November 19, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Paris and the Fault Lines of Terror

• Along with the immense human loss, the attacks in Paris highlight how terrorists exploit societal fault lines to cause geopolitical convulsions


• The Islamic State is trying to use the growing crisis of refugees as a wedge between desperate people and societies


• By amplifying and exaggerating credible concerns about security relating to the massive numbers of refugees, the Islamic State hopes to further divide societies


• Whether via sectarianism or demonization, the Islamic State thrives on polarization and marginalization.


Since the Islamic State cannot stop people from fleeing its so-called caliphate—as well as the Assad regime—it is determined to stop countries and societies from accepting them. This tactic speaks to the group’s driving narrative of ‘us versus them’; from its inception, the Islamic State has driven a violent wedge of rhetoric and action between members of communities, tribes, sects, nations, and coalitions. The European Union is struggling to deal with what is now an overwhelming humanitarian crisis, with both security and geopolitical dimensions.

Where it can, the Islamic State has relied on sectarianism as the primary fuel for its violent machinery. Since the U.S.-led airstrikes commenced last year, the Sunni-Shi’a wedge become a broader fight against the West, with incessant appeals for foreign supporters to travel to Syria or, failing that, to attack their own societies and communities. All the while, the group in Syria has fought against nearly all other rebel groups it comes into contact with, as well as the Assad regime when needed. The group consistently finds the fault lines running through groups and communities, determines the point at which to apply maximum pressure, and presses as hard as possible.

The latest fault line the group is trying to exploit is that which runs not just across the EU but across oceans as well; the United States and Canada are also experiencing rumbles of tension over refugees. Like its other fault lines of terror, the Islamic State did not create the refugee issue, but it has exacerbated it and intends to exploit it to full effect. Most Syrian refugees are fleeing the fighting in Syria—and the Assad regime in particular—but none of them have sought refuge and safety in the Islamic State, though it pretends to be a home for all Muslims. This infuriates the group. After its online threats failed to prevent desperate refugees from heading towards Europe, it is now striking at the West’s willingness to accept them.

The refugee problem is a perfect fault line for the group, in that it contains actual concerns about social stability under threat of rapid change, as well as legitimate security concerns. The vetting of so many people with little documentation and little ability to cross-check their backgrounds will be an immense challenge. However, it does not compare to the scale of the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe unfolding. These understandable concerns are now being inflamed beyond all proportion by the terror in Paris. It is difficult to overstate how this one issue will color much of what happens next in the aftermath of Paris.

This is important because the perception of persecution drives the Islamic State. It needs to be seen as the only way for the oppressed to strike out against their oppressors, both real and imagined. The hypocrisy of the group, which is as oppressive a regime as has existed in recent memory, is irrelevant to its supporters. The EU—and the West in general—have a tremendous challenge in ensuring this fault line does not generate societal and geopolitical upheavals. Western nations will have to address the legitimate security and logistical concerns of the massive refugee crisis, while not creating a permanent underclass with little opportunity and less hope. Like sectarianism and other wedge issues, the Islamic State will be relentless in pressing these fault lines.


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