What Should We Make Of The Islamic State’s Ramadan Wave Of Violence?

The Islamic State has taken the final week of Ramadan to make a big statement: “We will not go quietly.” In the last seven days the terror group has shown that a “wounded Islamic State is a dangerous Islamic State” lashing out in an unprecedented wave of suicide bombings and other attacks around the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia.


The Islamic State’s gradual decline in Syria and Iraq has finally brought a long expected shift in the group’s tactics from conventional military operations back towards insurgencies paired with regional and international terror attacks. The Islamic State overtook al Qaeda by declaring a caliphate and has since surpassed their forefathers as a terror group by executing a daily string of directed and networked attacks in six countries while narrowly missing in a seventh.

Here’s a quick recap of the Islamic State’s Ramadan Campaign. (For an explanation of the directed versus networked taxonomy see “Directed, Networked and Inspired: The Muddled Jihad of ISIS and al Qaeda Post Hebdo.” I’m estimating whether these attacks are directed or networked based upon available open source information. These classifications may change as further information arises.)

June 27 to July 5: The Islamic State’s Cascading Terrorism

Success breeds success for the Islamic State and their directed suicide assaults seek to amplify their image, rally their base during a down time, and inspire their supporters to undertake further violence in their name. Here’s what the Islamic State has perpetrated in short order.

Interestingly, only two of the above attacks do not involve a suicide operation – Bangladesh and Malaysia. Jama’at ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, a group connected with the Islamic State, but not a formal wilayat, had until recently only perpetrated targeted sectarian assassinations and this attack appears to not only be a major, violent step forward for the group but also seems more reminiscent of the Paris attacks and other international hostage seizures. Association of the Malaysian grenade attack with the Islamic State would also be a new trend regionally. In both cases, these peripheral attacks in South and Southeast Asia show the lesser capability of these distant Islamic State associates. It’s difficult to tell at this point whether they don’t have the capability to perpetrate suicide bombings or the personnel willing to execute such attacks.

Ultimately, the Islamic State has cascaded its terror attacks striking one target in a different country each day. Will it inspire attacks globally? Only time will tell, but possibly not. Western media has paid short attention to these attacks with the exception of the Istanbul airport. As al Murabitoon and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb learned with its Western African terror campaign post Paris, Western media coverage endures when Westerners are killed in the West, all other attacks have less value.

Here are some other items of note from this past week’s terror campaign.

The Islamic State against all enemies – Muslim, Christian, Shi’a, Sunni, Arab, Western

Some have incorrectly suggested that the Islamic State nimbly focuses its attacks predominately against Westerners or certain audiences. This week’s Islamic State attacks and resulting deaths point to the opposite conclusion: all enemies of the Islamic State are targets and Muslims have suffered the worst. In Saudi Arabia alone, the Islamic State hit near a Western consulate, a Shi’a mosque and a Sunni holy site. Lebanon saw targeting of Christians. Bangladesh brought a focus on Westerners. The Istanbul attack killed mostly Muslims. Yemen and Saudi Arabia saw the Islamic State concentrating on security forces. Each Islamic State affiliate may pick and choose certain targets for local reasons but as an aggregate, no one faith or ethnicity is spared from the Islamic State’s wanton violence.

Islamic State’s Remaining Fighters: Die In Place Or Go Out With A Bang?

The Islamic State lost Fallujah last week and some of its members that tried to escape were pulverized in massive airstrikes. Many Islamic State foreign fighters can’t return home or have no Islamic State affiliate to drift back to. For those homeless foreign fighters, the choice is simple: they can either die in place fighting for a crumbling caliphate or they can go out as martyrs striking their homelands or a regional or international targets. The Islamic State owns the largest number of homeless foreign fighters in history. As the group loses turf, they’ll likely become part of the largest human missile arsenal in history and be directed against any and all soft targets they can reach. This campaign is likely not the end of the Islamic State’s suicide campaign, but only the beginning.

 Foreign Fighters Go As Far As Their Passports Will Take Them

 Last winter, the West suffered from the Islamic State’s decision to allegedly dispatch hundreds of European foreign fighters back to their homelands. Paris and Brussels burned and operatives across a host of European countries were arrested. Western passport holders and those hidden in refugee flows pushed as far as they could to hit high profile soft targets. Turkey struggled for years with foreign fighters passing easily through their borders into Syria and fighters from the Caucasus and Central Asia found the country quite permissible, likely facilitating this past week’s Russian-speaking suicide bombers. Richard Engel reported that as many as 35 operatives were recently dispatched into Turkey alone. The Yemeni and Saudi attacks focused more heavily on security forces and were likely perpetrated by Islamic State pledges from their respective countries and possibly a Pakistani. The bottom line: the Islamic State is sending its bombers to the locations where they can achieve the biggest results. They are not in short supply of Western, Middle Eastern, Central Asian, or Russian operatives – expect more suicide attacks in places that al Qaeda only dreamed of reaching.

Strong Counterterrorism Matters: The Islamic State Preys On The Weak

Those countries with stronger counterterrorism and security apparatuses have fared the best this past week. The Saudis, long known for squelching terrorists in their midst, sustained far fewer deaths than other countries hit this week. Iraq, despite years of investment, seems unable to protect itself from suicide attacks with yet another massive suicide bombing. Lebanon and Bangladesh, two locations of rising promise for the Islamic State (see Figure 1), have weaker security environments and local conditions ripe for extremism. The Islamic State will likely learn from this past week and exploit those places where they got the greatest return on their investment.

Is The Islamic State Looking For An Exit Strategy?

In conclusion, the Islamic State’s rapid pace of violence may come at a time when they need to find a new home for the brand. Their caliphate revenues and oil production continue to dry up. They will need to shift to illicit schemes and donations to survive. Successful attacks attract investors: will this latest string of violence bring money? Probably not, but what this rampant violence can do is signal to Islamic State’s central leadership which affiliates are still committed to the Islamic State brand. Affiliates, existing or emerging, may want to carry on the Islamic State’s vision outside of Syria and Iraq. Much like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was for the al Qaeda Central during their downturn, Islamic State Central will need an affiliate to carry the black banner forward or their caliphate experiment will crumble as fast as it was created.

ISIS affiliates Figure 1

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How To Break Up With Al Qaeda & Date ISIS

A year ago I began building a graphic to describe the recent history of the al Qaeda and Islamic State split and the currents created by foreign fighter migrations to conflict zones in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria.  The infographic here doesn’t cover everything, but it is what I use for my five minute brief on al Qaeda and the Islamic State.  This was also what I used to develop my research and resulting articles for 2016. (The bottom right hand corner is the “Third Foreign Fighter Glut”– you can read part 1, “Foreign Fighters”, and part 2,“ISIS Affiliates”.)

I offer this as another Sunday morning infographic to read as you wake up. If the graphic is helpful to anyone, have at it!  And in the coming weeks I’ll be updating it with another segment at the bottom entitled “2016 and beyond.”  

Break up AQ Date ISIS

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After Orlando: What is different about the current Islamic State-inspired attacks?

Omar Mateen’s violent rampage that killed 49 people at an Orlando nightclub on June 12, 2016 solidified a dangerous new trend of cascading terrorist attacks in the West.  Successful directed attacks both encourage networked terrorist attacks and mobilize inspired supporters to commit violence in their homelands. Dating back more than a year ago to the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, tracing responsibility for terrorist attacks to either the Islamic State or al Qaeda has become increasingly challenging.[1] Some attacks demonstrate direct linkages back to top terror leaders. But most attacks have differing degrees of connection to either terror group’s central headquarters. As of today, the two most recent mass shootings in San Bernardino and Orlando show no direct connection between Islamic State and its inspired supporters.[2] In some cases, inspired attacks show an affinity for the terror group’s online propaganda and/or leaders. But the greater the distance between the attack location and Syria or Iraq, the more muddled the linkages become between attackers and terror groups.

System Vulnerability

The Islamic State’s successful direction of the Paris attack sparked a rapid increase in networked attacks – attacks committed by terror group affiliates and former foreign fighters operating in cells acting largely on their own initiative, but relying on support from their chosen groups network. In the weeks after the Paris attacks, Islamic State affiliates perpetrated a suicide bombing in Tunisia, a car bombing and assaults in al Arish and Giza, Egypt, a car bombing in Yemen, a suicide bombing in Istanbul, Turkey, and a multi-prong attack in Jakarta, Indonesia.[3]

Relatively dormant al Qaeda affiliates mobilized in the wake of the Islamic State’s Paris success. Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s splinter al Murabitoon allegedly reunited with their former overlords al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) conducting raids in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Ivory Coast along with many other smaller attacks.[4] Al Qaeda affiliates likely feel compelled to launch attacks. In the Sahel, a strong Islamic State affiliate in Libya pressures the once dominant AQIM. Launching successful operations in Mali and Burkina Faso provides motivation for local members to stay with the brand rather than leave for the more popular Islamic State.[5]  Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has long been al Qaeda’s strongest affiliate, but over the last year it has seen rise of a Yemeni Islamic State challenger. AQAP, like AQIM, must demonstrate success to prevent being overtaken by the more fashionable younger generation of the Islamic State.

The most curious outcome of the Islamic State’s Paris attacks leading up to the more recent Orlando assault has been a rash of inspired attacks – attacks committed by lone individuals or small groups with no demonstrable connection to jihadi terror groups and motivated simply by propaganda calls for violence. Examples are plentiful: an attempted knife attack in the London subway, a vehicular attack in Valence, France, a Paris police station assault in Paris, a machete attack in Marseilles, a police shooting in Philadelphia. All of these attacks along with many other disrupted plots have been inspired by the Islamic State.[6] Only after the Islamic State’s brazen Paris attacks did these perpetrators choose to launch deadly strikes.

At any given time around the Western world, lone individuals or small groups sit primed to undertake violence inspired by a jihadi group. These inspired terrorists, whether they opine for al Qaeda or the Islamic State, come in two varieties. The more dangerous and operationally effective inspired extremists are those persistently committed to jihadi ideology, slowly radicalized over extended periods reaching their resolve for violence over many years. These individuals or groups deliberately plan and plot their attacks. They link local frustrations with broad jihadi grievances common to both al Qaeda and the Islamic State. As seen with Nidal Hasan of the Fort Hood shooting, Amedy Coulibaly in Paris, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik in San Bernardino and now Omar Mateen in Orlando, justifications for violence blend propaganda from both terror groups, but the tipping point for action likely came from observing successful jihadi violence elsewhere.

The less effective and more common inspired terrorists appear mobilized more by headlines than ideology. Edward Archer in Philadelphia, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau’s attack on the Canadian parliament, and dozens of other perpetrators with a mix of psychological issues and egomaniacal motivations rapidly mobilize in response to successful Islamic State attacks hoping to join the band wagon. Headline-inspired attacks come in reactionary waves and feature a mix of bumbled plots and unforeseeable terrorist successes. These attacks target randomly and despite their wide range of success often times generate additional headline-inspired attacks in the name of the Islamic State.

What’s different about the Islamic State’s inspired attacks?

In the Islamic State-era, the pace of terrorist attacks, whether directed or inspired, has proven more rapid in pace, greater in number, and as a result are more difficult to detect. Al Qaeda throughout its history sought operational control over its directed attacks and those of its networked affiliates which resulted in slow and less frequent successes. This in turn likely influenced its decline. The Islamic State, in contrast to al Qaeda, cares less about potential failures or collateral damage. They allow affiliates, former foreign fighters and inspired supporters to plan, resource, and execute attacks with greater independence often learning of attacks in their name only after they’ve happened. Al Qaeda would conduct rounds of communication between affiliates and its headquarters finely tuning the application of violence, this oftentimes created communication signatures tipping off counterterrorists to upcoming plots.[7] The Islamic State, however, has developed a loose system allowing for lots of plots and few signatures putting counterterrorists at a significant disadvantage. Unlike al Qaeda, who sought spectacular attacks on symbolic targets, the Islamic State’s message has been to attack soft targets and large gatherings of people anywhere and everywhere.[8]

What does Orlando mean for the future of terrorism?

Al Qaeda’s calls for inspired attacks during the Anwar al-Awlaki-era found some support in the U.S., but the plots never achieved the terror group’s vision. The assumption since September 11, 2001 has been that the most deadly attacks would come from directed plots perpetrated by operatives trained, resourced, and promoted by the headquarters of terror group .

Mateen in Orlando and Farook and Malik in San Bernardino have turned this assumption on its head. Inspired, homegrown extremists have perpetrated the most deadly attacks in the U.S. since September 11, 2001 by simply hitting soft targets they know well with gun assaults that could be executed by anyone almost regardless of skill. The Islamic State and al Qaeda no longer need to direct attacks when their inspired plotters achieve equal body counts and media attention.

Today, there are no barriers to another extremist replicating the techniques of Orlando and San Bernardino. All terrorist groups and their supporters, whether international or domestic, directed or inspired, have watched and learned from the Islamic State’s successes in Europe and the U.S. and will follow their model in the future: soft targets, gun runs, encrypted communication, and openly available assault weapons.


[1] Clint Watts. (12 January 2015) Inspired, Networked, Directed – The Muddled Jihad of ISIS and al Qaeda Post Hebdo. War On The Rocks. Available at: http://warontherocks.com/2015/01/inspired-networked-directed-the-muddled-jihad-of-isis-al-qaeda-post-hebdo/

[2] Dina Temple-Raston. (16 February 2016) Analysts Parse Differences Between San Bernardino, Paris Attacks. National Public Radio. Available at: http://www.npr.org/2016/02/16/466898543/analysts-parse-differences-between-san-bernardino-paris-attacks

[3] (29 April 2016) ISIS Goes Global: 90 Attacks in 21 Countries Have Killed nearly 1,400 People. CNN. Available at: http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/17/world/mapping-isis-attacks-around-the-world/index.html

[4] Caleb Weiss. (8 June 2016) al Qaeda has launched more than 100 attacks in West Africa in 2016. Long War Journal. Available at: http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2016/06/over-100-al-qaeda-attacks-in-west-africa-since-beginning-of-the-year.php

[5] Andrew Lebovich. (16 January 2016) The Hotel Attacks and Militant Realignment in the Sahara-Sahel Region. Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel. Available at: https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/the-hotel-attacks-and-militant-realignment-in-the-sahara-sahel-region

[6] Karen Yourish, Derek Watkins and Tom Giratikanon. (22 March 2016) Where ISIS Has Directed And Inspired Attacks Around The World. New York Times. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/06/17/world/middleeast/map-isis-attacks-around-the-world.html.

[7] Clint Watts. (4 April 2016) Why ISIS Beats Al Qaeda In Europe. Foreign Affairs. Available at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2016-04-04/why-isis-beats-al-qaeda-europe

[8] Clint Watts. (23 March 2016) A Wounded Islamic State Is A Dangerous Islamic State. Foreign Policy. Available at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2016/03/23/a-wounded-islamic-state-is-a-dangerous-islamic-state-brussels-attacks/

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