National Security & Defense

The Martyrdom of Father Hamel and ISIS’s Total-War Strategy

A policeman stands guard in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, July 26, 2016. (Pascal Rossignol/Reuters)
The terrorists take special joy in attacking the oldest Christian institution in the West.

By all accounts, Father Jacques Hamel’s 86 years were defined by honorable service to his congregants and his faith. He served the picturesque town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, perched on a forested bend of the Seine River. But earlier today, two ISIS fanatics entered Father Hamel’s church and slit his throat. They also critically injured a nun before being shot dead by French SWAT officers.

ISIS’s war against humanity rumbles on. But although the investigation has just begun, we can already make some key observations.

First, it is noteworthy that ISIS’s media arm rapidly claimed responsibility. That suggests the organization is ramping up its propaganda effort in conjunction with its global war. In recent weeks, we’ve seen ISIS attackers murder a French police officer and his girlfriend, bomb Istanbul’s Ataturk airport, bomb hundreds of civilians in Iraq and Syria, slaughter patrons at a Bangladesh bakery, rundown 84 innocents in Nice, detonate a suicide vest at a German concert, and stab passengers on a German train. Multiple other ISIS plots — including a plan to massacre fans at a European Cup soccer-watch party — have also been prevented.

These attacks do not exist in a vacuum. Rather, they reflect ISIS’s three-pronged strategy. First, the group aims to inspire and mobilize losers to commit attacks in its name. Second, it is escalating its efforts to infiltrate directed cells (à la attacks in Paris last November) into the West. Third, in Iraq and Syria, it is displacing political compromise with sectarian bloodletting. These threads are distinct in character but connected by shared intent, and they require our comprehensive response.

RELATED: ISIS’s Recruiting Strategy: Use Technology to Turn Losers into Terrorists

Another aspect of today’s murder of Father Hamel also warrants our attention. By targeting a Catholic church, the attack increases the possibility of contact with a broader network of jihadist support and guidance. As the Nice investigation (and other recent plots) have shown, ISIS’s “lone wolves” often operate with larger support networks than previously assumed. But in targeting Catholicism, this incident pays special fealty to ISIS’s deeper ideological motivations. After all, as the originating authority for the Crusades, and as the perceived home of European Christendom, the Catholic Church is despised by ISIS leaders. The group has previously plotted against the Vatican and Pope Francis, and references to Rome often appear in sermons by ISIS leaders. This desire to purge and reclaim European territory takes root, at least in part, in Islamist humiliation over Muslims’ expulsion from Europe under Isabella I, Spain’s Catholic queen in the 15th century. And while the anti-Catholic motivation might seem peripheral to us, it is a key engine of the enemy’s war machine. ISIS sympathizers will be especially proud of the assassination of a Catholic priest.

ISIS’​s desire to purge and reclaim European territory takes root, at least in part, in Islamist humiliation over Muslims’​ expulsion from Europe under Queen Isabella I.

The attack ultimately represents ISIS’s growing success in its war on Western civil society. Too many in the West neglect this reality. President Obama, for example, recognizes that ISIS wants to stoke Westerners’ fears, but he fails to realize that the jihadists do not create fear as an end in itself. Rather, they sow fear in order to drive Western citizens away from the daily practice of freedom. The president’s shortsightedness thus ignores the founding principles that shape Western civil society: our free choices in pursuit of happiness — our choices to go to a restaurant, or walk in a park, or go to a sports game, or to comfortably send our kids to school. Today, ISIS forces Europeans to pause and question their participation in these activities. And as I noted recently at NRO, ISIS has thus had a dramatic impact on European civil society and politics.

#related#Nevertheless, there was one small positive takeaway from today’s atrocity: The enemy failed to fully complete its mission. The terrorists apparently recorded their slaughter with the intent of posting a video online, and ISIS’s propaganda teams would have been overjoyed to broadcast brutality. Fortunately, however, the rapid police response seems to have prevented the the terrorists’ from filming the throat-slitting. Instead, the terrorists’ last video appearance probably involved their ignominious defeat by French patriots.

President Hollande should airdrop that video over Raqqa.

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at


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