While much of the Western world was watching the Supreme Court of the United States legalize same-sex marriage, the Islamic State was lashing out.
27 people were killed at a Shi’a mosque in Kuwait after a suicide bomber detonated himself on Friday. Meanwhile, in Tunisia, gunmen massacred 38 people on a beach; in France, a man beheaded his employer.
As these stories creep out from underneath the happy-go-lucky afterglow of the Supreme Court’s decision, many will be wondering why the hell the Islamic State, popularly known as ISIL or ISIS (and referred to as IS here on GMS), is killing people on such a far-flung scale.
The bad, popular answers will be well-worn: Islam is violent, terrorists have no respect for life, they hate our freedom, etc., etc.
Those answers are bad because they’re wrong. Alas, IS’s attacks make a huge amount of geopolitical sense. Here’s why.
Cliff notes, baby. So you can quit reading early.
- IS is a revolutionary movement, like the American Patriots, the Communists, and many other rebels throughout history, and it’s going through the well-established stages of moving from a political club to an armed group to an actual nation-state.
- Now that it has captured and is holding territory, it must defuse all armed nearby threats to it.
- That means two things: keeping neutrals neutral, and making adversaries drop out of the war.
- By attacking Kuwait and France, IS hopes to force it enemies to calculate the costs of waging war on IS are not worth it.
- By attacking Tunisia, IS hopes to show that the only semi-successful Arab Spring country is not successful at all, and that only IS has what it takes to rule the Muslim world.
Alright, now before you get upset about my comparing IS to the American Revolutionaries, let’s talk categories.
It’s very important to be able to categorize groups based on behavior rather than belief. Belief can often dictate behavior, but geopolitical conditions constrain true believers. No matter how much IS prays, it is still just a group of outnumbered, outgunned guys trying to bring a new political model into reality.
More importantly, as a group, IS behaves in a broadly similar manner as any other armed rebellion: it seeks to build a nation-state where there currently is none. This is precisely the same aim as the American Revolutionaries, who sought to build a nation-state out of the British colonies.
Morally, they are quite different. But as I’ve said again and again, geopolitics is cold and doesn’t care about how you feel.
So as IS has gone from a mere political club to a group of men with guns to a group of men with guns capable of governing entire cities and regions, it’s behaving as its geopolitical constraints dictate it must. It has already established its governing structure, borrowing heavily from both Saddam’s police state and a mythic version of the 7th century early Muslim caliphate; this hybrid ideology keeps everyone in line. It has helped weaken the states of both Syria and Iraq so much that it has taken and held territory in both; now its using its ideology to build a nation out of what were once Iraqi and Syrian citizens.
But what does that have to do with Kuwait, Tunisia, and France? Well…
In order to accomplish the very long, slow process of nation-building, IS needs stable borders and few enemies.
To succeed in building its new nation of “Islamic” citizens, IS needs at least a generation (20-25 years). To buy that time, it must keep neutral neighbors out of its war, and it must convince its current enemies that fighting it is not worth the cost. Second to that is convincing other Sunni Muslims that their states are weak and/or hypocritical; if Sunni Muslims accept this, they’ll naturally turn to the IS governing model as an alternative, overthrowing their local governments, empowering IS, and giving the caliphate further strategic depth.
To that end, IS has been very careful not to attack enemies that could genuinely destroy it, like Turkey. Nor has it, thus far, aspired to 9/11 style mass attacks on the United States that could inspire a full invasion. IS has even been smart enough to avoid confrontation with the powerful Israeli army, knowing full well that an Israeli invasion would tip the scales against it.
Within IS are radicals who will push the caliphate to do all these things; they may succeed, and if they do, they will destroy their budding nation in the furious counterattack that would invariably follow. But the trials of the battlefield are keeping such forces at bay for now; instead, IS has wisely chosen weaker, softer targets.
So why hit Kuwait? Aren’t they fellow Muslims?
As we all know, Sunni and Shi’a radicals don’t get along. Kuwait is about a third Shi’a; being near Iran, Kuwait’s crossroads location has given it a character not too dissimilar from Saudi Arabia’s restive Eastern Province, another Shi’a-heavy region nearby. With so many Kuwaiti Shi’a, it was ideologically a target-rich environment for IS. But that’s not the only reason IS sent a suicide bomber to the emirate.
Yes, IS does hate the Shi’a and does believe they are going to Hell, but the mosque attack served a strategic purpose as well. Kuwait is home to many private citizens sending money towards rebel groups in Syria; some of that money ends up in the hands of extremists. No doubt, IS is getting a cut.
That means IS sympathizers within the country need a sign their own government is weak enough to overthrow. Attacking a mosque of Shi’a in a fine demonstration of the ruling family’s inability to protect its citizens. If IS can get Kuwaiti Sunnis to lose faith in their government, it opens the door to converting some of them to IS agents and foot soldiers; on a long enough timeline, that could mean the overthrow of the ruling Sabah family, with Kuwait being annexed as a province of the caliphate.
But the benefits don’t stop there; the attack antagonizes the Shi’a, further weakening the ruling family. As the Shi’a start believing the Sabah ruling family can’t or won’t protect them, they begin to take security into their own hands. This is precisely what happened in Iraq; Sunni militants kept attacking Shi’a until Shi’a concluded the Americans couldn’t or wouldn’t help them. The resulting civil war in 2006-07 was a disaster for the Sunni Iraqi community, but it was a boon to extremists, who benefited from the social fabric destruction that came along with it.
That last part is key: the more violence there is, the more extremist groups like IS benefit. IS must destroy the social contract between govern and governed in order to achieve power; its done this quite well in Iraq and has helped propel the process in Syria.
Finally, attacking Kuwait puts pressure on the Sabah ruling family to do less against IS, even to the point of constricting or even removing Western forces that are currently in the country; placating extremists is a well-worn Gulf Arab royal tactic. Should the Sabah double down on keeping the West in, it upsets both the Sunni Kuwaitis who support IS and the Shi’a Kuwaitis who believe they are being targeted because of the Americans in their country. No matter what, it’s a win-win for IS.
So then, what about Tunisia? Why attack a beach full of tourists?
The message is simple: Tunisia’s democracy cannot protect tourists, Tunisians, or anyone else from the wrath of IS. Tunisia is a major source of IS recruits, but it’s also been very close to successful as a democracy. It’s Islamist party, Ennhada, has been run by Tunisian equivalents of George Washington, compromising with opposing political parties and avoiding the Islamist trend towards absolutism. As a result, Tunisia is mostly functional and stable.
That’s not good news for IS, which is trying to be a pan-Islamic and a pan-Arab political model. If any Arab and/or Muslim state democratizes successfully, it undermines the Islamic State’s argument that Islam (and their very specific strain of it) is the solution. Striking Tunisia sucks the ideological wind out of Middle Eastern liberals; targeting tourists is meant to dry up Tunisia’s tourism industry, harm the country’s wobbly economy, and drive more desperate recruits into IS’s arms.
Which leaves only France. But to understand why Islamists are focusing so much on the French, we need travel back to Madrid in 2004.
The Madrid bombings in 2004 were horrific train attacks that left 194 dead. Worse, from the standpoint of jihadism, they were successful.
In 2004, Spain had forces in Iraq as part of the American occupation there. The jihadi attacks were both a retribution and a warning; in both cases, the Islamists got exactly what they wanted, as Spain withdrew its forces from Iraq not long after.
This caused a strategic recalculation in the minds of al-Qaeda and IS’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq. Prior to 2001, many around the world believed Americans were too casualty and cost averse to fight hard wars; that myth has been dispelled, with Americans clearly willing to spend a great deal of blood and treasure in search of security.
So further attacks on the United States would not weaken its resolve, only strengthen it. But the Madrid bombings proved European nation-states could be pressured through violence. While attacking the U.S. would always be seen as a propaganda victory, attacking European states could be a strategic one.
IS has taken this thinking and internalized it as part of its worldwide strategy. To guarantee its borders and buy the time it needs to build a nation, it must get its enemies to drop out of the war; France is a key foe whose withdrawal would be a huge blow to the anti-IS coalition. It helps that, after Charlie Hebdo, many Islamists hate the French. Inspiring lone wolves is a cost-effective and nearly unstoppable way of putting pressure on the French to end their involvement in the war.
This is not to say IS is going on the defensive, but geopolitical conditions have changed, and they must now avoid big battles and grabbing huge chunks of territory.
With the U.S. bombing it in Iraq and occasionally Syria, IS forces are better used striking at weak points in Syria and delaying the advance of Iraqi government forces towards Mosul. Another blitz is out of the question in Iraq; U.S. forces outside of Baghdad would not stand idly by as IS forces besieged the city.
While IS can continue to benefit from the decay of the Assad regime in Syria (demonstrated by their capture of Palmyra), it is also looking at the long game. To gain true security, it must put the Americans into an untenable position and force their regional withdrawal.
And the best way to do that is to bring down the Persian Gulf States.
Of the three attacks, Kuwait’s was the most rattling and most significant. It means IS is seeking to outflank the Americans in Iraq by hitting U.S. allies in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain are all tempting targets; each of them run dysfunctional and increasingly unstable political systems. With the right amount of violence directed at the right groups, IS could bring down the royals in each of them.
Key to victory in the Gulf is the overthrow of the House of Saud. The Saudis are already in trouble in Yemen and preside over an unstable society outgrowing the monarchy’s ability to govern it. Right now, should any political crisis emerge in any Gulf state, Saudi Arabia can invade and stabilize the situation, as it did in Bahrain in 2011. But if IS forces Saudi to deploy its power too thin by creating crises on its Iraqi, Kuwaiti, Yemeni, even Bahrain, Qatari, Omani, or Emirati borders, it could wobble Riyadh so much that it topples.
The end of Gulf royals would be a strategic disaster for the U.S., who would lose access to bases, ports, and oil. It would be hard to mobilize the American public to restore monarchs to their thrones, and harder still to convince them to occupy Arabia to build democracies. It would also solidify IS on the map, with only Iran and Turkey remaining as existential threats.
So this is a beginning; IS will hit the Persian Gulf as hard as it can for as long as it can.
If IS doesn’t succeed in attacking more Persian Gulf states, it will be because battlefield losses in Iraq and Syria have depleted its resources, not because IS has suddenly lost interest. Until peace is established, somewhere in the distant future, the Persian Gulf will be in the caliphate’s crosshairs.