ISIS' Big Mistake

Why Going Global Might End Badly

People gather at the Place de la Republique following the series of deadly attacks in Paris, November 15, 2015. Pascal Rossignol / Reuters

Initial reports about the Paris attacks suggest a disturbing possibility: that the Islamic State (also called by its old acronym ISIS) is changing its strategy and going global. Although this might seem like a no-brainer—hasn’t it always hated America?—in reality, ISIS has long focused its energies locally and regionally. The group gained the spotlight in 2014, when it surged across Iraq and Syria, conquering swaths of territory. But it has existed with different names (al Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and so on) since at least 2004. For over a decade, it has conducted guerrilla and conventional war against the Iraqi and later Syrian governments, battled the moderate Syrian opposition and Kurdish fighters, and brutalized Muslims, particularly Shia, that it deemed as enemies. It also lashed out at Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other neighboring states to exacerbate sectarianism, punish governments for opposing the group, and win over supporters. ISIS did regularly call for attacks in the West, but such operations were largely the work of lone wolves.

So far, the Paris attack does not seem to fit this pattern. Although individuals acting in the name of ISIS have tried to strike elsewhere in Europe, few have had any real ties to the organization. And the ties that did exist were often between the terrorist and a low- or mid-level ISIS figure, rather than the leadership. We still don’t know much about the Paris attacks, including whether they were a top-down ISIS operation or organized from lower or middle ranks. Nor do we know if this is a one-off or part of a broader campaign. While France and its allies sift through the mountains of evidence and try to understand what happened, it is worth looking at the benefits and risks to ISIS of going global.


For a group like ISIS, the first reason to go global is ideological. The Islamic State claims to champion

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