This post might get long, so I apologize in advance, and I would like to say that the victims of the violence in Paris and elsewhere are in my thoughts.
Paris is in the news. People are justifiably upset and are looking for a target for their anger. We live in a society that has indoctrinated us to desire simple and easy answers. The world is a system full of an infinite number of moving parts, some of which work as they are intended. New moving parts arise due to the influence of others, and these new parts then interact with the whole, and can alter the state of the entire system. The world is a very complex, dynamic, and ever changing place.
We obviously cannot back up the many decades to start the story at the beginning, as that would put everyone to sleep (including me), so I am just going to throw a few things out there to add some context to recent events.
I cannot speculate as to the individual motivations of the attackers in Paris. However I can make some observations that I think are important. Europe is grappling with a refugee crisis. People are flooding across all borders looking for a safe place to live. France already has huge problems with xenophobia. The fact that Marine Le Pen has been gaining so much influence of late is illustrative of this. The Islamic State is, whether anyone likes it or not, is a state. They control territory, they have a military, they have a government, and they collect taxes on an economy. Consider what the loss of all of those refugees means to them. Each refugee is lost economic activity, lost tax revenue, or a potential lost military recruit. IS is a geopolitical unit, and as such it needs citizens. A nation cannot function without citizenry. This may seem like a cold way to look at the situation, however it is the reality that the rulers of the Islamic State are confronted with. If everyone leaves the territory controlled by the Islamic State, their situation becomes untenable. Standing militaries cost money and with no economy, the Islamic state cannot function. Someone has to provide services, pump the oil, provide health care….etc.
So how can the Islamic State stop the hemorrhaging of refugees? The Islamic State is a government that rules through violent authoritarian power. People naturally do not wish to live under such regimes. In the past, the answer has been to prevent people from leaving. (Think of the iron curtain, or the DMZ on the Korean peninsula) The Islamic State obviously does not have the financial means to build the infrastructure to prevent people from leaving, so what tools does it have remaining at its disposal?
IS has two potential tools at its disposal: (1) Terror and (2) western xenophobia and racism.
Assuming that the Paris attacks really were carried out under IS direction, let’s consider the probable outcome of such attacks. Western/non-Muslim people are very angry, and as I have previously stated above, want a simple solution. No doubt every person reading this has seen the anti-Muslim vitriol being spewed all over an internet that already knew no shortage of such hatred. Hollande has already promised retaliation, and political parties and organizations in Europe such as Front National and Britain First will likely seize the opportunity to whip already high levels of nationalism and xenophobia to a fever pitch. Refugees will be blamed. There will be pressure to close borders to refugees and to deport those that are already on European soil. Europe, and France in particular, has been teetering on a knife edge, and perhaps will soon tip to one side.
IS is often depicted as a bunch of deranged madmen. They have cultivated this image as it serves their purpose. This depiction however, masks the possibility that they are capable of strategic thinking and actions. I have speculated a bit here, but I do not think I am beyond reason. Europe may very well solve the problem for IS, and IS may have cunningly given them the motivation to do so.
Sadly, the Islamic State is a deliberate creation of both western and middle-eastern lust for power via foreign policy. Many nations have and/or continue to support IS, including the United States, France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel along with many others. Each had their own motivations. Such interventions are the norm rather than the exception and as a result, there are billions of people in the world who have been denied opportunity, seen family members killed, died of diseases, and so on simply because foreign interests had a desire to maintain some form of control over the land they happened to be born on. Many people are desperate and have few avenues available to them. Terrorists are often depicted as crazy zealots, and some of them certainly are. The thing that many people fail to understand however, is that there is often logic behind terrorist attacks.
We all often wonder what would motivate someone to join a group like the Islamic State. It is easy to think of them as monsters. I would like to remind everyone however, that the Nazi war machine was made up of millions of everyday people. Any of us are capable of being swept up by great events, and good people in tough situations can be coaxed, manipulated, or forced into performing horrible deeds by those in powerful positions. This is not to say that I want people to feel sorry for the attackers. I just think it is important for us to understand the context in which such events happen.
For some further context, I would recommend Chalmers Johnson, who was a cold war sociologist that wrote a book on the principle of blowback prior to the events of 9/11, and the documentary Bitter Lake, which is a little trippy, but well worth watching.
EDIT: The sound is a little messed up in the Bitter Lake vid, but it settles down at around the 10 minute mark.. It is really worth watching, I promise.