The Buzz

Revealed: ISIS's Lethal War Inside the West

Recent Reclaim Australia and anti-racism rallies in Melbourne and Sydney may not appear to have any direct association with ISIS, but a closer look reveals the imprints of the group's overall strategic objectives.

There is often a tendency at the security and defense policy level to view militant groups through the lens of sophisticated state-on-state warfare bound by resource and time limitations, and following traditional rules and strategies. However, ISIS has no resource or time limitations, and its greatest strength is its deceptive strategy. 

Having done extensive research work on understanding the psychology of militant groups, it's highly unlikely that the upper echelon of ISIS truly imagines itself (rhetoric aside) as toppling governments in the Muslim world and beyond. Rather, looking closely at ISIS's practices, media strategy, and most importantly the patterns of radicalization in the Western world, it is clear that the agenda of ISIS involves deceiving and leading Western policy-makers in a desired direction.

ISIS has made its investment in social media a priority. The aim is to inspire a radical mindset among Muslims, specifically those living in the West. It has succeeded, bringing the militant group international headlines for radicalizing Muslims living in the comfort of the West. Recruitment has multiplied and the group has become the center of Western policymakers' attention and a matter of curiosity to Muslims around the world.

Why so much focus on Muslims living in the West? Many in the policy world see this simply as a 'call' to Western Muslims to join the war in Syria and Iraq. But it's not armed support ISIS needs from these foreigners; it's the nuisance value and media buzz that ISIS desires.

It's not the end goal of ISIS to simply invite foreign fighters to join the war in Syria and Iraq to create an Islamic Caliphate. The grand goal is much more calculated and inspired by Syed Qutb's ideology of the 'near' and 'far' enemy – the notion that it's not only the West (far) that is an enemy but also the Muslims (near) who have adopted Western lifestyles and ideology. These should be the first to be guided in the right direction.

The major purpose of radicalizing young Muslims in the West is to inspire attacks on Western soil. But the real target is not Western society or its people. Attacks in Western cities may on the surface appear to be targeted against Western culture and ideology, but in reality these attacks are directed at the Muslim communities living in the Western world. ISIS understands that such attacks will spur a backlash against Muslims, thus alienating and isolating them in Western societies. If Muslims living in the West are alienated by both Western governments and their people, radical anti-Western discourse will start making sense to them.

The ultimate goal of Islamist radicals has been to unify the Muslim world against a common enemy (the West). This goal is at the core of ISIS's strategy, which is camouflaged under the rhetoric of ruling Iraq and Syria, something ISIS knows it can't manage for more than a few months. 

Western governments must realize that the real conflict ISIS wants to trigger is inside major Western cities through lone terrorist attacks and social tension between Muslim and other communities such as those we saw in Melbourne and Sydney last weekend. Understanding this strategy is essential to ensuring that Western governments do not end up alienating and thus radicalizing Muslims communities. 

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here