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ISIS can only succeed if we overreact — so we shouldn’t

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images,

ISIS can't win. But we can lose.

Amidst a week of fear over what the Islamic State can do, it's worth stopping to be clear about what it can't do. It can't invade Paris. It can't launch an air war against the United States. It can't even hold its ground — ISIS expert Will McCants estimates the group has lost between 20 and 25 percent of its territory in recent months.

The attack ISIS launched against Paris is a horror. But it should take nothing away from its tragedy to say more Americans have died from gun violence in seven days than died in the Paris attacks. That's not to downplay the threat of terrorism, but rather to highlight what makes it different: its capacity to terrorize.

"Terrorism is a crime against the mind," the security expert Bruce Schneier told me after the Boston Marathon bombing. "The message of terrorist attacks is you’re not safe and the government can’t protect you — that the existing power structure can’t protect you."

Fear makes people do stupid things, and it makes countries do stupid things, too. And it is fear that is ISIS's real weapon here.

ISIS can't hope to defeat America or France on the battlefield. It can't turn back our jets or harm our aircraft carriers. It can only hope to make us so afraid that we do something stupid that either helps it or hurts us. ISIS can only succeed if, blinded by rage and terror, we achieve its goals for it. There are at least two ways that might happen — and one of them is already happening.

How ISIS benefits from a backlash against refugees

27 governors say they won't accept Syrian refugees Sarah Frostenson/Vox

So far, 27 governors have said they won't accept Syrian refugees (though, for all the bluster, that's not a decision they have the power to make). Their fear is understandable; large refugee inflows seem like an obvious way ISIS could smuggle in foreign fighters. There's been a lot of discussion about the (apparently fake) Syrian passport one of the ISIS operatives carried, but its authenticity is almost beside the point — it's clear that a terrorist could try to enter the country disguised as a Syrian refugee, and for many, that's reason enough to close the door.

But the backlash against the refugees plays into ISIS's hands. As Zack Beauchamp writes:

ISIS despises Syrian refugees: It sees them as traitors to the caliphate. By leaving, they turn their back on the caliphate. ISIS depicts its territory as a paradise, and fleeing refugees expose that as a lie. But if refugees do make it out, ISIS wants them to be treated badly — the more the West treats them with suspicion and fear, the more it supports ISIS's narrative of a West that is hostile to Muslims and bolsters ISIS's efforts to recruit from migrant communities in Europe.

And that narrative benefits ISIS tangibly, not just spiritually.

"If they can spur a backlash against refugees, then they can recruit from that population when the backlash occurs," says Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "This was their playbook in 2005 and 2005 when they were known as al-Qaeda in Iraq. They would attack Shias, spark a backlash against Sunnis, and then recruit by posing as the defender of the Sunnis."

How ISIS benefits from a war

If you listen to ISIS's rhetoric, the group is particularly angry over the West's use of airstrikes and drones. In a statement claiming credit for the Paris attacks, ISIS said:

Let France and all nations following its path know that they will continue to be at the top of the target list for the Islamic State and that the scent of death will not leave their nostrils as long as they partake in the crusader campaign, as long as they dare to curse our Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him), and as long as they boast about their war against Islam in France and their strikes against Muslims in the lands of the Caliphate with their jets, which were of no avail to them in the filthy streets and alleys of Paris.

ISIS wants to sell its followers on a holy war to defend Islam, kill the infidels, and build the glorious caliphate. What it's getting, instead, is a merciless, impersonal pounding from air-dropped ordnance.

Ideally, ISIS would like to be left alone to build its state. But if that's not going to happen, pulling the West into an endless ground war in a heartland of the Muslim world is a much better recruiting opportunity than inviting young men to sit and around and wait to be bombed. A chance to fight the infidels in defense of your land is more appealing than a chance to die at the hands of their superior technology. For that reason, says Gartenstein-Ross, "inserting ground troops into Syria could play into their hands."

Similarly, ISIS's attack in Paris has led to resurgent sentiment in America that the West is locked in a war not just with ISIS but with "radical Islam" — a formulation that many experts believe ISIS would prefer, as it alienates Muslims and helps ISIS portray itself as defenders of its faith rather than as a gang of medieval thugs, extortionists, and murderers. (Here's a very good rundown of the "radical Islam" issue.)

"Nothing about what these assholes are trying to do is going to work"

I am not going to pretend that I have the answer to how the West should respond to ISIS. But in terms of how we should think about ISIS, I remember something Schneier said:

The damage from terrorism is primarily emotional. To the extent this terrorist attack succeeds has very little do with the attack itself. It’s all about our reaction. We must refuse to be terrorized. Imagine if the bombs were found and moved at the last second, and no one died, but everyone was just as scared. The terrorists would have succeeded anyway. If you are scared, they win. If you refuse to be scared, they lose, no matter how much carnage they commit.

To that end, the best reaction to ISIS I've seen has come from, of all places, a British comedian on HBO. I doubt John Oliver knows what to do about ISIS either, but he does know how to keep them in perspective.

"Nothing about what these assholes are trying to do is going to work," Oliver said. "France is going to endure. And I'll tell you why: If you're in a war of culture and lifestyle with France, good fucking luck."

ISIS isn't strong. It's weak. That doesn't mean it's not dangerous, or that it can't hurt us. But we shouldn't pretend these are invincible superterrorists. They're murderers fighting a war that they will lose and we will win. Part of how they recruit young fighters is by pretending that's not true — pretending they have a chance in this fight, that they are strong, that they have the West on its heels. We shouldn't indulge their fantasies. We can mourn their victims without believing their propaganda.

The thing you need to remember about ISIS, says Gartenstein-Ross, is it is not just weak in the West, it's also loathed across the Middle East: "America is unpopular in the Middle East, but if we had ISIS's approval rating, we would see that as a very, very serious strategic problem. They have a terrible brand. So part of what we need to do is simply avoid making mistakes that will let them present themselves as a defender of Muslims. We need to make sure Muslims continue to overwhelmingly reject ISIS."

Check out more of Vox's videos on YouTube, including "How the world is responding to the attack on Paris"