Like so many who have been studying the Islamic State, IPFW’s Lawrence A. Kuznar was not surprised the terrorists mounted a major attack in Paris. It just came more quickly than he thought.
“I thought we had a little more time before they struck in the West,” said Kuznar, a professor of anthropology.
Now Kuznar, who is one of coalition of academics who works with the Defense Department to analyze IS, believes the terror group’s next target may be Russia.
All but lost in all the news of recent days was a particularly gory and sophisticated video IS released Thursday. The visuals are beheadings and mass executions. But the message, with English subtitles, is in Russian: “Soon, very soon, the blood will spill like an ocean.”
“It was really chilling,” said Kuznar, who has been “immersing myself” in IS messages during the past two years.
Anthropologists try to “see the world through other people’s eyes,” Kuznar said. Combining that approach with statistics analysis, he’s been able to identify the issues IS emphasizes in its recruiting videos and, by counting the number of mentions each receives, to discover how IS ranks its enemies.
“No. 1 one is other Sunni Muslims that don’t share their particular take on Sunni Islam,” he said. “No. 2 is Shiite Muslims.
“And No. 3 is Americans in particular. They really hate us a lot.”
Tribal conflicts, with an emphasis on South America, had been Kuznar’s area of study. But he also began working with the Pentagon’s strategic multilayer assessment, “a loose consortium of universities and government entities,” eight years ago. “I never thought my research would be relevant to current events,” he said in an interview Monday.
“ISIS is not tribal,” he said. “But tribalism is a part of the puzzle in Iraq and Syria.” Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad gained power because “they were masters at playing these tribes off each other.”
Now, with Saddam gone and Assad’s regime engaged in civil war, that structure is unraveling.
“What ISIS is doing is fanning the flames – sowing discord among those tribes,” Kuznar explained. The terror group offers those tribes a vision of a united “caliphate” with a unified Muslim faith. The Islamic State’s message is that the end times are near, and that the tiny Syrian town of Dabiq, near the Turkish border, will be the scene of a final, apocalyptic battle.
IS is good at recruiting over social media, and now it’s clear that it can plan and execute attacks outside “the caliphate.” But Kuznar cautions that overreaction could play directly into the Islamic State’s aspirations, by drawing the U.S., Russia and Iran deeper into Syrian involvement.
Kuznar thinks it would be “a great strategic victory for ISIS and their recruiting” if the West decides to abandon the refugees.
Even though its terror caused the current refugee crisis, IS would use that as “an example of the way we’re treating Muslims. I could see Isis recruiting its own victims.”
Though Kuznar agrees with the need for a thought-through military response, he believes the real answer will be to find a way to out-message IS by amplifying the voices of the rest of the Islamic world.
“The world’s Muslims are the world’s greatest ally in the fight against ISIS,” he said.