This is what ISIS, the Islamic State, wants.
“This is precisely what ISIS was aiming for — to provoke communities to commit actions against Muslims,” said Arie Kruglanski, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland who studies how people become terrorists. “Then ISIS will be able to say, ‘I told you so. These are your enemies, and the enemies of Islam.’”
The moments following a terrorist attack are often filled with acts of reprisal. In the six months following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, anti-Muslim violence and mosque vandalism more than quadrupled compared to the same period in 2014, according to the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, a watchdog group.
Extremist groups feed off of alienation, some counterterrorism experts say, and Islamist militants deliberately aim to make Muslims in the West feel isolated and turn against their own communities.
According to this line of thinking, acts of terrorism widen the cultural divide by provoking hate crimes against Muslims in the West. This strategy gained traction in the early 2000s after al-Qaeda was sent into hiding by Western military action. Abu Musab al-Suri, an influential jihadi thinker whom the Wall Street Journal called “the new mastermind of jihad,” argued for a distributed network of terrorist cells recruited from the Islamic diaspora, carrying out terrorist strikes in their own communities. These attacks, and the backlash they generated, would inspire other to radicalize.
“What the Islamic State wants to do is to start a civil war,” said political scientist Gilles Kepel Saturday in an interview with French newspaper Le Monde. Kepel, a professor at Sciences Po and an ISIS expert, has extensively studied the ideology and strategies of modern-day jihadis.
Al-Suri, Kepel said, had a vision: “a proliferation of blind attacks that will provoke lynchings of Muslims, attacks on mosques, harassment of women in veils, and create hotspots of war that will put fire and sword to Europe, seen as the soft underbelly of the West.”
The attacks on Paris this weekend seemed to follow Al-Suri’s script. Four of the terrorists have been identified as French or Belgian nationals who were recruited in the West. And if these early incidents are any indication, anti-Muslim sentiment will again surge in Europe, further distancing Muslim communities.
A study published last year in The Economic Journal found that the spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes after 9/11 led to a decline in assimilation rates in American Muslim communities. In places where hate crimes increased the most, Muslim immigrants in subsequent years spoke English less fluently, were less likely to marry non-Muslims, and women were less likely to be working.