Killing Christians is one of Isil's warped priorities
Published 27/07/2016 | 02:30
For more than two years, Isil has waged war on the religious mosaic of the Middle East. It has slaughtered all those they consider apostates in increasingly lurid fashion, targeting Christians, Yazidis, Shia Muslims, and countless Sunnis, too.
As the jihadists' war extended into Europe, they chose methods - such as the butchery of Nice - that even Osama bin Laden had rejected as indiscriminate.
But if Isil's target list is broad, it is not without priorities. In his speeches, Isil's so-called caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has repeatedly picked out Christians and Jews as enemies of particular note. Isil adherents have already deliberately killed Jews on European soil, beginning with the attack on the Jewish Museum of Belgium in May 2014. The only surprise is that churches have escaped violence for so long.
A war on Christians has for decades been part of the cocktail of fascist, fanatical and fundamentalist ideas that make up Islamist extremism. In 1998, an infamous fatwa by Bin Laden declared jihad against Jews and "crusaders". In the 2000s, as Iraq fell apart and violence spread, the historic presence of Christianity in the Middle East came under attack. Christians made up 14pc of the region's population in 1910; they comprise just 4pc now.
Thousands of churches have been attacked, and more than 100,000 Christians fled from Iraq alone.
The killing of Fr Jacques Hamel in Normandy yesterday, kneeling in his church, was foreshadowed in countless such acts outside Europe, such as the 16 Ethiopian Christians beheaded on a Libyan beach last year.
Isil's so-called "soldiers" in Europe appear to share some characteristics. They frequently have criminal backgrounds, while many have had mental problems. Most have a poor grasp of religious ideas, and are rarely pious. Isil's war in Europe will evolve in unpredictable and erratic ways, because the generals do not command the troops. There is little evidence that Isil has control, let alone forewarning, of some of the recent attacks. Yet it reaps the rewards - publicity and the illusion of success. It is a strategy that has evolved, bottom-up, from the individual choices of unconnected jihadists: sweeping attacks, like Nice, complement selective assassinations, like that in St Etienne-du-Rouvray.
The sheer scale of terrorist attacks in Europe, notably in France and Germany over the past few weeks, is psychologically dislocating, resulting in acute social and political pressure. There will be redoubled pressure on the government of President François Hollande to curb civil liberties - something a large majority of the French population favours - and get a grip on a situation that seems to be spiralling out of control.
France may choose to further escalate its air strikes in Iraq and Syria.
Border controls will ratchet upwards, accelerating the erosion of the Schengen system across Europe.
These measures will have only limited effect on a problem that lies largely within, rather than across, borders and that lies in the realm of ideology and inspiration rather than elaborate plots.
This is not a clash of civilisations or a war between religions, but it is evidently an assault upon both.
Shashank Joshi is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)