“Hillary Clinton’s weakness while she was secretary of state has emboldened terrorists all over the world to attack the US, even on our own soil,” wrote Donald Trump on Facebook after the bombing in New York last Saturday.
“They are hoping and praying that Hillary Clinton becomes president, that they can continue their savagery and murder.”
Clinton replied on Monday by branding the Republican presidential candidate a “recruiting sergeant for the terrorists”. Indeed, in an interview on Israeli television this month, Clinton said Islamic State was praying for a Trump victory.
There’s clearly a lot of praying going on, but whose victory are the jihadi fanatics REALLY praying for? Let’s see: Their weapon is terrorism, and there is a clear, universally acknowledged doctrine on how that weapon works.
Three basic facts about terrorism: First, it is the weapon of choice for the weak, because it does not require a large army, sophisticated weapons or a lot of money.
Secondly, without those assets, terrorists must not engage in frontal assaults and standup battles against powerful opponents (usually governments) who do have them.
Thirdly, it can therefore only succeed by tricking those more powerful forces into doing things that really serve the terrorists’ purposes.
What is the ultimate goal of Islamic State and similar jihadi groups? Obviously, it is to come to power in various parts of the Muslim world. If they ever manage to become a government they may develop further ambitions (for then they would have a large army and lots of money), but taking power is the crucial first step.
Clearly the terrorists do not have mass support in their own countries, or they would already be in power. In order to build that mass support – it doesn’t have to be majority support, but they do need a lot of people behind them – they need a villain that will push people into their arms.
That villain can be either the government that currently rules the country, or a foreign power that invades the country, but in either case it must be provoked into behaving very badly. The target government must become so frightened and enraged that it starts bombing and torturing on a large scale.
That’s what the terrorists actually want: to make governments overreact and behave very badly. Then the terrorists might actually build enough support to win.
Terrorism is not just blind hatred. It is a technique used by ruthless but intelligent leaders with coherent strategies and clear political goals, and the violence is never “senseless”.
Bin Laden’s strategy in carrying out the 9/11 attacks, for example, was to provoke the United States into invading Muslim countries. It worked, and the invasions gave a huge boost to the popularity of the jihadi movement. Indeed, Islamic State and its clones could never have gained power without those invasions.
All terrorism is a kind of political jiujitsu, in which a relatively weak group tries to goad a far stronger force into doing something very big and stupid.
Terrorism doesn’t just thrive on overreaction. It cannot succeed without it. So now you know whose victory the terrorists are praying for.