Pawns of ISIS

21 June 2017

My title, “Pawns of ISIS,” most likely conjures up a stereotypical image of an Arabic young man, whose mind has been infected—as if by a parasite—by ISIS propaganda on the internet, where publications such as “The Management of Savagery” and Dabiq spread ISIS’s core strategic ideas so widely that anyone can become a soldier.

But in fact, the type of pawn I’m writing about is not that one. The pawn I have in mind does not even claim to be Muslim. More surprisingly: Islamophobes, who take themselves to be fighting against any form of Islam (extremist or not), are, like pawns, unwittingly executing ISIS strategy.

Consider the 47-year-old Caucasian man, Darren Osborne, who drove a van into pedestrians gathered outside a London Mosque on Monday, June 19. He explained his action by saying, “I want to kill all Muslims.” Note the totalizing word all.

In the man’s own mind, no doubt, he was being just the kind of staunch opponent of Islamic extremism that Western society needs. All Muslims are at least potential terrorists—so the thought goes—so he would treat all of them as enemies. Tired of soft moderates who appease Muslims, he would cut through the political correctness and do what needed to be done, ridding society of the enemy.

The sad and ugly irony of this situation, however, is that this Islamophobic man is himself acting on an idea that ISIS endorses and is thus executing a move in ISIS’s larger game plan. That idea is that the world must be divided into Muslims and non-Muslims and one side must eventually obliterate the other through violence. There are, of course, variations on this idea, but once stated, it’s easy to see that some form of it has infected Darren Osborne no less than it did Salman Abedi, who was responsible for the Manchester bombing at the Ariana Grande concert on May 22. Osborne and Abedi, despite seeing themselves on opposite sides, see the world in the same way. And it’s that view of the world that serves ISIS’s agenda.

ISIS’s strategy, crucially, includes radicalizing not only Muslims, but also non-Muslims who then become self-declared opponents of Islam. As Abu Bakr Naji wrote in “The Management of Savagery” (a 2004 seminal document that ISIS leaders and operatives often invoke):

…we must drag everyone into the battle in order to give life to those who deserve to live and destroy those who deserve to be destroyed. We must drag all of the movements, the masses, and the parties to the battle and turn the table over the heads of everyone.

Note again the word all.

The way to drag “everyone into battle” is to provoke, or use “vexation.” This can be seen as having stages (in the Muslim world or outside it).

(1) ISIS operatives terrorize non-Muslims (or Muslims of the “wrong” kind).

(2) Some non-Muslims react to the terror with their own anti-Islamic extremism, lashing out at Muslims generally.

(3) This anti-Islamic response radicalizes more Muslims, or makes them more susceptible to radicalization.

(4) Repeat (1), this time with more operatives.

The result of this iterative process is supposed to be “savagery,” which is the stage of chaos that allows an Islamic State to move in and re-establish order through Sharia.

The indiscriminate anti-Islamic reaction of stage (2) is essential to the overall plan. Without it, there would be far less to offer potential ISIS recruits as motivation to radicalize. In fact, one of Dabiq’s issues was entitled “From Hypocrisy to Apostasy: The Extinction of the Grayzone.” The “Grayzone” here refers to any situation in which people of different faiths co-exist without fighting. By provoking anti-Islamic violence, ISIS or ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks leverage Islamophobia to promote even more extremism, which then provokes more…and so on. 

Here’s a passage from that issue: “Muslims in the crusader countries will find themselves driven to abandon their homes for a place to live in the Khilafah, as the crusaders increase persecution against Muslims.” This is not a description of what ISIS hopes won’t happen; it’s a description of what they hope will. And the 47-year-old man who drove a van into people outside the Mosque was furthering that hope.

All this reminds me of Daniel Dennett’s picturesque analogy from Breaking the Spell, his 2006 book on the cognitive science of religion:

You watch an ant in a meadow, laboriously climbing up a blade of grass…always striving to reach the top. Why is the ant doing this? What benefit is it seeking for itself in this strenuous and unlikely activity? Wrong question, as it turns out. No biological benefit accrues to the ant. It is not trying to get a better view of the territory or seeking food or showing off to a potential mate, for instance. Its brain has been commandeered by a tiny parasite, a lancet fluke…that needs to get itself into the stomach of a sheep or cow in order to complete its reproductive cycle. This little brain worm is driving the ant into position to benefit its progeny, not the ant’s. …

Does anything like this happen with human beings? Yes indeed. We often find human beings setting aside their personal interests, their health, their chances to have children, and devoting their entire lives to furthering the interests of an idea that has lodged in their brains. 

One reading this passage in relation to ISIS propaganda is at first likely to think of Muslim young men as being the carriers of the parasite (ISIS ideology). But it’s clear that transmitters of ISIS’s parasitic ideas needn’t be Muslim. Darren Osborne was himself a carrier and a transmitter without knowing it, as are Islamophobes around the world.  

It’s easy to despair on coming to understand the cycle of ideas and violence that’s described here. But the good news is that there’s a simple practical lesson to be learned. If you wish to oppose extremism of any sort, first search yourself to make sure you’re not its unwitting pawn.