Scott Atran is a Director of Research at France’s National Center for Scientific Research, Research Professor at the University of Michigan, researcher at Artis International, and cofounder of the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at the University of Oxford.
Our research team has been working on the front lines of the fight with ISIS since the beginning of 2015 to enhance policymakers’ access to field-based social science. We found that although ISIS has lost control of almost all majority-Sunni territory in Iraq, the group has imbued a generation of young Sunni Arabs with a strict belief in Sharia law as the only way to govern society; and this is a value they are willing to fight and die for. The people we interviewed and tested almost invariably associated democracy with human weakness and perfidy.
Rather than reflecting a movement in decline, the Nice attack may be best understood as a recalibration of long-endorsed tactics in the service of an overriding strategy of world revolution. Even if ISIS loses all of its territory in Syria and Iraq, the global jihadi archipelago could continue to expand if the social and political conditions that have led to its emergence continue to persist.
As our own interviews with ISIS recruits in Europe and captured ISIS fighters in Iraq have shown, simply treating the Islamic State as a form of “terrorism” or “violent extremism” masks the menace. Dismissing the group as “nihilistic” reflects a dangerous avoidance of trying to comprehend, and deal with, its profoundly alluring mission to change and save the world.