The recent surge of terrorist strikes, in Orlando, Jordan, Lebanon, Istanbul, Baghdad, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, and now southern France is a sign of ISIS’s desperation to reassert its relevance, in the face of its string of losses on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq.
With ISIS’s call for attacks in the coming months in Europe and America, the likelihood of an ISIS directed, enabled, or inspired attack is high.
There is no denial that American airstrikes, Iraqi and Kurdish ground assaults, and the occasional raid by US Special Forces have lately thrashed ISIS forces, severed their supply lines, and recaptured some of their strongholds.
However, the spectrum of terrorism is widening and now includes attacks loosely inspired by the Islamic State, those carried out by its affiliate groups and attacks directed by the group’s leadership. All have drawn public condemnation and concern, but the plots organized and executed by the Islamic State usually prompt greater concern from the authorities.
The group’s ideology, spread widely through social media and propaganda videos, appears to have inspired a scourge of violence for more than a year: including the shooting in December in San Bernardino, Calif.; the mass killings at a gay nightclub in Orlando; and the deadly attack at a cafe in Bangladesh. These were in addition to attacks that top Islamic State operatives apparently planned directly, like the Paris assaults and the Brussels bombings.
The current cycle of violence started in Brussels in May 2014, when a French fighter linked to the ISIS opened fire at the Jewish Museum in Brussels and gunned down three people.
In September 2014, the spokesman for the Islamic State put out a call for the group’s followers to attack Westerners by any means possible, and to do so without awaiting further instructions from the group’s leaders.
Across Europe, more than 185 people have been killed, but the population of more than 500 million people in the EU has been terrorized. While ISIS claimed direct responsibility for bombings in Brussels, many of the previous attacks are believed to have been inspired by ISIS, which makes them no less chilling. All told, ISIS has carried out or inspired roughly 75 terrorist attacks in 20 countries outside Syria and Iraq.
ISIS has gone global, shifting from operating purely within its region to a strategy of targeting foreigners abroad. And as it continues to lose ground in the Middle East-it’s lost 22% of its territory in Iraq and Syria since January 2015, the world needs to brace itself for an increasingly desperate jihadist group lashing out at every turn.
Earlier, the strategy of ISIS primarily focused on capturing territory in the Middle East. Then it started expand into closer territory by attacking nearby enemies, who ranged from al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra and Syrian revolutionary forces to the Assad regime and the Iraqi government. This focus started to gradually change from the summer of 2014, specifically after US airstrikes began in August of that year.
ISIS affiliates and sympathizers have conducted no less than 30 alleged plots and terrorist attacks against Western citizens and interests since October 2014.
While the cities these terrorists have attacked so far seems to be relatively random, but there is an interesting fact which needs to be taken into consideration. ISIS is trying to make Europe and Western countries as its main recruitment base.
Also terrorists need publicity and when they bomb an airport in a place like Nigeria or Indonesia, they get very little publicity. When, however, they kill scores of innocent folks in Paris or Brussels, the 24 hour news stations descend on each city and give the event total coverage with banner headlines and end-to-end reporting.
The conflicts in Syria and Iraq have attracted foreign fighters by the thousands. Middle Eastern and Western intelligence agencies have raised concern that their citizens who have joined the fighting in Iraq and Syria will become radicalized and then use their passports to carry out attacks in their home countries.
From 2012 to 2015, more than 400 people left Belgium for ISIS-controlled Iraq and Syria, making Belgium the EU capital for foreign jihadist fighters. Over the same time period, nearly 1,200 people have traveled from France to Iraq and Syria to join the jihadist cause.
It is therefore no coincidence that these two countries are such breeding grounds for Islamic terrorism. Both are home to some of the most radicalized and ostracized Muslim neighborhoods on the continent; Molenbeek in Brussels, and the banlieues in Paris. When these foreign fighters return to their home countries -Belgian officials estimate that 117 of those that left for the Middle East from Belgium have returned-they often have networks of friends and accomplices in place to help shelter them from law officials.
Belgium has the highest numbers of foreign fighters in Syria per capita, compared to any Western nation. They are estimated to be over 500.
The exact number of ISIS trained-and-returned European fighters is still unknown. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the ISIS ringleader who co-masterminded the Paris attacks, claimed the he was back in Europe among 90 ISIS trained terrorists. Back in the ISIS strongholds, the organization allegedly trained 400-600fighters for “external operations.”
In late 2015, those were given more complex and prolonged training in urban guerilla warfare, manufacturing of improvised explosive devices, surveillance, countering security measures, and forgery. Thus, the terror capacity is well-founded. The sustainability of terrorist operations in different locations is also key for ISIS’ strategy, in order to drain Europe both financially and psychologically. So far, Turkey was hit the hardest followed by France. But the list of hard-hit countries can certainly expand, and ISIS will no doubt seek to spread its terror throughout the continent.
As airstrikes and counterattacks have retaken the lands ISIS had conquered, the group has shown it can respond to changing circumstances. One example of this is mass immigration to Europe, with several million people fleeing Iraq and Syria. The migration was at first condemned by ISIS. But in the past 10 months, though, the migrant route has been used to smuggle some members back to their homelands, to prepare for instructions.
ISIS has not only found a fertile recruiting ground among some of Europe’s most disillusioned, the group is also taking advantage of the geopolitical situation. The single biggest story in Europe over the past 18 months has been the refugee crisis, as millions stream into the continent to flee Middle East wars. In 2015, more than 1.1 million migrants entered Europe; there’s little sign of a slowdown in 2016, with 135,000 people having arrived by sea so far.
In the refugee crisis, ISIS has recognized a golden opportunity to further its narrative of a civilizational war between Islam and the West-and many European leaders have played directly into the terrorist group’s hands. When the Polish and Bulgarian Prime Ministers say that they are only willing to accept Christian refugees, it gives fodder for ISIS to rally more zealots to its cause. One of the Stade de France attackers apparently carried a fake Syrian passport in an effort to further push this narrative.
The massive flow of migrants into Europe provides terrorists ample opportunity to blend in. European security services need to better understand who is entering Europe, and more fully cooperate in sharing intelligence about potential terrorists.
Before the US started its military campaign in Iraq, the West was not really a priority for ISIS. Now, as the beheadings of Western hostages and the recent IS statements make clear, the equation has changed.
In its early period, ISIS was a local jihadist movement focused on grabbing territory in Iraq and Syria. With their success on the battlefield their ambitions and their ranks swelled, as did their reach into Iraq and Lebanon. At that time the group’s main enemy was not the US, France, Britain, or Israel but rather Iran. Until now, only al-Qaeda had both the aspiration and capacity to strike globally-and did so, targeting the West and its Arab “pawns.” Now, that is changing, as the battle-hardened and ruthless ISIS jihadists return to the West with their EU and US passports. With each passing day, ISIS will be better positioned to carry out its threat to create havoc in the West.
Today, the ISIS leadership sees benefits in directly striking the West. The leadership has multiple aims, which includes deterring the West from attacking the territories it controls, furthering the alienation of Western Muslims, and hence capitalizing on that via recruitment and mobilization. The ability to launch terror attacks in the West, despite being under heavy bombardment, displays a strength of ISIS.
Supporters of the terror group see Britain’s EU exit as a sign of Western weakness. Europe needs to maintain unity among its democracies and develop a common security strategy to deal with the security challenges posed by ISIS. Disunity and fragmentation does not only serve ISIS’ publicly declared and celebrated objective of “weakening European cohesion” and fostering ”tensions between France and Belgium over intelligence failures,” but it also undermines both societal resilience to terrorism and strategic security cooperation.
The EU should also deepen and widen its anti-terrorist cooperation network both within European borders and outside them, including with as many Arab and Muslim partners as possible.