The I.S.-claimed attacks in Paris have already served their true purpose.
The first French response, following President Francois Hollande’s promise to retaliate mercilessly against the Islamic State, has been a wave of aerial night attacks for which, reports say, intelligence was provided by the United States. There’s no way yet to know exactly what damage those strikes have caused.
At home, and in Europe generally, there are already calls for tougher border controls and laws, scrutiny of incoming refugees, calls to not let them in, rising sentiment against Muslims and, generally, a closing of ranks against the other.
Let’s park this and try and figure out what I.S. objectives might be in mounting attacks in Paris.
First, despite successes in Syria, I.S. is not the biggest group, though it is the richest. It failed to take Kobani and the air war, especially drone strikes, has degraded some of its capabilities. In Iraq, too, it has seen reverses and lost the strategic town of Sinjar to Kurdish Peshmarga fighters just three days ago.
Reports over the past few months also suggest that I.S. is losing fighters, especially foreign fighters and its recruitment drive might have hit snags. In Syria, it is also locked in mortal combat with other groups fighting Bashar al-Assad, notably the Al-Nusra Front with which it was once allied.
Unlike many other examples of civil wars, the Syrian conflict is not about the government and the rebels. It is the government fighting the rebel groups and multiple rebel groups fighting each other and the government. The place is a shifting sand of alliances. Similarly, the government itself is being supported by some non-state actors like Hezbollah.
Given this situation, I.S. needs to do something big and spectacular. The last big attack in Paris on the Charlie Hebdo offices was mounted by an Al Qaeda-affiliated group. I.S. does not want to lose the space it has gained against Al Qaeda as the primary group that represents jihadist Islam and is the thin end of that wedge.
What has to be understood is the fact that there are two wars going on. The first is within Islam, the other with the West. Groups fighting against the West are also jockeying for power among themselves. Put another way, when Al Qaeda-affiliates and/or I.S. and its cells attack targets in the West, they are also signaling to potential recruits across the Muslim world.
The second I.S. objective is to create chaos and try and beget a response. This is important at multiple levels: it seeks to deprive the West of the very values which even people within the Muslim world cherish and for which reason we are witnessing the flow of refugees from war-torn Muslim and Muslim-dominated states toward Europe and North America. That effect has to be achieved by violently goading the Western states into marginalizing their Muslim citizens, legislating tougher laws, institutionalizing racial profiling, introducing surveillance and walling themselves in.
But most importantly and dangerously, the aim is to do so by generating a societal, normative response that begins to accept statist measures meant to institutionalize the process of ‘othering’.
The consequences of such policies in the name of security, and the predictable social-psychological response to Muslims residing in Western states, needs no explaining. While Muslim lands are being torn asunder by violence and extremism, the developed democracies, by closing their doors, will leave no option for those, the majority, that wants balance and a way out of the current mess.
It is this situation that will force people to take sides or become unacceptable in both worlds.
Both sides will begin to choose their facts selectively and the action-reaction spiral will acquire its own reality. When cause and effect get blurred and amorphous, with an effect becoming another cause and reinforcing the original cause, we get a wicked problem. Social scientists know how terribly important it is to avoid a wicked problem. So, how does one define a “wicked problem”?
A wicked problem is generally one that is either difficult or almost impossible to solve because of contradictory and changing requirements and where information is incomplete. To add to the degree of difficulty, a wicked problem involves complex interdependencies, such that tackling one aspect of the problem can create other problems.
Essentially, this means that no course of action can be based on a definitive formulation because a wicked problem successfully eludes one. Courses of action cannot be correct or incorrect or true or false but only relatively better or worse. Every attempt is a one-shot experiment, which may or may not work. Stakeholders have different frames for understanding and solving the problem. There are multiple value conflicts and so on.
That is where we stand in relation to a region, the Middle East, where states are imploding one by one while everyone watches and where stakeholders have different frames for understanding and solving the problem.
I.S.-sponsored attacks in Paris have thus to be seen in light of the objectives listed above and as a dialectic between the two wars that are being fought, one feeding the other until the situation goes from better to worse with everyone thinking, like Edgar in King Lear that “worse I may be yet. The worst is not. So long as we can say this is the worst.”
The deep irony, of course, is that precisely at the point societies need to understand and appreciate this complexity is when people opt for binaries. In the maelstrom, individual choices and voices go silent or are silenced. That is the victory of non-state actors like I.S.
Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider