By Faisal Al Yafai
June 29, 2015
The bodies have been buried and the mourners have gone home to deal with their grief. In Kuwait and in Tunisia, as in Britain, in Germany and in Belgium, families will be contemplating lives that suddenly seem less bright.
What exactly does ISIL hope to achieve through these attacks? The question might seem strange, as if seeking a veneer of reason over acts of barbarism. Yet there is a grim logic to ISIL's brutal strategy. They are not random, nor are they especially driven by religious hatred.
The militant group considers most of the world to be “Kuffar” – literally non-Muslims, but in ISIL's view a vast category, into which it lumps not merely Christians, Jews and Shia Muslims, but also all the shades of religious devotion among Sunni Muslims, who must conform precisely to ISIL's bizarre interpretations and whims, or face cruel punishments and death.
The sectarian language used to incite and justify attacks on this group is actually part of a tried and tested strategy to divide and rule. As it worked in Iraq, so ISIL hopes it will also work in Tunisia and Kuwait.
ISIL's strategy is deeper, more long-term and more provocative than it appears. The militant group wants to split communities and impoverish countries, because divided communities are easier to rule and impoverished countries provide easy recruits.
Start in Tunisia. The gunman Seifeddine Rezgui, already claimed by ISIL, did not launch his attack suddenly. Eye witnesses described him walking calmly up the beach, choosing his victims. Both the venue and the holiday-makers were carefully chosen. If Rezgui simply wished to cause carnage, why not open fire immediately on the beach?
Instead, by targeting European-looking tourists, ISIL's gunman sought to strike at Tunisia's economy.
Foreign tourists make up a significant part of the country's tourism sector, itself one of the most significant sectors of the economy. More importantly, tourism is a soft target. Unlike, for example, mining or manufacturing (two other vital economic sectors in Tunisia), tourism is easily debilitated. For the same reason, militants targeted the capital's Bardo Museum in March.
By going after the economy, ISIL hopes to weaken Tunisia's government. A country that struggles to provide work for its citizens is one that will also offer a significant pool of disenfranchised young men; men who are unable to find work, to start their lives and to put down roots in society. It is from among these men that ISIL will find its most willing recruits.
ISIL's attack in Kuwait also has a grim logic to it. ISIL hope to divide Kuwait. By making Kuwaiti Shia feel under threat, they hope to provoke the community into a reaction against the majority Sunni – a reaction that ISIL can then say demonstrates that the Sunnis are under threat and need to be defended. From their beginnings in Iraq, ISIL have sought to portray themselves as defenders of the Sunnis.
That strategy was particularly fertile in Iraq, not because of religious rivalry, but because of politics. By playing one sect against the other – in the context of sectarian policies from Iraq's government – ISIL created a space for themselves. They divided and ruled communities by posing as defenders.
For ISIL, sectarian identities are easily manipulated. One of the reasons the militants of ISIL so dislike the borders of nation states – one of their first acts a year ago after declaring a new "caliphate" was to claim they had destroyed the borders of Sykes-Picot – is that these borders offer an alternative allegiance for disaffected Iraqis and Syrians.
Though they frame their antipathy in the language of anti-colonialism and Islamic history, it is a rather more mundane psychological idea that guides their strategy.
If young men have more allegiance to their so-called "caliphate" and their leader than to home, family or country, they will be easier to manipulate. ISIL doesn't merely appear to be a cult, it also operates like one.
All of which makes it all the more necessary that the idea of the nation state is reinforced. In Kuwait, the emir Sheikh Sabah said the attack had targeted “national unity” and declared a day of mourning.
That sort of language is essential, for Kuwaitis are not mourning a religious sect but their fellow citizens.
The gunman in Sousse and the suicide bomber in Kuwait City were not targeting merely bodies. They were seeking to strike at the very idea of nation states.
Both communities and governments must recognise that, and affirm that a divide and rule strategy cannot succeed when those targeted realise they have more that unites them than divides them.