In September, 2014, the Islamic State’s lead spokesperson, Muhammad al-Adnani, issued a grim edict to the newly-born caliphate’s armies of supporters overseas. “If you can kill a disbelieving American or European—especially the spiteful and filthy French—or an Australian or a Canadian, or any other disbelievers from the disbelievers waging war with us, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way, however it may be”.
“Kill then disbeliever, whether he is civilian or military”.
Today, as the world gazes out at the carnage in Nice—coming just eight months after the attacks in Paris, at the end of a long line of massacres that have bloodied cities from Malaysia to the United States—the full weight of that message is clear.
Even a year ago, some experts on terrorism were arguing against intervention against the crisis in Iraq, claiming the Islamic State posed no threat to the rest of the world. The slaughter in Nice is evidence of how deluded that belief was—but also of just how difficult it is to deal with the challenge.
It isn’t clear, yet, whether the killings had anything to do with the Islamic State—though social media accounts linked to its fans are exulting over the slaughter, believed to have been carried out by a French citizen of Muslim faith. In critical senses, though, it simply doesn’t matter. The Islamic State isn’t important as an organisation—but as an idea. It is a medium for the propagation of a more than century-old notion that Islam is locked in a civilisational struggle against the rest of the world.
France—with its tradition of muscular secularism, and its large population of assimilated Muslims who have separated their civic life from their faith—is a primary ideological adversary for the Islamic State. Bastille Day, which celebrates the French Revolution, and its historic dethroning of the divine right to rule man, celebrates that moment.
Thus, in January, 2015, Al-Adnani asked the world to “know that we want Paris, by Allah’s permission, before we want Rome, and before Spain, after we blacken your lives and destroy the White House, Big Ben, and the Eifel Tower”.
There is strategic method, too, to the slaughter. Faced with the loss of the cities it took as it swept aside government forces in Iraq and and Syria Islamic State is preparing for a post-territorial future—to become, as it were, the very al-Qaeda whose true inheritor it claims to be.
In an editorial published last month in its weekly Arabic-language newsletter al-Naba, ‘The Crusaders’ Illusions in the Age of the Caliphate’, the Islamic State noted that its adversaries were seeking “to eliminate all of the Islamic State’s provinces at once, such that it will be completely wiped out and no trace of it will be left”.
However, the editorial argued, the anti-Islamic State coalition “will not be able to eliminate it by destroying one of its cities or besieging another of them, or by killing a soldier, an emir or an Imam”.
This was because the caliphate has “shown all of mankind what the true Islamic state is like”. Thus, the anti-Islamic State coalition would have to eliminate “an entire generation of Muslims that was witness to the establishment of the Islamic State and the return of the caliphate”.
Al-Adnani himself, in a speech marking the month of Ramzan, evoked the destruction of the Islamic State—then known as the Islamic State in Iraq—by an alliance of the the United States and Sunni tribes in 2008. “Were we defeated when we lost the cities in Iraq and were in the desert without any city or land? And would we be defeated and you be victorious if you were to take Mosul, Sirte or Raqqa, or even take all the cities”, he asked?
Faced with exactly the same crisis, al-Qaeda had propagated many of the same ideas. In 1998, for example, he and co-signatories told followers that to “kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it any country in which it it is is possible to do it”.
Following 9/11, thus, al-Qaeda supporters waged a worldwide campaign of strikes, from Istanbul to Djerba, from Karachi to Bali,from Jakarata to Madrid, from London to Casablanca.
Today, al-Qaeda continues to pursue the same strategy—though with conspicuously less success than the Islamic State.
Al-Adnani had told the Islamic State’s followers they didn’t need guns or bombs to act against infidels. “Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him”.
“If you are unable to do so, then spit in his face”.
The caliphate has understood what al-Qaeda grasped before it: hate is robust plant, and needs no great lands, nor tending, to flower.