Stern in Lawfare: What Does ISIS Want?

Cartoon courtesy Pat Bagley, Salt Lake Tribune (11/27/2015)
Cartoon courtesy Pat Bagley, Salt Lake Tribune (11/27/2015)

Dr. Jessica Stern, Research Professor at the Boston University Pardee School of Global Studies, asks and answers the very provocative question: “What Does ISIS Really Want Now?” in her latest Op-Ed, published in Lawfare  on Nov. 28. She answers it with characteristic clarity:

[What ISIS wants is] to polarize Muslims against one another, to incite internal divisions within the West, and to turn the West against Islam… This is what ISIS wants. We know, because they’ve told us.

The larger goal for ISIS, of course, is “to spread a totalitarian caliphate throughout the region and, ultimately, the world.” Stern builds her argument in the Op-Ed on a recent article in Dabiq, ISIS’s on-line magazine, where an ISIS author writing under the pen-name British hostage John Cantlie suggests that the goal for ISIS is

“an operation overseas that is so destructive that America and its allies will have no alternative but to send in an army. This would have to be something on the scale, if not bigger, than 9/11. Then again I’m just guessing, American ‘hawks’ may very well come to Dabiq on their own without the Islamic State needing to blow up any dirty bombs in Manhattan.”

Analyzing the nature of ISIS, Jessica Stern – who with J.M. Berger is coauthor of ISIS: The State of Terror (2015) – suggests the following:

To be clear, ISIS is a populist organization.  It is seeking to seduce anyone and everyone who might be willing to join. One of the unique features of the group is that it tailors its narrative to individual recruits. But the overarching “victory” narrative, in my view, is meant to seduce those who feel the need to rise up against the oppressors.

ISIS and the jihadi movement are in some ways similar to the revolutionary movements of the 1960s and ’70s, although its goals and the values it represents are far different. Jihadis express their dissatisfaction with the status quo by making war, not love. They are seduced by Thanatos rather than Eros. They “love death as much as you [in the West] love life,” in Osama bin Laden’s famous and often-paraphrased words.

Of course, the question that all of this begs is, what should the West do in response to the ISIS threat? Here is the response that Prof. Stern recommends:

…the most difficult task ahead is not containing ISIS militarily. Rather, it is to contain ISIS’s appeal among the global downtrodden, or those who imagine themselves to be fighting on their behalf… And Western governments are not equipped to do this alone… Far more than we need their military support, we need the Arab states’ to lead the containment of ISIS ideology and to model alternative narratives.

Read the full Op- Ed here. Read more about Prof. Jessica Stern here.