The Grayzone: How Our Response to Paris Is Exactly What ISIS Wanted (Editorial)

When we get scared, we tend to stop thinking rationally — that’s what makes fear such a powerful motivator.

It’s part of the reason why the United States spends $125 billion a year on counter-terrorism but less than $2 billion on the leading cause of death in the country: heart disease (terrorism has killed roughly 3,500 Americans since 2001; heart disease kills more than 600,000 Americans every year). It’s also why many U.S. governors have responded to the Paris attacks by vowing to prevent any and all Syrian refugees from resettling in their states.

I get the logic. One of the attackers used a fake passport to hide himself among the Syrian refugees, and people worry that something similar could happen with refugees who end up in America. However, it’s crucial to note that the six identified attackers (officials have yet to ID the other three) were all citizens of the European Union: five Frenchmen and one Belgian.

Courtesy of the New York Times

Courtesy of the New York Times

And more importantly, targeting refugees in the wake of the Paris attacks is exactly the kind of thing ISIS wants us to do. It’s a key part of a bigger objective for the group: making it impossible for Muslims to live in harmony with non-Muslims in the West.

To understand the strategy, you have to understand the concept of the “grayzone”. According to ISIS, there are two types of Muslims: “true” believers (ISIS members and others who pledge loyalty to their cause) and “deviant” Muslims — basically any Muslim who wishes to live peacefully within Western society.

Earlier this year, ISIS’s online magazine Dabiq published a 10-page editorial aimed at recruiting Muslims living in the West. The article, entitled “The Extinction of the Grayzone”, starts off by describing how the world was split into two distinct factions after the 9/11 attacks. The author writes,

As Shaykh Usāmah Ibn Lādin [Osama bin Laden] said, “The world today is divided into two camps. Bush spoke the truth when he said, ‘Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.’ Meaning, either you are with the crusade or you are with Islam.” The [US military] operations quickly exposed the different deviant “Islamic” movements, the palace “scholars,” and the deviant du’āt [religious workers], not to mention the apostate tawāghīt [corrupt Islamic officials], as all of them rushed to serve the crusaders led by Bush in the war against Islam.

ISIS believes that these so-called “deviant” Muslims (the ones who refuse to back violent jihad against the West) are living in a “grayzone” — a social limbo that allows them to claim Islam without having to give up what ISIS sees as the sinful aspects of Western culture.

ISIS’s goal is to completely eliminate this grayzone, forcing Muslims to pick sides as the jihadists prepare for a final “Great Battle” (al-Malhamah al-Kubra) between the righteous and the infidels. The Dabiq editorial continues,

As the world progresses towards al-Malhamah al-Kubrā, the option to stand on the sidelines as a mere observer is being lost… Muslims in the crusader countries will find themselves driven to abandon their homes for a place to live in the Khilāfah [Islamic caliphate], as the crusaders increase persecution against Muslims living in Western lands… Muslims in the lands ruled by the apostate tawāghīt will find themselves driven to the wilāyāt [provinces] of the Islamic State, as the tawāghīt increase their imprisonment of any Muslim they think might have a mustard seed of jealousy for his religion… Eventually, the grayzone will become extinct and there will be no place for grayish calls and movements. There will only be the camp of īmān [faithful] versus the camp of kufr [non-believers].

A depiction of the "Al-Malhamah Al-Kubra released by ISIS 's media arm (Courtesy of

This depiction of the al-Malhamah al-Kubra (Great Battle) is one of many ISIS recruiting tools (Courtesy of

According to ISIS doctrine, once the world is separated into these two camps, the Messiah will come down from heaven to banish all the unfaithful from the Earth:

When ‘Īsā [the Messiah/Jesus] descends, breaks the cross, and abolishes the jizyah [a tax on non-Muslims living under Islamic law], there will not be any place left for the camp of kufr to exist on the Earth, not even as humbled dhimmī [non-Muslims living in an Islamic state] subjects living amongst the Muslims in the camp of truth.

ISIS claims to have aspirations of one day ruling the world, but their true goal is both simpler and much more attainable: the group wants to control what it means to be a Muslim. More specifically, the group wants all Muslims to prescribe to an extremist form of Islam that preaches violent jihad and strict adherence to Sharia law. And what’s the best way to achieve this goal? Make Westerners so scared of potential terrorism that they start demonizing all Muslims.

It’s already happening. In the days since the Paris attacks, 26 U.S. governors have announced that they will turn away and all Syrian refugees.

On the surface, the strategy seems to make sense, especially since ISIS has been open about trying to hide terrorists among the refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East. But consider this for a second: since September 11, the United States has accepted roughly 745,000 refugees, many of whom came from the war-torn countries of Afghanistan and Iraq. Of those 745,000 refugees, not a single one has been arrested for domestic terrorism (two Iraqis were arrested on charges of helping al-Qaeda overseas in Iraq).

A number of influential political figures — like Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump — have also suggested closing mosques and creating a mandatory “Muslim database” to combat the threat of Islamic extremism. Others have compared the Syrian refugees to rabid dogs (Ben Carson) and rattlesnakes (Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller).

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has said he would consider forcing Muslim-Americans to register in a national database and carry around special identification cards (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has said he would consider forcing Muslim-Americans to register in a national database and carry around special identification cards (Photo: AP/Steven Senne)

ISIS is thrilled when politicians make inflammatory statements like these — it helps fuel xenophobic fears and further alienates Muslims living in the West. But for ISIS, the far more important battle is the battle over public opinion. If the group can convince average citizens to fear and hate the Muslims living among them, it doesn’t matter what the politicians do — the people will destroy the “grayzone” all by themselves.

Again, this process is already happening. Muslim-Americans have grown accustomed to being targeted after terrorist attacks, but advocacy groups say that the spike in anti-Muslim attacks since the Paris tragedy has been particularly notable. A recent report from ABC News describes a few of these incidents:

In Connecticut, the FBI and local police are investigating reports of multiple gunshots fired at the Baitul Aman mosque in Meriden hours after the attacks… At the University of Connecticut, authorities are investigating after the words “killed Paris” were discovered on Saturday written beneath an Egyptian student’s name on his dorm room door… In Canada, police in Toronto are investigating the assault and robbery of a Muslim woman, saying the incident appears “motivated by hate.” Also, a man in Montreal was arrested Tuesday for allegedly threatening in an online video to kill one Arab per week in Quebec, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported.

Muslim leaders also have reported recent vandalism, threats and other hate crimes targeting mosques in Nebraska, Florida, Texas, Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, Ohio, New York and other states.

At this point, it’s important to remember that all of the identified attackers in Paris were legal citizens of Western countries. The Paris attack wasn’t successful because ISIS managed to sneak a bunch of foreign fighters into the country; it was successful because ISIS was able to recruit disillusioned French and Belgian Muslims who had grown resentful of the societies in which they lived.

My point is this: letting a handful of Muslim refugees into the country might pose a small risk to national security, but alienating the Muslims living among us (making them more susceptible to radicalization) is a much more dangerous prospect.

As we decide how to respond to the Paris attacks, it’s critical that we understand and acknowledge ISIS’s strategy of eliminating the “grayzone” for peaceful Muslims. If we ignore it, we could very well end up doing exactly what the terrorists want us to do.


Of the 68 people to be indicted for alleged ties to ISIS, 55 were born in the United States and none were from Syria. Read more on that story from The Guardian.

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