Why ISIL Wants to Be In a War With America

As we continue to debate our new war, or semi-war, or whatever you want to call it, it's important for people like me whose job it is to write about political developments not to pretend to know more than we do. It's not always easy to restrain yourself, since if you're a political blogger you have to have an opinion about everything (and fast). When we get into a topic like this that touches on so many different areas—the presidency, Congress, public opinion, terrorism, and so on—it can be difficult if not impossible to stay in the lane of the topics where you actually know what you're talking about.

All of which is an extended throat-clearing to let you know that I'm going to be speculating a little, but I think this is an important question: When it comes to the United States's actions, what does ISIL want?

The occasion for this question is a new video that has been released, purportedly created by the group, that apes the form of a movie trailer (I was able to watch it here, but by the time you read this YouTube may have taken it down). It's basically a montage of images of fighting, America, and ISIL itself, including shots of American soldiers with explosions superimposed on them (as though ISIL is blowing them up), a shot of President Obama, and one of the White House. It ends this way:

For all the talk of how "slickly produced" this stuff is, it's nothing your teenage nephew couldn't create with a few hours and a copy of any of a dozen free video editing programs. But one thing's for sure: They wouldn't be doing this kind of stuff if they were terrified that the United States was going to come get them. That's the kind of thing you do when you want the U.S. to come after you.

I don't know any more about the internal politics of ISIL than anyone else, nor am I a terrorism expert. ISIL has multiple goals, which may not all be in concert at all times—securing areas in Iraq, trying to overthrow Bashar Assad, waging a global propaganda war, and so on. But there are some obvious reasons why we can assume ISIL is only too happy to be all but officially at war with the United States. Most importantly, it elevates them. America is the global hegemon, and if America is waging war against you, you're one of the most important actors on the world stage. Few things are more vital to a terrorist organization's recruitment efforts than the ability to tell young men that they can do something heroic by joining the struggle. ISIL can say to any disaffected young Muslim man anywhere: "You're mad at America? The way to fight it is to come join us."

Just to be clear, the fact that ISIL wants to be in a war with America doesn't necessarily mean a war with America is going to work out well for them. They can be utterly wrong about what's in their interests. But as we go after them, we may well end up weakening them in some ways and strengthening them in others, and in ways that are hard to anticipate. When we took away Al Qaeda's safe haven in Afghanistan, it essentially transformed from a centralized corporation into a franchise system, which made it less capable of launching large-scale attacks but more challenging to go after, since it's now so diffuse.

But as we see more of these videos, it's good to remember that ISIL is trying to bait us. The Obama administration has decided that taking the bait is the right thing to do. They might be right about that, or they might not, but it isn't as if we had no choice.

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