As always after a major terrorist attack on the West, the right question to ask after the slaughter in Paris is: what were the strategic aims behind the attack?
This requires getting your head around the concept that terrorists have rational strategies, but once you do that the motives behind the attacks are easy to figure out. It also becomes clear that the motives have changed.
The 9/11 attacks on the US in 2001 followed the classical terrorist strategy of trying to trick the target government into over-reacting in ways that would serve the terrorists’ interests. Al-Qaeda’s goal was to sucker the US into invading Muslim countries. Al-Qaeda’s purpose was to overthrow existing Arab governments and take power in the Arab countries, which it would then reshape in accordance with its extreme Islamist ideology.
But Islamist movements were not doing very well in building mass support in the Arab world. Osama bin Laden’s innovation was to switch the attacks from Arab governments to Western ones, in the hope of luring them into invasions that would radicalise Arabs and drive them to the Islamists.
His hopes were fulfilled by the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Once the Western troops went in, there was a steep decline in terrorist attacks on Western countries. The resistance in Iraq grew quickly and attracted Islamist fighters from many other Arab countries.
The organisation known as “al-Qaeda in Iraq” underwent several name changes, to “Islamic State in Iraq” in 2006; then to “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” – Isis for short – in 2013, and to “Islamic State” in 2014.
But key personnel and long-term goals remained the same throughout. The man who now calls himself the “Caliph” of Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Bahdadi, first joined “al-Qaeda in Iraq” and started fighting the US occupation forces in Iraq in 2004.
But the strategy changed, for Isis grew so strong that it conquered the extensive territories in Syria and Iraq that now make up Islamic State. Popular revolutions were no longer needed.
The core strategy now is simply conquest. So why are Islamic State and al-Qaeda still attacking Western targets?
One reason is because the jihadi world is now split between two rival jihadi franchises that compete for supporters. Spectacular terrorist operations against Western targets are a powerful recruiting tool.
But Islamic State has a further motive: it wants Western attacks on it to cease. It’s a real state now, with borders and an army and a more or less functional economy. It doesn’t want Western forces interfering with efforts to consolidate and expand that state, and it hopes attacks on the West may force them to pull out.
France is a prime target as French aircraft are part of the Western-led coalition bombing Islamic State, and it’s easy to recruit terrorists from France’s alienated Muslim minority.
So the outlook is for more terrorist attacks wherever Islamic State (and, to a lesser extent, al-Qaeda) can find volunteers. Putting foreign ground troops into Syria would only make it worse, so the least bad option for all the countries concerned is to ride the terrorist campaign out.
Horrendous though the attacks are, they pose a very small risk to the average citizen. Statistically it’s still more dangerous to cross the street.