In the aftermath of  Paris and San Bernardino, cries for increased security and policy shifts to counter ISIS leave a basic question unanswered: what do the terrorists want? The immediate goal, of course, is to inflict pain, create mayhem, and sow fear. But what is the ultimate goal? What were the attackers in Paris trying to achieve? What did the “radicalized” Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik hope to accomplish in San Bernardino – and believe strongly enough in that they gave up a life with their newborn child to try it? And what role does religion play in all of this?

Terrorism is easiest to grasp when its aims are concrete and specific. Hold hostages to exchange for prisoners held by the other side. Draw world and media attention to a cause. Advance geopolitical goals. Alter a powerful nation’s foreign policy. (Remember the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing, and how quickly Reagan pulled out our troops afterward?) Terrorism in Ireland involved trying to prevail in a civil and colonial war. Narcoterror in Mexico and elsewhere reflects brutal infighting over drug markets along and an attempt to cow governments, police forces and journalists. European terror groups in the 1970s, such as the Red Army Brigades and Baader-Meinhof Gang, acted on ideological animus in the hope of effecting political revolution. Ditto the Shining Path in Peru. Palestinian terrorists hijacked three airliners in 1970 to win the release of colleagues imprisoned in Great Britain and Germany. The Tamil Tigers were the terror wing of a secessionist insurgency. And on and on.

Northeastern University political scientist Max Abrahms, in a 2008 article titled "What Terrorists Really Want: Terrorist Motives and Counterterrorism Strategy," sums up this traditional model—what he calls “the dominant paradigm in terrorism studies”— as depicting “rational actors primarily motivated to achieving political ends.” “According to this view,” writes Abrahms, “individuals resort to terrorism when the expected political gains minus the expected costs outweigh the net expected benefits of alternative forms of protest.”

But when an entity like ISIS uses terror tactics against world powers, what does it rationally hope to gain? After all, provoking the U.S. and France to rain destruction on you from above while infiltrating commando teams to murder your leaders would not seem to be a robust growth strategy. As for the couple in San Bernardino—whose violence was “inspired” by ISIS—is it possible that the main goal is actually, and merely, the expression of alienation and rage, in the most dreadful way, uncoupled from any of the rational considerations above; that the terror is essentially irrational, even expressive?

And if so, is that the new normal for terror? As the historian and foreign-policy analyst Daniel Pipes writes, “Most anti-Western terrorist attacks these days are perpetrated without demands being enunciated. Bombs go off, planes get hijacked and crashed into buildings, hotels collapse. The dead are counted. Detectives trace back the perpetrators' identities. Shadowy websites make post-hoc unauthenticated claims. But the reasons for the violence go unexplained. Analysts, including myself, are left speculating about motives.”

I put these questions to Commonweal contributor Jonathan Stevenson, professor of strategic studies in the Strategic Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College, and member of the National Security Council from 2011-2013. He emailed back:

The conventional post-9/11 distinction is between "old" ethno-nationalist/ideological terrorist groups like the Provisional IRA, ETA, the Red Brigades, and the Baader-Meinhof gang and "new" transnational jihadist terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS. The basic difference is that the former deliberately restrained and calibrated their violence in order to preserve a place at the negotiating table to achieve realistic political objectives, whereas the latter employed indiscriminate mass-casualty violence precisely to impart the absolute and non-negotiable nature of their demands—in al-Qaeda and ISIS's case, a transnational Islamic caliphate.

Stevenson rejects as “discredited” the notion “that jihadists and suicide bombers are merely irrational, religiously deluded crazies”:

From ISIS's perspective, antagonizing the United States and other members of the coalition, while certainly fueled by civilizational rage and admittedly risky, does not seem to me deeply or comprehensively irrational. Doing so could (1) draw the major powers farther into the Middle East militarily, providing thousands of ground troops as high-value targets for jihadists in place, (2) amplify the strategic importance of ISIS, (3) further inspire "lone wolf" terrorists like the ones in San Bernardino for whose operations ISIS could cheaply glom credit, and (4) for all of the foregoing reasons, vastly increase ISIS's recruiting power. This is precisely the dynamic that allowed [Abu Musab] al-Zarqawi to turn al-Qaeda in Iraq into a lethal juggernaut that eventually became ISIS itself.

Regarding the role of religion, the journalist Graeme Wood earlier this year published a lengthy article in The Atlantic, “What ISIS Really Wants,” drawing on interviews with ISIS adherents and various academic experts. Wood’s lurid assessment emphatically rejects the “rational-actor” notion. The ISIS he portrays is a pathologically violent organization driven by an apocalyptic reading of the Koran. According to Wood, we need to understand that ISIS “rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.” Imagine that “David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some eight million,” and you have ISIS.

Wood faults American liberals, and implicitly President Obama, for leading “a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature,” arguing that its program of violence and terror “derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam,” and that “virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls... ‘the Prophetic methodology,’ which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail.” In this view, ISIS is “an avowedly genocidal organization,” filled with adherents who “want martyrdom,” enacting a “carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.”

How we interpret what we’re facing dictates what we do in response. The former New Republic editor Peter Beinart, also writing in The Atlantic, notes that Republicans see ISIS terror in much the same “epic terms” as Graeme Wood—like Marco Rubio, who describes an America at war with people who “literally want to overthrow our society and replace it with their radical Sunni Islamic view of the future.” Beinart writes that Obama, in contrast, “considers violent jihadism a small, toxic strain within Islamic civilization,” and insists that above all, the U.S. needs to avoid “being ‘drawn once more’ into an effort to ‘occupy foreign lands,’ thus allowing the Islamic State to use ‘our presence to draw new recruits.’” As Beinart notes, this view follows the influential argument of University Chicago political scientest Robert Pape, who asserts that the principal driver of Islamic terror is not apocalyptic religious jihadist ideology, but a violent and essentially political rejection of the presence of U.S. and other western military in Arab and Muslim lands.

For his 2006 book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, Pape compiled a large database of suicide attacks over a quarter century and analyzed them in an effort to “understand the strategic, social, and individual logic of suicide terrorism.” He concluded that “the presumed connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism is misleading and may be encouraging domestic and foreign policies likely to worsen America’s situation and to harm many Muslims needlessly”:

The data show that there is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any one of the world’s religions.... Rather, what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland. Religion is rarely the root cause, although it is often used as a tool by terrorist organizations in recruiting and in other efforts in service of the broader strategic objective.

In this view, as Joshua Holland writes in The Nation, ISIS is “a group whose outward expressions of religious fervor serve its secular objectives of controlling resources and territory.” You can read Holland’s summary of Pape’s views and hear a radio interview with him here. A front-page news analysis in the New York Times, titled “U.S. Strategy Seeks to Avoid ISIS  Prophecy,” echoes the point that drawing the U.S. into a substantial ground war in the region would amp up ISIS recruiting even as it risked affirming the scripture-based apocalyptic prophecy at the core of ISIS’s ideology, which cites Koranic references to a great battle, said to take place once the “Romans” set foot in the area corresponding to northern Syria, that will usher in end times. 

Finally, regarding the experiences of individual terrorists like the couple in San Bernardino, David Brooks offers thoughts about Islamic radicalization in the context of Eric Hoffer’s classic book, The True Believer.  And a fascinating, insightful, and scary article in the Times assesses the susceptibilities of young Americans who fall into a kind of online dream state involving “weeks or months spent marinating in the rhetoric and symbolism of the Islamic State, courtesy of Twitter and other Internet platforms.” Such online seekers, the article asserts, discover an “electronic hothouse of mutual support, a sort of round-the-clock pep rally for a cause most Muslims shun,” that in some cases leads to an apprenticeship in jihadism. In the digital age, the lines between copycat, lone wolf, and terror-cell recruit are becoming ever blurrier.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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