Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Paris Attacks Reveal ISIS's Weakness, Not its Strength

| November 25, 2015

Fear and xenophobia have been rampant in the United States and Europe since the tragic Paris attacks. Many believe that the fact that ISIS can strike in the West means that the group is now more capable of threatening international security than it was before. U.S. governors, presidential candidates, and European politicians alike have announced their intentions to stop letting Syrian refugees into their borders for fear of more terror. But Europe and the United States must not fall into ISIS's psychological trap. The Paris bombings are actually a sign of ISIS' weakness, not its strength. ISIS has shifted its strategies to terrorist attacks abroad precisely because Western efforts to degrade its capabilities are succeeding.

ISIS has recently suffered massive losses of territory, income, and people. ISIS has lost 25 percent of its territory since the United States began its bombing campaign. The successful Kurdish recapture of Sinjar effectively divided ISIS territory in half and severed its access to the highway that was its main supply route. Based on data we have gathered on the ground, within ISIS territory, in 2014, ISIS was receiving up to 3,000 new recruits and volunteers per day, more than it could process at its own recruiting stations. Just before the Paris bombings, that number had decreased to 50–60 per day, not enough to offset the massive casualties sustained in Sinjar and elsewhere.

Survey data shows that defection from ISIS is also rampant. ISIS is desperate for money, having lost much of its income due to Western bombing of its oil fields. Given Western bombing campaigns and Kurdish success in Sinjar, both Syrians and prospective foreign fighters believe that ISIS's power is declining and do not want to jump on a losing bandwagon. Revealing its fears of defection, ISIS has begun to shoot on sight any person suspected of leaving ISIS-held territory without a permit that has been verified by one of ISIS's Emirs. An anonymous source on the ground has told us that ISIS is so desperate for manpower that it has also launched an unprecedented campaign to force people to join. Also, in recent days, ISIS has shut down all Internet cafes in its territory to stop its fighters from making plans to defect.

ISIS is also desperately trying to prevent migration to Europe.

Massive flight from its territory undermines ISIS's claim that it is providing stability and safety for beleaguered Sunnis in war-torn Syria and Iraq. ISIS also fears that mass migration will decrease its pool of recruits. As one ISIS defector explained, while foreign fighters join ISIS because of their ideological beliefs, most Syrians are joining ISIS just for the paycheck. Employment opportunities in Syria are few and shrinking as the economy continues to collapse, and ISIS enables many young men to support their families. But in light of generous European asylum policies, those Syrians willing to risk their lives now view flight to Europe as another, more palatable option for improving their livelihoods.

Stretched thin, ISIS needed to show both the West and prospective recruits that it is still powerful. Major attacks in Paris, Beirut, and on a Russian aircraft in the Sinai were designed to do just that.

According to a local activist in ISIS-controlled territory, ISIS has successfully increased recruitment of both Syrian and foreign fighters since the attacks, and members of other insurgent groups are now defecting to ISIS. Pro-ISIS tweets have increased dramatically, suggesting that ISIS has capitalized on its perceived success against the West. ISIS intended to provoke increased bombing in Syria to cause more civilian casualties, which will increase the grievances of Syrian civilians against the West and encourage desperate people to join ISIS. Anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe is already on the rise, amid statements by fear-mongering politicians who are using the Paris attacks as an excuse to heighten xenophobia and restrict refugee flows. ISIS had hoped just for this response, which it hopes will keep refugees from fleeing its territory and will encourage foreign fighters to join the group.

Europe and the United States must avoid following ISIS's playbook. Drastic changes in military strategy and immigration policy will only make ISIS stronger. The West should continue its policies of bombing and supporting moderate forces to recapture ISIS territory. As ISIS continues to weaken, this task should continue to get easier. Second, Europe and the United States should focus their efforts on improving integration of Muslim citizens, migrants, and refugees into their countries and decreasing anti-Muslim sentiment. Failure to welcome Muslims into their countries will backfire and help ISIS. Of course, only an end to violence in Syria and Iraq will remove ISIS's appeal forever. The United States and Europe must continue to press for a diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war to improve safety at home and abroad.


Jill Goldenziel (@JillGoldenziel) and Vera Mironova are research fellows in the International Security Program of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. Dr. Goldenziel is completing a book on refugees, international law, and U.S. foreign policy.

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For Academic Citation: Goldenziel, Jill and Vera Mironova. "Paris Attacks Reveal ISIS's Weakness, Not its Strength." Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, November 25, 2015.