I expect that most people contemplating the massacre in Paris last night are puzzled by the motive. The Islamic State can hardly expect to strengthen its grip on territory, or to expand, by provoking a militarily powerful nation to counterattack, as France almost surely will. I commend to your attention this article in the Atlantic by Graeme Wood. It's fairly long, but go ahead and read the whole thing.
He actually makes a mistake at one point by predicting that IS won't carry out attacks on foreign soil (the Charlie Hebdo attack was sponsored by al Qaeda). But the events last night actually do make sense in terms of his analysis. The most important thing we need to understand is IS adherents really do believe that they are fulfilling apocalyptic prophecies, which in fact include their near-destruction at the hands of "Rome," which today mean essentially what we all the West, the European Christendom as it has expanded to North America and elsewhere. They want to provoke conflict, in other words. Here is a key pull from Wood's essay:
In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” . . .So do read it. This is not an enemy that behaves according to the logic of others. Its actions make no sense in most people's terms. It is essential to understand its internal logic.
Our ignorance of the Islamic State is in some ways understandable: It is a hermit kingdom; few have gone there and returned. Baghdadi has spoken on camera only once. But his address, and the Islamic State’s countless other propaganda videos and encyclicals, are online, and the caliphate’s supporters have toiled mightily to make their project knowable. We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.
Now, expanding on this, it was a bit odd to hear Francoise Hollande decry the attack as "an act of war." France is obviously already at war with IS, and committing its own acts of war, specifically bombing them from the air, every day. Now, Hollande will make the entirely respectable claim that France (like the U.S. and its other partners in bombing) tries not to blow up non-combatants. Obviously they don't always succeed, but they are engaged in a military campaign, not indiscriminate massacre.
I am also not in the least contrarian about the moral inequivalence of France and IS. The self-styled Islamic State is a cancer upon humanity, and its existence is intolerable. Principal objectives of the war on IS are to liberate people it enslaves, prevent it from continuing atrocities, and to allow people it has driven from their homes to return. France, in contrast, is a legitimate state with acceptable concern for the rights and welfare of its citizens, and of guests. France does not take visitors hostage and behead them, for example, nor does it crucify religious minorities. France does restrict the religious practice of Muslims, notably by prohibiting the hijab. This may be a legitimate grievance, but a proportionate response would be protest or civil disobedience.
All that said, what is to be done? This is a real quandary. The front line troops against IS, unfortunately, as presently constituted, cannot do the job. The Kurdish peshmerga is capable, courageous and disciplined, and has shown that it can defeat IS on the battlefield with U.S. air support. However, the peshmerga cannot legitimately take on the task of liberating the Sunni Arab heartland from IS, nor do they have any interest in doing so. In fact the reconquest of Sinjar is an irritant to the Baghdad government, as Sinjar is outside of the previously acknowledged Kurdish autonomous region, and the Kurds have announced that they intend to keep it.
The Baghdad government, despite some recent attempts at reform, remains Shiite dominated, has no legitimacy with Sunni Arabs, and has a corrupt and incompetent army. Its most effective elements are Iranian-led Shiite militias, and they would have even less legitimacy than the Kurds moving into Sunni Arab cities. In fact the Kurds and Shiite militias recently clashed in Tuz Kharmato, and the Baghdad government has interdicted arms shipments to Kurdistan. So our allies in this fight are on the brink of war with each other. (Turks and Kurds are also at war, although it's a Kurdish faction which does not have the support of the Kurdistan regional government. Nevertheless it makes the situation very awkward and makes Turkey of little help against IS.)
What IS wants, and what they hoped to get from the Paris massacre, is for Christian troops to come and fight them. This may not make sense to you, but to them it is the point of their existence. They believe they are fulfilling prophecy, and that the battle they are trying to provoke is essential to the fulfillment of God's plan. No, God won't give them the victory, but the spectacle of European and North American armies marching into the Arab heartland is not going to advance the cause of global harmony. That is what Barack Obama has so far done his best to avoid.