Daesh/Islamic State in Paris and San Bernardino: Will fighting extreme ideas reduce extremist violence?

February 9, 2016
Daesh/Islamic State in Paris and San Bernardino: Will fighting extreme ideas reduce extremist violence?
Clark McCauley
Clark McCauley Non-Resident Fellow in Social Psychology

How should we understand the role of Daesh/IS in the November 2015 Paris attacks and the December 2015 San Bernardino attack?  What should the West do now?  In this post I argue that Daesh/IS was responsible for the Paris attacks but not for the San Bernardino attack, and that attributing both attacks to extremist ideas associated with Daesh/IS leads us away from understanding home-grown jihadist attacks in Western countries.

November 2015 Paris attacks

Nine men joined in the terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday, November 13, 2015, which killed 130 and injured 368.  Seven attackers were killed at the scene and two more died later in a shootout with French police.  Most of the attackers were citizens of France and Belgium who are known to have spent time in Syria with Daesh/IS, which claimed the attacks as they were occurring.  There is no doubt that Daesh/IS was involved in sponsoring the attacks.

The Paris attacks leave a big question. Why would a group aiming for a Sunni state in Syria and Iraq, a group already under attack by government forces of Syria, the U.S., the U.K., France, and Russia, mount a terrorist attack in Paris?  Daesh/IS claimed that the Paris attacks were in response to French jets attacking Muslims in Syria.  Could Daesh/IS leaders really believe that the French reaction would be to pull French jets from Syria?  Could Daesh/IS leaders have been surprised when France sent more jets to attack Daesh/IS after the Paris attacks?  What’s going on here?

Every terrorist attack and every counterterrorist response is a communication to multiple audiences. We need to look at these audiences separately to see the logic of the Paris attacks.

For Sunni Muslims chafing under Shi’a power in Iraq and Syria, the message is power. Daesh/IS can best defend Sunnis because Daesh/IS has the most power—power that reaches even Paris. For young Sunni men in the Middle East, the message is “Don’t think about joining ‘moderate’ Sunni rebels, don’t think about joining a local tribal militia, join the winning team—Daesh/IS.”

For Muslims in Europe there is also a message of power, but more important there is jujitsu politics—Daesh/IS trying to use Western strength against the West. With jujitsu politics terrorists aim to elicit an over-reaction that mobilizes new sympathy and support for the terrorists. A response to terrorism that creates collateral damage, that harms individuals previously unsympathetic to the terrorists, can bring new status and new volunteers for the terrorists.

This is the result Daesh/IS seeks in France and across Europe. In France and in other European countries Daesh/IS hopes for a government response that will target Muslims with new restrictions and new surveillance. They hope also for a public reaction against Muslims, and the strengthening of anti-immigrant political parties, not only in France but in other European countries. They want increased discrimination and hostility aimed at European Muslims.

In short, Daesh/IS looks for European reactions to the Paris attacks to push more European Muslims toward joining in the construction of a new Caliphate. There are over 20 million Muslims living in the European Union.  So far only about 2,000 have traveled to Syria to join Daesh/IS. Jujitsu politics can bring more volunteers, more home-grown terrorists, and more security costs for European countries.

Is it working?  In France new powers of investigation and detention have been advanced for police and security forces. Over 2700 police raids have been carried out. These are felt more in Muslim immigrant neighborhoods than elsewhere, and jujitsu politics moves ahead.

January 2015 Paris attack

It is worth noticing an earlier terrorist attack in Paris.  Amedy Coulibaly, born in France and a convert to Islam, killed five and wounded eleven in attacks conducted in Paris over three days, 7-9 January 2015.  Four of the five killings occurred in a kosher supermarket. Coulibaly claimed to belong to Daesh/IS and a cache of weapons and black flags of Daesh/IS were found in his apartment after the attacks.

An interesting question here is why an attack in Paris sponsored by Daesh/IS in January 2015 did not lead to the talk of war and the reaction against Muslims that followed the November attacks in the same city.  In the November attacks, nine perpetrators—all EU citizens–killed 130 and wounded 368.  In the January attacks, as already noted, one perpetrator killed 5 and wounded 11.  This may be a case where quantitative increase in casualties produced a qualitative change in response.  More generally, we must recognize that research has so far produced few suggestions about how to predict government and public reactions to terrorist attacks—that is, how to counter jujitsu politics.

San Bernardino

On the second of December, 2015, Sayed Rizwan Farook, a U.S. citizen of Pakistani descent, attended a Christmas party that was held by his employer, the San Bernardino Department of Public Health. He left early, and when he returned, he was accompanied by his wife, Tashfeen Malik—a recent immigrant to the U.S. from Pakistan. Malik came to the U.S. on a “bride visa”—she and Farook met online and got married in the U.S. They had a 6-months old daughter who they left at home with Farook’s mother.

Farook and Malik entered the party dressed in ski masks and black tactical gear, including vests loaded with rounds of ammunition and explosives. Using assault rifles the husband and wife opened fire on the party gathering. They fired between 65 and 70 bullets in the course of about four minutes, and left before police arrived, leaving behind three pipe bombs that failed to detonate. A total of 14 people were killed in the attack, and 22 others were injured.

Attendees at the party recognized Farook in one of the shooters, and they gave the police his name, which led to the discovery of a rented SUV in which the terrorists drove off. A chase and a shoot-out ensued, in which both terrorists were killed, and two police officers were injured. An initial investigation uncovered a pledge of allegiance to Daesh/IS, left on the day of attack on Malik’s Facebook page.

A key question in this case is about timing: When were Farook and Malik first radicalized to violent action?

Farook’s childhood friend Enrique Marquez has told investigators that he bought the two automatic rifles used in the attack, and gave them to Farook in 2011 and 2012.  Marquez says that he and Farook were considering an attack in 2012 but gave up their plans when the FBI arrested a group in nearby Riverside California who had been planning to join al Qaeda in Afghanistan.  Thus Farook was moving to violent action before he met Malik, and before Daesh/IS declared itself the new caliphate in 2014.

It seems Malik also was seeking violent action before the couple connected.  In 2012 Malik sent an email in Urdu to friends in Pakistan expressing her desire to join in jihad.  She seems to have met Farook on an internet dating site, meeting him in person for the first time in Saudi Arabia when Farook made the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in 2013.  In 2014 Malik traveled to the U.S. on a K-1 fiancee visa and the couple were married.  In Email messages before their marriage, Farook and Malik talked of martyrdom and jihad, suggesting that readiness to join in jihad was part of what brought them together.

In short, both Farook and Malik were ready to participate in violent jihad against the West before they met and before Daesh/IS rose to prominence with military successes in 2014.  Together they strengthened their commitment to action, a commitment strong enough to leave behind their six month old daughter, born May 2015, with Farook’s mother.

From this timeline, it is clear that, whatever symbolic value was represented by pledging allegiance to Daesh/IS as the couple moved to their attack, it cannot be that Daesh/IS was the source of the couple’s radicalization to violent action.  It cannot be the brutal interpretation of Islam advanced by Daesh/IS that moved them.  It cannot be the new caliphate claimed by Daesh/IS that inspired them.  In short, the San Bernardino attack cannot be attributed to Daesh/IS; before Daesh/IS existed, Malik and Farook were seeking jihad and Farook was preparing weapons for jihad.

In contrast, the role of Daesh/IS in the Paris attacks was substantial.  Although the Paris attackers were all EU citizens, some had joined Daesh/IS in Syria before returning to carry out the attacks.  Planning and organization and probably weapons and money from Syria went into the Paris attacks.  It is fair to say that the Paris attacks were inspired and supported by Daesh/IS, but Malik and Farook were radicalized to action without support from Daesh/IS and with only last-minute inspiration.

There is unfortunately a way to see the Paris attacks and the San Bernardino attack as proceeding from the same source: Islamic violent extremism.  The next section examines a recent and salient example of this kind of thinking, and its dangers.

“How to Beat This Enemy”

This was the headline for an essay by Maajid Nawaz that appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal Review section, dated December 12-13, 2015.  The subtitle was “To win against the jihadists of Daesh/IS, isolate them, undercut their appeal to Muslims, and avoid a ‘clash of civilizations.’”

Nawaz, chairman of the counter-extremism organization Quilliam, is right that Daesh/IS would like a ‘clash of civilizations’ that turns citizens of Western countries against the millions of Muslims living in these countries.  Nawaz is also right in saying that Daesh/IS would like more Western volunteers, and right again in recognizing that Donald Trump’s turn against Muslims in the U.S can help provide new volunteers. This is the terrorist tactic of jujitsu politics earlier described in relation to the Paris attacks.

But everything else Nawaz has to say is wrong.  He identifies terrorist attacks in Istanbul, Sinai, Beirut, Paris, and San Bernardino as Islamic-State-inspired violence, then assumes that it is extremist ideas that are the enemy.  “Islamism … is the desire to impose a single version of Islam on an entire society. … It is Muslim theocracy.”   “Jihadism … is the doctrine of using force to spread Islamism.”

It sounds so obvious.  Islamism and Jihadism are extreme ideas.  Together, these two ‘ism’s add up to the belief that force is justified to impose a single version of Islam.  This belief produces jihadist violence.  Obvious.  But the key problem here is that extreme beliefs are common and extremist violence is rare.

Nawaz cites a February 2015 ComRes poll indicating that a quarter of British Muslims sympathized with the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris.  The first thing to note is that the poll question actually asked agreement with the statement “I have some sympathy for the motives behind the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris.”  Those agreeing may be feeling offended at comic images of the Prophet, but they are not claiming that the offense justified the attacks.  In short, it is misleading at best to claim that a quarter of British Muslims sympathized with the attacks on Charlie Hebdo.

Nevertheless, let us suppose that a quarter of British Muslims did sympathize with the attacks.  The popularity of this opinion would prove too much.  A quarter of approximately one million adult British Muslims projects to about 250,000 individuals, but, according to Nawaz, only about 1000 British Muslims have joined Daesh/IS. Evidently extreme opinion is a weak predictor of action: fewer than one in a hundred with an extreme opinion acts on it.  Fighting extreme opinion is evidently not the same as fighting extremist violence.

The same conflation of opinion and action appears as Nawaz describes his own history.  “I bear some responsibility for this effort to eliminate the gray zone, to promote the idea that Muslims have no home in the West.  As a young Muslim growing up in the U.K., I spent more than a decade as one of the leaders of a global Islamist group that advocated the return of a caliphate, though not through terrorism. “

Nawaz was a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which sees itself as a global Islamic political party.  Hizb does indeed seek a new caliphate but, as Nawaz briefly acknowledges, not by violence.  It is violence and Western reaction to violence that Daesh/IS hopes will eliminate the “gray zone” between Islam and the West and demonstrate that Muslims have no home in the West.  As Hizb does not support violence against Western civilians, being a leader in Hizb does not confer responsibility for violence or reaction to violence.

Indeed Hizb has rejected Daesh/IS’s claim to have established a new caliphate.   This rejection includes denying Daesh/IS’s authority to call for violence against non-Muslims in Western countries.  In fact Hizb and Daesh/IS are competitors for the allegiance and esteem of Muslims worldwide.  Against Daesh/IS, Hizb is the strongest possible competitor because it wants what Daesh/IS says it wants, but stands against violence.

This competition is lost on Nawaz.  He conflates the threat of Hizb’s ideas with the threat of Daesh/IS’s violence.   He conflates the idea that force is justified in spreading a particular version of Islam—his “Jihadism”–with homegrown terrorism in Western countries. These conflations leave Nawaz and Quilliam fighting, uncomfortably, a war of ideas in Western countries that generally support an open marketplace of ideas.

What’s wrong with fighting extremist ideas?

Nawaz exemplifies the problem of identifying the threat of terrorism with the threat of Islamist ideas.  He could be fighting extremist violence, instead he is fighting what he calls “extremist ideologues.”  If Islamism is the desire to impose one form of Islam, then many Muslims are Islamists.  Many Muslims, like many Christians, would like to see their version of true religion made politically dominant.  Nawaz wants to make certain ideas unacceptable and to do so will have to target and alienate the many Muslims who hold these ideas but are doing nothing to forward them

Targeting ideas multiplies the enemy a hundred-fold, and jujitsu politics wins.  Jujitsu politics will lose and Western Muslims will be more inclined to help security forces when the West targets carefully the few who turn to violence.

Another downside to targeting extremist ideas is that we take our eyes off the terrorists.  Arguments about when sharia law is required or when jihad is justified are a distraction from understanding the rare but serious violence the West is facing.  We know now that Tashfeen Malik and her husband Syed Rizwan Farook were preparing for terrorist violence long before Daesh/IS was in the news.  The San Bernardino shooting cannot be attributed to Daesh/IS, whatever Malik’s last-minute salute to IS.  What, then, moved this couple to violent action?

This question remains unanswered and almost unasked in the rush to blame Daesh/IS. As I write, in mid-January 2016, it is not clear why Farook and Malik determined to attack the Christmas party.  Farook went to the party alone and unarmed; he left the party and returned with Malik and weapons.  It seems likely that some incident or insult at the party was a precipitating cause of the attack.

A more enduring and political motive for jihadist violence may be emotional reaction to the perception that Muslims in many countries are victims of Western violence.  Nawaz dismisses this possibility:  “Daesh/IS’s leaders insist that the U.S. and the rest of the West are waging a global war against all Islam and Muslims.   This is obvious nonsense…”

Over half of Muslims in the U.K. and in the U S. believe that the war on terrorism is a war on Islam.  This belief does not disappear by calling it nonsense.  If this nonsense is the source and motive for jihadist violence, especially homegrown jihadist violence in Western countries, then no amount of preaching against Islamism and Jihadism is going to help.

A portion of this piece also appears at Psychology Today https://www.psychologytoday.com/