When bad guys get their predictions wrong

If you start a social movement and want to recruit new members it is probably a good idea to be confident. No one would join a group that advertises itself as “We’re # 45!” You gotta go big or go home.

If you are a terrorist or violent extremist group the same advice applies. Show how you are better than everyone else and how you are striving to make changes that will make the world a better place (gee this sounds a lot like most religious movements, doesn’t it?). And since you think that violence is ok, needed, or even mandatory/divinely demanded you also have to frame your program in terms of why it is necessary to kill others. The best way to do this is to portray the ‘enemy’ as deserving death: once your foes are out of the way you can move on to creating the ideal society only you can make.

Islamic State (IS) was (is?) a good example of what I am talking about. It claimed to be a God-driven bunch of guys who clearly defined a whole whack of enemies: Shia Muslims, gays, Christians, Jews, Yazidis, Hindus, even most other Muslims. And it overtly called for violence to conquer its enemies. And it established – or better stated re-established – the historical Caliphate that represented the perfect government and would last for eternity.

Well, it did not turn out so well for IS, did it? ‘Eternity’ turned out to be less than five years as the territory that served as the nucleus of the worldwide Caliphate has pretty well disappeared less than half a decade after it popped up. I think there is an interesting parallel with the Nazi regime’s prediction of a ‘1,000-year Reich’ which lasted twelve years: two and a half times longer than the Caliphate but appreciably shorter than hoped for.

The lesson here is twofold. First, don’t let these actors pick your lottery numbers as their track record is woeful. Second, there is usually a big gap between confidence and reality, so much so that we are better to label the former hubris. In their efforts to embellish their capabilities and achievements, terrorist groups like IS often go too far, biting off more than they can chew and suffering ignominious defeats. This humiliation forces them to come up with excuses as to why things have not unfolded as they were supposed to. Rather than admit defeat they maintain that they meant to lose and that everything is going according to plan.

Another good example of how IS’ prognostications went awry is that of Dabiq. This was not only the name of the group’s flagship publication but is also an important symbol in Islamic eschatology (end of time scenarios a.k.a. the Apocalypse). IS had seized the northern Syrian town and needed to hold it since it is believed that Dabiq is one of two possible locations for an epic battle between Christians and Muslims which will result in a Muslim victory and mark the beginning of the end of the world. IS lost the town in October 2016, seriously undermining the Apocalypse. It is probably no coincidence that IS soon changed the name of its online zine to Rumiyah (Arabic for ‘Rome’ – i.e. the desire to conquer the West). It is seldom a good marketing strategy to put out literature marking your most embarrassing defeat!

We can use these bad predictions to our advantage by highlighting that terrorist groups are not very good at what they represent. I am not so naive to think in an age where ‘fake news’ is shouted whenever something happens that goes against your worldview that merely pointing out errors will prevent everyone from signing up for violent causes, but it is another tool in our counter terrorism box.

I’d like to leave the last word on this to The Onion. As usual, the writers at this satirical Website have nailed it! ISIS Fighter Dreading Smug Looks From Hometown Friends Who Told Him Caliphate Sounded Like Dumb Idea

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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