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In wake of Brussels attacks, what does the Islamic State group want?

USC researchers found a set of priorities and a strategy intended to “kill, frighten and/or convert infidels”

Maelbeek station
The Maelbeek metro station in Brussels, seen in this 2012 file image, was one of the locations struck during the March 22 attacks. (Photo/Ståle Grut via Creative Commons)

The Islamic State group is once again in the headlines, with the organization taking credit for today’s series of deadly explosions in Brussels. USC researchers have worked with a team of international experts to conduct a text analysis to understand the Islamic State group’s strategies.

According to the study published recently in the journal Decision Analysis, USC researchers at the Center for Risk, Economic Analysis and Terrorism Events (CREATE) found through texts of interviews with Islamic State members and speeches that the group has four primary strategies:

  • Establish an Islamic state in Iraq and the Levant in the eastern Mediterranean.
  • Control and govern that Islamic state.
  • Recreate the “power and glory of Sunni Islam.”
  • Expand Islam and its Sharia law worldwide.

They also found in their text analysis that two objectives that support those four strategies include “kill, frighten and/or convert infidels” and generate revenue.

Personal versus group objectives

At the same time, the researchers found that followers of the Islamic State group (often referred to as ISIS or ISIL) have three primary personal objectives – “humanitarian fulfillment, religious fulfillment and personal fulfillment.” Some goals within those personal objectives, such as gaining power and improving their material situation and self esteem, are at odds with the organization’s primary strategies, creating conflict within the organization.

“Observing shifts in these objectives and exploiting potential conflicts can provide insights for the development of counter terrorism strategies. If, for example, it were proven that ISIL leaders want to establish a regional caliphate as opposed to worldwide jihad, this would give weight to the argument that troops are needed on the ground to defeat them,“ according to the research team.

The study was conducted by Richard S. John, an associate professor of psychology for the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and a research theme co-leader for risk perception and communication for USC’s CREATE;  Detlof von Winterfeldt, a co-founder of USC’s CREATE who is a professor in the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and Price School of Public Policy; and lead author Johannes Siebert of University of Bayreuth, Germany.

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