It is tempting to view such violence as senseless and nihilistic. However, taking into account the Islamic State’s history, it is clear that such a determination would be a mistake. By launching increasingly shocking attacks against Western targets, the Islamic State is pursuing a specific goal — generating hostility between domestic Muslim populations and the broader societies that they live in.
Despite its dire connotations, such a strategy is achievable for the group. In fact, some group members have successfully implemented it before, in Iraq, when the Islamic State’s predecessor organization, al Qaeda in Iraq, purposely provoked a sectarian civil war in that country following the 2003 U.S. invasion.
In a 2004 letter to Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, laid out his proposal for provoking such a conflict, calling for terrorist attacks against the Shiite majority population that would lead to a harsh crackdown on the Sunni minority. In such a scenario, his group could then coerce the Sunni population into viewing it as their only protector. “If we succeed in dragging them into the arena of sectarian war,” Zarqawi wrote, “it will become possible to awaken the inattentive Sunnis as they feel imminent danger and annihilating death.”
Murtaza Hussain writes about the strategy of Daesh to create division: