in the U.S. and Europe has given the group a platform to shape the discourse on Islam.

ISIL attacked two other cities, Beirut and Baghdad, within 48 hours of the Paris attack. They constantly test the delicate balance of tolerance and democracy that persists in the post 9/11 era. They kill hundreds in a violent ring of destruction in the hopes that feelings of supremacy and self-importance in the U.S. and NATO will bury a dangerously obvious fact: ISIL (and its shadowy backers) strategically use mayhem to sow seeds of division the world over. It drives a wedge between Western countries and their professed values, between Sunni and Shia, between Muslims and Christians in Syria. ISIL thrives in environments of chaos and mutual discord. The collective focus on the group has shifted attention away from the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad, giving greater legitimacy to Syria’s despotic government and more credence to ISIL as a force of nature. The false dichotomy between shadowy extremists and ruthless dictators has proven mutually beneficial for both parties. 2014 saw record oil sales from Iraq and ISIL has taken on the role as a supplier for all interested parties.

The tension between the U.S. and Russia bubbles beneath the focus on the self-proclaimed Islamic State. American foreign policy in the Levant primarily focuses on ISIL in part due to the dearth of U.S. allies in the region. The U.S. can access oil markets cheaply, while pursuing its security driven agenda of targeting leaders of extremist groups through a highly controversial program of drone assassinations. The Russian Federation is scrambling for allies in the Middle East, especially in light of economic sanctions and a proxy war with EU countries. The Syrian government represents a vanguard ally for the Russian Federation, and the conflict in Syria has already morphed into an extension of wider Cold-War era conflict between the Russia and NATO.  The danger of a military confrontation between these two superpowers, in the minds of the American and European publics, is dwarfed by the rhetoric surrounding ISIL.

ISIL operates like any clandestine criminal organization. It engages in smuggling and the illegal sale of the most valuable commodity in the Middle East. It likely sells oil to several consumers in the region, which include its professed enemies, through a series of informal networks and intermediaries. It strategically employs violence to achieve ends specific to its vision in relation to the context of the environment. While ISIL may attack Western targets to force aggressive military action and repressive policies that alienate Muslim citizens of these countries, its sectarian violence in Iraq has a different aim. ISIL masterfully plays on the insecurities of an entire generation of Iraqi Sunni men that came of age during the horrific 2003 invasion which has forever altered the political landscape of the Middle East. The sectarian violence of the Iraqi government and the use of sectarian narratives for political gain by regional powers such as Iran and Saudi Arabia all allow ISIL to sit comfortably at the nexus of chaos and war-making. ISIL has an ample supply of angry and poor young men, weapons, and self-interested regional/global powers to perpetuate its seedy self-indulgent war.

ISIL is an open enigma. Its leadership hails from the bowels of Saddam Hussein’s state security and intelligence forces. Its front man likely does not make organizational decisions. It operates with high levels of efficiency. It wrings all it can from those living under its control and utilizes the specter of shock and awe to deliberately instill terror in its enemies, the population it lords over, and anyone thinking of resisting. It overtly demonizes Muslims that reject its call to the Caliphate, and yet those same Muslims that ISIL outcasts from the shroud of religion are increasingly pushed toward the borders of exclusion in the U.S. and Western Europe. Both the coalition engaging in air strikes in Syria and ISIL shift their hostility and the brunt of their military force onto the same groups of people. Those who self-identify as Muslim are perpetually caught in the middle of a geopolitical tussle on course to become a self-fulfilling ideological war.

Condemning terrorism, for Muslims in the U.S. and Europe, is an act of collective self-defense, just as much as it is an act of common humanity. The inevitable backlash along with questions and assumptions about ‘controlling fringe elements’ within the Muslim community leads to the mundane policy question: How well are Muslims policing their spaces for shreds of extremism? Ultimately Muslims with no geographical or social proximity to ISIL become implicated in their crimes. Western society has demonstrated its long history of leveraging minority communities with collective guilt and responsibility for things totally outside their control.

These are dangerous times. The paranoia and easily manipulated raw fury and damaged privilege in the wake of the Paris attacks demands that a culprit be found and punished. Terrorism is a political crime that requires an equally political suspect. An attack on the collective sensibilities of a society that views itself as blameless and pristine in the face of foreign extremism demands a collective adversary. Yet, those left holding blame in the wake of such attacks are marked by identifiers such as ‘Muslim’ and ‘Syrian Refugee.’ Never mind that the attack was not a random act of violence and was executed primarily by European nationals. The fact that those who led the attacks had few ties with religious institutions in their own communities is buried beneath the grief that demands a recognizable and proximate adversary at home. It is somehow irrelevant that the Syrian passport found on the body of one of the attackers was most likely meant to create backlash against Syrian refugees. France once criticized the American Patriot Act, legislation passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that greatly expanded the powers of the police and security services to unseen levels. France has extended similar emergency powers granted in aftermath of the Paris bombings for months to come.

American and European political influence provides a large degree of control over the narrative of suffering promoted in the global media. Suffering and brutality is an ongoing feature of the war in Syria, and no self-righteous framing of reality can change the lingering shadow of war crimes and atrocity that hangs over the Syrian Civil War. Policies executed abroad will have an impact at home. Framing marginalized minorities as the enemy is an irresponsible strategy that moves society dangerously close to political extremes which are favorable to ISIL’s narrative.

U.S. President Barrack Obama in his post Paris attack speech upheld the view that Muslims have a responsibility to condemn such actions within their own community. The would be victims of ISIL are made to be responsible for stopping predatory manipulation that occurs in the obscurity of social media away from the deliberating influence of the community. A government cannot expect Muslims to take its demands seriously when its police and intelligence services indulge the extremist narrative with informants and engage in wholesale spying of Muslim shops and student groups. These policies destroy any semblance of a relationship between the community and the state for the ostensible goal of catching would-be ‘lone wolf’ terrorists.

Muslims throughout the U.S. and Europe should begin to understand the latent racism in calls to ‘do more’ to combat extremism within or ‘better integrate’ into mainstream society. Every time an American or European is killed by a terrorist the collective trust toward Muslims in society is deflated a little bit more. Obama’s speech referenced American democratic values and maintained that overt discrimination toward a group based solely on their beliefs is ‘not who we are,’ yet the U.S. and Western Europe have egregious moments in time where vulnerable groups of people were shut out of the definition of ‘we’ or were relegated to an inferior status on a systemic level. The lack of mourning for the victims of ISIL’s bombings that occurred right after those in Paris demonstrates the implicit disparity in the way non-Western lives are valued in comparison with Western lives. The Paris attacks were preceded by existing dehumanization and devaluation of human life, and their reaction has, to the disarray of many, earned more of the same currency.

Democracy seems to exist in the minds and the hearts of the people. History has shown that laws and policies can certainly be altered or ignored for very undemocratic ends, especially in times of mass hysteria. ISIL and those who believe in a Clash of Civilians operate through promoting debilitating violence and quick reactions to said violence. The exhibition of terrorism sits atop the prospect of a nuclear confrontation between super powers involved in the Syrian Civil War. Self-interested nation-states that pursue geopolitical agendas by proxy war ensure that a stable grove of ingredients for violence that feeds divisive propaganda persists. A status-quo driven by compassion and mutual understanding is the way forward. Yet existing grudges and ingrained cultural superiority stop any national dialogue that could potentially undermine the ends of violent extremism.