“ISIS set out to inspire hatred. It has succeeded, but not in the way it intended. “These people are in many ways their own worst enemies,” one expert told the New York Times. “You just have to give them time and space and their extremity will alienate their own base.” ISIS has ignited itself. Now it will burn.”
There have been a number of these “backlash” articles written since a Jordanian pilot was burned alive by IS. The Jordanians like the French after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, have reacted with defiance. King Abdullah donned a military uniform, invoked Clint Eastwood and promised revenge.
The basic point being made by this article and other like it is that the Islamic State (IS) and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have finally gone too far and that their violent excesses will ultimately be their undoing. This is an attractive argument on several levels. On the surface, it suggests that IS and AQAP are on the wane and things will start getting better now. On a deeper level, it reassures us that the moral order of the universe remains intact: bad behavior does not get rewarded.
As comforting as all of this is, there are reasons to be skeptical. To begin with, the anti-IS sentiment we are seeing now in Jordan is not really anything new. Although there are Salafi groups in the country and some support for IS, opinion polls indicated that most of Jordanian society considered IS to be a terrorist group well before the immolation of their pilot. Indeed, opinion polls across the region showed the same pattern, IS has never had widespread popular support. Moreover, Jordan is unlikely to make a long term commitment to the war against IS either in Syria or Iraq. Jordan’s military capacity is limited, and even more importantly, the situation is just too messy. As much anger as there is directed toward IS, the Hashemite Kingdom has no love for the Assad regime or Iran. Fighting one enemy therefore means helping another. Right now, Abdullah is playing to the crowd, and he seems to be doing a pretty good job of it. But leading the country to war is another thing altogether.
Similarly, it is true that the Charlie Hebdo massacre provoked a backlash in France, but this hardly means that the attack was counter-productive. The Kouachi brothers, who perpetrated the attack, may have hoped to intimidate the French press, but AQAP who claimed responsibility for the attack, has wider goals. For them, like most terrorist groups, “the worse things get, the better they are”. More cartoons and an anti-Muslim backlash in France mean more social tensions, more Muslim alienation, and ultimately more recruits. It also raised their profile at a time that when IS was hogging the headlines. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the only thing worse than being hated if you are AQAP, is not being hated.
Both AQAP and IS also use violence to build their identity. While Islam gives them the symbols to protect, like the image of the prophet Muhammad, it is the beheadings, the immolation and the sectarian cleansing that gives these groups a sense of who they are. Indeed, many of their followers knew little of Islam before they were recruited, buying books like “Islam for Dummies” before shipping out to Syria. They are driven by anger, not religious fervor. They are attracted to the violence.
All of this is not to say that terrorist organizations are unstoppable. Rather the point is that political violence is complex: it can have multiple purposes and its impact differs over time. Being defiant alone is not enough.