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Feeling Heightened Pressure, ISIS Apparently Broadens Strategy Of Spectacle


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Security officials are trying to determine who was behind the horrific events in Paris on Friday. We're joined by Audrey Kurth Cronin. She's the director of the international security program at George Mason University. Professor, thanks very much for being with us.

AUDREY KURTH CRONIN: Good morning, Scott, it's a pleasure.

SIMON: You've been following the news. What do you think the world saw unfold in Paris last night?

CRONIN: Well, if this is indeed an attack by ISIS, or Daesh, then this is a shift of their strategy that's been going on for about the last month. It was a series of horrific attacks against soft targets. And it can only make us all feel very, very sorry for the victims. But clearly there's a broader strategic perspective. And I think we need to pay attention to that too.

SIMON: Well, what's the strategic perspective? I mean, from - I think a lot of people think it looks like they're just looking for opportunities to kill people with no strategy whatsoever.

CRONIN: Well, there is a certain degree to which that's true. Terrorism is always trying to kill people in order to gain attention. And I think they just wanted to cause a lot of people to die in a horrific way. And we've watched that. And all those kids in the Bataclan concert hall, all those, you know, people who are out on a Friday night, it's really horrifying. So there's no question that the goal was to kill a lot of people. But ISIS has had a different kind of a goal earlier in its, you know, even last summer. They've been trying to build a caliphate and trying to hold territory. And they've been remarkable in terms of their ability to carry out conventional operations in cooperation with a lot of the former Baathists in Iraq. So this switch toward killing people, toward terrorism, is I think a sign of their weakness.

SIMON: How so?

CRONIN: Well, I - they've had a couple of setbacks lately. They've lost Sinjar. There was also the killing of Jihadi John. And I think that ISIS is feeling that they need to regain the momentum, that they need to capture people's attention, and they see themselves as using terrorism in order to do that. So they've extended their reach. They've engaged in terrorism now in Paris, but they've also killed people with suicide bombings in Turkey. They've attacked people in Lebanon, particularly areas controlled by Hezbollah. They apparently took down the Russian airliner in Egypt. And of course now we have France. So this is a sign of a shift in their broader strategy. And I think it's a sign that they're feeling some pressure from what the Western end local regional allies are doing. And I think it has - it's a reason for us to pause and to think about how that strategy is changing.

SIMON: So pressure to produce some kind of spectacular killing events that put their name before the world. And, what, get more adherents or just advertise they're willing to do anything?

CRONIN: Yes. I think this is their way of - of capturing attention. Remember what - what ISIS has been particularly effective at doing is mobilizing young people and showing them that they can contribute to the so-called caliphate now. And their - their ability to have some agency and some power has been quite surprising, in fact, even shocking, to see the degree to which they've been able to pull Westerners and other people from, you know, local countries. The so-called foreign fighter phenomenon has been very concerning. But the reason they've been able to attract those folks is that they've got what they call the caliphate now. And it's a - kind of an exciting prospect for some young people, those who are interested in showing that they can take - engage in power and have agency, and it's a - it's attractive.


CRONIN: But this kind of attack in Paris, particularly against one of the world's most beloved cities, I think is going to seriously undermine their appeal, so with the shift in strategy and that respect.

SIMON: Audrey Kurth Cronin, from George Mason University, thanks so much for being with us.

CRONIN: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.