Despite what certain members of the chattering class think, terrorist recruiting is not spurred by American disrespect for Islam. Terrorists attract adherents by pointing to American weakness and by touting their own successes.
Nothing succeeds like success.
A common mantra is that American cruelty — Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, “torture,” the Iraq War itself — is the great jihadist recruiting tool. But leaving Iraq, closing Abu Ghraib, and prohibiting “enhanced interrogation” has had zero effect on recruiting. In fact, jihadi cadres from Mali to Mosul have only swelled during Obama’s outstretched-hand presidency.
Turns out the Islamic State’s best recruiting tool is indeed savagery — its own. Deliberate, defiant, triumphant. The beheadings are not just a magnet for psychopaths around the world. They are choreographed demonstrations of its own unbounded determination and of American helplessness. In Osama bin Laden’s famous formulation, who is the “strong horse” now?
Does ISIS have another purpose behind its media driven beheadings? Does it have another goal in mind besides showing how powerless American and Britain are to protect their citizens.
According to Krauthammer, ISIS is fighting for prestige against competing terrorist organizations. It wants to stand at the top of the terrorist status hierarchy.
To do so it has needed to get the attention of the West. To be a player it has needed to be recognized by the other players, particularly those in the Anglosphere.
In Krauthammer’s words:
We tend to forget that at this stage in its career, the Islamic State’s principal fight is intramural. It seeks to supersede and supplant its jihadi rivals — from al-Qaeda in Pakistan to Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria — to emerge as champion of the one true jihad.
The strategy is simple: Draw in the world’s great superpower, create the ultimate foil, and thus instantly achieve supreme stature in radical Islam as America’s nemesis.
It worked. A year ago, the world had never heard of this group, then named ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). Now it is the subject of presidential addresses, parliamentary debates, and international conferences. It is the new al-Qaeda, which itself has been demoted to JV.
But, one might ask why would ISIS invite attacks by the American military? Krauthammer answers: because they believe that America does not have the staying power to prevail in the long run.
Because they’re sure we will lose. Not immediately and not militarily. They know we always win the battles, but they are convinced that, as war drags on, we lose heart and go home.
They count on Barack Obama’s quitting the Iraq/Syria campaign just as he quit Iraq and Libya in 2011 and is in the process of leaving Afghanistan now. And this goes beyond Obama. They see a post-9/11 pattern: America experiences shock and outrage and demands action. Then, seeing no quick resolution, it tires and seeks out leaders who will order the retreat. In Obama, they found the quintessential such leader.
The leaders of ISIS see a weak and decadent nation, willing to throw around a few missiles and kill a few militants, but ultimately unwilling to pay the price for victory.
In the long run the West will surely prevail. Some commentators have already suggested that we do not need to do anything, because Islamic terrorism will implode along with the dreams of a caliphate.
And yet, as long as ISIS and its fellow organizations believe that their methods are effective, that they are gaining status and standing, even respect around the world, they will persevere.
They are especially dangerous because they have nothing to lose. They might collapse from their own internal contradictions, but, how many innocent people will they kill in the process?