The incredible barbarism perpetrated by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, too often dissuades those in the West from any meaningful assessment of the group’s strategy and tactics. From beheading or burning alive captives to slaughtering entire minority populations and gunning down innocent civilians in previously quiet streets, the violence is incomprehensible and thus can appear devoid of reason or planning. That is far from the truth. ISIS has been very clear about its objectives. It uses violence to achieve its goals, including to spread fear and induce governments and publics to make choices they otherwise would not; to mobilize its supporters with demonstrations of its capabilities; and, most importantly, to provoke an anti-Muslim backlash to help it attract new followers and prepare for a clash of civilizations. The ignorance of most in Western society to ISIS’s clear and openly described objectives is providing the necessary fuel for their continued growth and momentum.
The reaction in the United States to the attacks in Paris has been a mixture of solidarity with the victims and a growing anxiety about the threat ISIS poses to the American homeland. This fear is understandable even though the ability of the U.S. government to detect and prevent terrorist attacks has never been stronger. The United States should not be complacent, however, and the Center for American Progress has proposed a series of steps the United States should take to defeat ISIS. We can never completely eliminate the risk of terrorist attacks. But in times such as these, it is incumbent upon political leaders to reassure the American people that they are taking all of the appropriate steps to keep them safe now and in the long term.