ISIS’s murderous gang represents, above all, a few thousand individuals’ phantasmagoric reaction to the feeling of being crushed and oppressed, shared by various categories of Muslims: Sunni Iraqis exasperated by the Iran-controlled Shia sectarian government that the Americans bequeathed to them; Sunni Syrians infuriated by the extreme barbarism of the Assad clan, backed by Tehran and Moscow; young Tunisians and others disappointed by the abortion of the Arab uprising, who see ISIS’s barbarism as an outlet for their frustration and a means to escape a daily life of unemployment and misery; young French, British, and other Europeans “of Muslim migrant descent,” enraged by their experiences of social precarity aggravated by Islamophobic racism deeply rooted in the colonial legacy; young migrants from Muslim-majority countries who confront the same racism, which becomes more virulent the less its targets are “assimilated.” All of them resent the United States, as well as France, Britain, and the other Western countries involved in the wars waged in the lands of Islam, whether in the Middle East or in Africa.
In the face of this colossal adversity, a fringe element takes the plunge. Subject to bullying by the state’s representatives and frustrated that they cannot participate in the society of overconsumption without resorting to theft and its associated risks, they hope to exchange their status as pariahs for the status of participants in an authoritarian regime that is all the more alluring because it is unbridled. (The other option they have for accessing a parcel of power is joining the police, whose actions are restricted in most states.) The illusion of micropower without limits fascinates even those who convert to Islam. The appeal of this turn to fundamentalism only grows for young males, thanks to the ideological legitimation it provides for uninhibited sexual domination, including the prospect of sexual enslavement, which ISIS dangles skillfully.
Others, looking for still more extreme adventures, succumb to the promise of achieving ecstasy by blowing themselves up. A fatal option that requires self-annihilation — and therefore unfailing determination — it attracts a far smaller number but enough to bring about spectacular massacres. Those who perform ISIS operations in Western countries have the same psychology as the one described in this book. The “ecstatic joy” of their murderous escape brings them an immediate satisfaction that adds to the prospect of an unlimited stay in paradise. This variant of Pascal’s wager, shared by all those who go down the path of no return by joining one of the avatars of Islamic terrorism, carries more risk than the original: for these suicide bombers to swipe the stake not only would God have to exist, but that God would have to approve of their organization’s peculiar, minority interpretation of the Islamic religion. Otherwise, they would be better off if there were neither a hereafter nor a last judgment.
To believe that entering paradise is the primary motivation of fundamentalist terrorism’s recruits, rather than a side bet, is to confuse them with mystics or “fools of God,” which, in their overwhelming majority, they are not. It also attributes more importance to the religious rationality of their commitment than it really has.
The same applies to all doctrines that are irrational from the standpoint of the longue durée’s humanistic ideology. The reasoned appeal of Adolf Hitler’s grotesque anti-Enlightenment ideology would have been very limited without the cult of hatred and the fascination with violence that he carefully nurtured and staged under historic and social circumstances conducive to political reaction.
ISIS has understood this perfectly: as all observers have emphasized, it has brought totalitarian propaganda to a new degree of sophistication in its macabre staging as well as in its production and diffusion of images. The cult of hatred and the fascination with violence play key roles in Islamic terrorism’s recruitment strategy, whether in Muslim or in Western countries.
And yet, hatred and violence do not develop as if by spontaneous generation: they need aggravating circumstances. When they support a weak-to-strong strategy — a strategy of the oppressed against the oppressor (or more accurately, of a member of the oppressed category against a member of the oppressor category) — their intensity matches the sense of humiliation and injustice that underlies them. At its origin, Al Qaeda’s barbarism stemmed directly from the encounter between the barbarism of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the obscurantist culture propagated by the Saudi kingdom and the Pakistani military dictatorship supported by the United States. The intense resentment created by the criminal embargo imposed on Iraq after the ravaging onslaught launched by the United States in 1991 fueled it, the American occupation of Iraq starting in 2003 further intensified it, and the extreme barbarism of the Syrian regime, backed by Iran and its auxiliaries, brought it to a climax.
Barbarism directly inspired by Al Qaeda and ISIS has raged in France in a spectacularly deadly way since January 2015. The relationship between this sad singularity and France’s long and very brutal colonial history in Africa, followed by the social, political, and cultural consequences of decades of French exploitation of a cheap labor force that originates from the same continent, is as obvious as the relationship between these same facts and the 2005 suburban riots. In a fleeting moment of political lucidity, from which he quickly recovered, then-prime minister Manuel Valls himself recognized the link between the attacks in Paris and the conditions of the people originating from African immigration, which he rightly described as “an ethnic, social, and political apartheid.”
This apartheid, aggravated by harassment from repressive apparatuses, constituted the ground on which ISIS and Al Qaeda successfully recruited volunteers. They had little difficulty convincing followers that France had declared war on “Islam” in light of the military adventures waged in Libya, Mali, Syria, and Yemen by François Hollande, who tried to offset his wimpy image by proving himself trigger happy. His remarkable readiness to shoot was narrowly linked to his achievements as a weapons dealer who presided over an impressive increase in French arms exports, a gunsmith willing to overlook the criminal records of his clients.