ISIS is on the run. It has lost its territory, and until this week, its spokesman, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, had been silent for months. But on Monday, the group popped up again, invigorated by a horrific terrorist attack on Muslims in New Zealand. In an audio message, al-Muhajir declared that the massacre at two New Zealand mosques, committed on Friday by a white nationalist, should “wake up” Muslims and “incite” them “to avenge their religion.”
This is how white nationalists and Islamic terrorists work together. They don’t conspire directly, as far as we know, but every attack on Muslims feeds the narrative of jihadis, and every attack by jihadis feeds the narrative of white nationalists. Friday’s mass murder will inspire new recruits to ISIS, and the next mass murder by ISIS will inspire more white extremists. Together, they’re targeting the rest of us—worshippers in New Zealand, concertgoers in France—in a bloody campaign to destroy pluralism.
Brenton Tarrant, the alleged New Zealand killer, says he gunned down Muslims to save his fellow whites. But his manifesto also lays out a political strategy that posits retaliation by Muslims. Tarrant writes that one aim of his violence is “to agitate the political enemies of my people into action, to cause them to overextend their own hand and experience the eventual and inevitable backlash as a result.” Ultimately, his goal is “to incite violence, retaliation and further divide between the European people and the invaders currently occupying European soil.”
Throughout his treatise, Tarrant talks about promoting extremists on the other side in order to polarize society. “Canvas public areas in support of radical positions, even if they are not your own,” he writes. “A vote for a radical candidate that opposes your values and incites agitation or anxiety in your own people works far more in your favour than a vote for a milquetoast political candidate.” Tarrant says he chose firearms as his weapons in part to provoke “calls for the removal of gun rights from Whites in the United states,” which he thinks will spur them to racial solidarity and action.
Tarrant’s account echoes the writings of his hero, the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik. “The European Islamic Ummah is our most potent weapon in our fight against the establishment,” Breivik told his fellow white terrorists in a 2011 manifesto. “Our objective [is] to manipulate this force by contributing to radicalise Muslim individuals. This can be achieved by provoking and inciting them to choose the path of Jihad.” Breivik called for rapes and mass murders of Muslims, especially on religious holidays, to “incite them to engage in violent riots” and other “blood vengeance,” which in turn would “radicalise more Europeans.” “Muslims are our absolutely best recruitment tools,” Breivik wrote. The success of the anti-Muslim movement, he argued, was “directly linked to the development of Jihadi movements. … It’s a symbiotic relationship.”
Breivik even counseled his confederates to consider buying weapons from Islamic terrorists. “An alliance with the Jihadists might prove beneficial to both parties,” he noted. “We both share one common goal. They want control over their own countries in the Middle East and we want control of our own countries in Western Europe.” The mass deportation of Muslims from Europe, he reasoned, would give Islamists “the necessary momentum to retake power” in the Arab world. And an “Islamic Caliphate,” in turn, would be “a useful enemy to all Europeans as it will ensure European unity under Christian cultural conservative leadership.”
Islamic terrorists haven’t spoken as bluntly as Breivik did about a direct alliance. But they’ve preached the same strategy of polarization through provocation. Osama Bin Laden has long spoken of attacks on the West as a way to drive Muslims into the arms of Islamic theocracy. In 1996, he said he wanted to goad the United States into sending troops to the Muslim world. His attacks on New York and Washington in 2001 prompted President George W. Bush to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2004, Bin Laden boasted that it had proved “easy for us to provoke and bait this administration.”
Several al-Qaida strategists spoke of Bush as an unwitting ally. One said al-Qaida’s goal was to “increase the jihadi expansion” by drawing U.S. troops into “a state of war with the masses.” Another said one aim of the 9/11 attacks was “to prompt the Americans” to launch “direct military action within the Islamic world” and thereby “help the [Islamic] nation to wake from its slumber.” Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the terrorist who led the underground war against American forces in Iraq, called Bush’s assault on that country a “blessed invasion.”
Zarqawi, a Sunni Muslim, viciously baited the rival Shiites. In a 2004 letter to Bin Laden, he proposed to attack Shiites to “provoke them to show the Sunnis their rabies.” Zarqawi wrote, “If we succeed in dragging them into the arena of sectarian war, it will become possible to awaken the inattentive Sunnis as they feel imminent danger.” In 2006, Zarqawi’s forces destroyed a holy Shiite mosque, triggering violent retaliation and unleashing civil war. Zarqawi died, but Sunnis rallied to his organization, and it became ISIS.
As ISIS gained territory and power, it applied the same strategy to the West. It rationalized its terror attacks in Europe as calculated provocations. A 2015 article in the official ISIS journal, Dabiq, predicted that such attacks would “bring division to the world and destroy the gray zone” of secure Muslim life in pluralist societies. By goading Western citizens and governments to “increase persecution against Muslims living in Western lands,” the article proposed to make these countries “destroy the gray zone themselves.” This, in turn, would force Muslims to flee to the Islamic State.
The provocation strategy succeeded in France, where Islamophobes won regional elections after a bloody ISIS attack in Paris. It also succeeded in America. Shortly after the Paris attack, Donald Trump—at that point considered an unelectable presidential candidate—called for a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Trump went on to win the election, and in January 2017, he ordered a ban on travel from seven majority-Muslim countries. Jihadis celebrated Trump’s attack on their religion. One called Trump’s policy a “blessed ban.” Another welcomed him as “the best caller to Islam.” A third said Trump could be used to recruit new terrorists: “If he keeps it up like this I think he will revive the jihad.”
Trump doesn’t get it, or he doesn’t care. In the wake of the New Zealand attack—committed by a man who praised Trump “as a symbol of renewed white identity”—the president has refused to send Muslims even a message of condolence. On Friday, Trump was asked whether he saw “white nationalism as a rising threat.” He replied, “I don’t really.” By dismissing anti-Islamic violence, Trump helps white extremists foment jihadism and undermine pluralism. You can’t fight one kind of terror if you won’t fight the other.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary, and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus