After Paris, ISIL will now have to fight its own radicals

The militant group has empowered the most extreme of its members, writes Faisal Al Yafai – and set the stage for its own disintegration

A French police officer stands guard by the Eiffel tower a week after a series of deadly attacks in the French capital Paris (REUTERS/Eric Gaillard)
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Analysts of terror groups like ISIL often make one of two framing errors. They either perceive the group as inherently irrational, lashing out without thought or planning. Or they assume extensive strategic thinking on the part of the group, imagining them to be cunning and far-sighted, able to intuit how governments will react to their provocations and planning accordingly.

But terror groups are at root political groups and the dynamics of power, planning and policy remain constant. As with political groups, there are disagreements that lead to miscalculations, decisions that turn out to be erroneous or counterproductive.

It is in that light that the Paris attacks should be seen. For ISIL may have miscalculated the impact of the attack – not in France or in the West, but within the militant group itself.

The Paris attacks represent a new departure for ISIL. The distinction between Al Qaeda and ISIL, which has superseded Al Qaeda as the dominant group in international jihad, lies in their political ambitions.

In Afghanistan, Al Qaeda had sought to create a base from which to launch attacks against the West in order to force the West to change policy and leave the Muslim world. Al Qaeda’s focus was not on creating a state and seeking to draw recruits to it.

ISIL, on the other hand, claims to already have a fledgling regime. And their insistence on declaring it a “caliphate" and referring to it as Al Dawla, Arabic for “state”, suggests they see themselves as creating an effective state, one that can defend its borders and run its own internal affairs.

The Paris attacks, then, are initially puzzling. Why seek to provoke a war while still in the process of building and securing a state?

One answer is that the Paris attacks were ISIL’s version of foreign policy. The group has sought to instil fear in their enemies through savage murders documented on video and widely disseminated, as a way of destroying the morale of the coalition against them, or seeking to drive a wedge between the public and politicians.

That is also the rationale behind the Paris attacks, hoping that by hitting those countries currently attacking ISIL, the group will bring about a change in military policy. With Paris, that appears to have backfired, with the only change in policy likely to be an even harsher military reaction.

But ISIL's miscalculation is greater than that, and extends to the internal dynamics of the group.

The wider debate among jihadis – one that stretches back to the foundation of Al Qaeda and beyond – has not gone away. The strategic question of whether the proper role for jihadism is to build a state or fight a global jihad is still a live one.

By attacking Paris, ISIL may have empowered those within the group who seek a global jihad, rather than those seeking a more limited fight to establish a state.

This tension is ongoing, between the remnants of the Saddam regime inside ISIL, the intelligence officers and military men who actually make the decisions, and those who staff the jihad, who are drawn from around the world. The former appear to dream of recapturing power in the form of a nation-state. The latter are fuelled by dreams of a global apocalyptic conflict.

By shifting the focus from building a state in the territory ISIL already controls to waging an external jihad against the West, the planning and resources of the group will also shift in that direction. ISIL, after all, are more than a mere terror group. They have political ambitions that go beyond causing civilian casualties in the West. And so after the Paris attack, those within the group arguing for the global jihad will be empowered, making the political goals of state building less likely than they were before.

It may be then that in the Paris attacks are the seeds of ISIL’s disintegration.

So far, ISIL have succeeded as a terror group by not making the mistakes that Al Qaeda made. They bided their time, made alliances, sought to exploit divisions within Iraq and Syria, conquered and held territory and kept the lights on.

But waging a global jihad is a very different thing. It provokes retribution; it creates new enemies and pitches a small band of rebels against the massed ranks of the civilised world. That, ideologically, may be a comfortable place to be for a group like ISIL. But it is politically deadly. Just ask Al Qaeda.

On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai