The Islamic State's worldview springs from a prophetic theology of seventh-century Islam. Terrestrial grievances aside, what they claim to want most is an apocalyptic confrontation between Muslims and infidels in Dabiq, a remote village in Northern Syria near the Turkish border. The Prophet reportedly identified Dabiq as the scene of the final battle between the armies of Islam and Rome. The battle is said to signal the countdown to the apocalypse, or something like that. Dabiq was one of the first sites ISIS captured in its early days precisely because of its theological import. They even named their propaganda magazine after the town.
Understanding this bit of prophecy is essential to understanding ISIS's strategy. They are inviting a war they cannot win because they're not interested in winning it. This is about goading the West into a bloody confrontation on foreign soil in order to realize a fantastical theological vision. They want as many Western boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria as possible.
ISIS will have to be defeated militarily. But we have to be careful about how we do that. A methodical campaign that avoids the mistakes of the Iraq War is a useful starting point. We have to contain and stunt ISIS's progress without allowing the conflict in Iraq and Syria to further destabilize the region. That may mean a “slow bleed” approach, as The Atlantic's Graeme Wood put it, is “the best of bad military options.”
All of this is easier said than done, and there are no risk-free strategies. But knowing what ISIS wants is central to any effort to combat them. What we can't do is take their bait at every turn and fumble our way into another large-scale ground conflict. This is exactly what ISIS hopes we will do, and everything they've said and done thus far confirms it.
Given their desire to provoke a final conflict, it should surprise no one that ISIS loyalists are eager to see a Donald Trump presidency. To realize their vision, they need help from an American president. It was, after all, George W. Bush's myopic decision to invade Iraq that paved the way for ISIS's existence. Now they need America to overreach again, and Trump is their best bet.
According to a Talking Points Memo report, many pro-ISIS jihadists see Trump's posturing as an opportunity to advance their own agenda. He's the “perfect enemy,” said one ISIS defector, referring to Trump's propaganda value. On various online networks utilized by extremist groups, Trump's ascendance is viewed as a sign of America's inevitable decline. From their perspective, Trump is a cartoonish figure who would sink the economy and fracture America's relationships around the world, limiting our ability to deploy hard and soft power. That, combined with Trump's jejune militarism, would create precisely the kind of landscape ISIS desires.
Hillary Clinton is a hawk by any measure, but she's far less likely than Trump to act imprudently. A former secretary of state, she at least understands the world. Whatever her plan, it will be wiser than Trump's ISIS strategy, which he famously distilled to six words: “Bomb the shit out of them.” Trump is also a rare propaganda gift for ISIS. He's vowed to ban Muslims from entering the country, shut down mosques at home, kill the family members of suspected terrorists, and escalate America's illegal torture program. This is a prescription for alienating every Muslim-majority country in the world. If you're looking to advance the “clash of civilizations” thesis, as ISIS is, Trump is your candidate.
A Trump administration would be a boon for Islamic extremists everywhere. He's a poster boy for the caricatured version of America you find in their propaganda material. If he wins, they win. And even if you think Trump is attuned to the nature of the threat, the fact remains: he has no solutions and everything he's said suggests he'll make things infinitely worse. The Jihadists know it, too.