Islamic State (IS) claims that in carrying out the attack in Nice, France, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was acting in response to its call to target civilians in countries that are part of the coalition ranged against the group. It may prove impossible to substantiate this claim, but we are increasingly seeing that for IS, the best defence would seem to be a lethal offence. Its ideology is built around conquest, so it fares poorly under the military setbacks suffered this year, including the losses of Palmyra to the Syrians, Fallujah to the Iraqis and – possibly soon, to a mainly Kurdish force – Manbij, Raqqa’s last link to the outside world. Mosul is being gradually encircled, and IS faces the threat within the next year of losing one or both of the capitals of its so-called ‘caliphate’. Anecdotal reports suggest that IS fighters are increasingly demoralized, not least as salaries and other perks are cut to cope with a faltering war economy.
In response, IS seeks to regain the initiative – and shore up the allegiance of its global network.
On one hand, IS attacks serve immediate tactical and strategic imperatives. If Turkey blames Kurdish groups for IS terrorist attacks, it might reconsider its tacit support of US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) about to seize Manbij. If Iraqi Shia militias retaliate indiscriminately against Sunni communities in the wake of IS atrocities such as the Hadi Centre bombing, it would sap the attention and resources of the Iraqi government and security forces.
IS attacks on Shia civilians in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, meanwhile, distracts them from intervening against the group abroad, with added bonuses of exacerbating social tensions and – perhaps – the geopolitical schism with Iran. At the very least, lashing out abroad might disorient and distract IS’s adversaries long enough for it to regroup its defence of the ‘caliphate’.
On the other hand, IS’s attacks are meant to buttress its global influence. An unprecedented assault on foreigners in Bangladesh and the first terrorist attack in Malaysia in decades are intended to demonstrate global reach and the continued attractiveness of the IS ‘brand’. Cue the formal acceptance of Filipino jihadists in late June into the so-called ‘caliphate’.
IS is also eager to publicize any attacks, such as the one in Nice, the police murders in Magnanville (France) and the mass shooting in Orlando (US), that highlight its continued influence over Western extremists. IS hopes such mass casualty attacks will paralyze and polarize Western societies, making them more susceptible to both Islamist recruitment and further attacks. .
These trends suggest a few important implications going forward:
- First, IS will continue to mount and encourage attacks worldwide, especially in the next few months. Barring a major shift in US or Russian policy, IS’s position in Syria and Iraq will continue to deteriorate. As a result, it is likely to retreat further into asymmetric attacks, particularly against soft targets, with a view towards maximizing raw casualties. IS undoubtedly still has attack cells and facilitation networks active in Europe, in addition to influence over a cohort of homegrown extremist sympathizers. Equally important, attacks in Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia clearly indicate intent and capability to escalate a campaign in the wider Middle East, notwithstanding relatively robust security apparatuses.
- Second, IS attacks could get more strategic. It has already turned its focus to two target sets of particular concern to Western countries: aviation and tourism. The Istanbul airport attack hit one of the top ten busiest airports in the world, a major asset where tourism and transit are significant chunks of the economy. The apparent bombing of a Russian airplane in October 2015 in Egypt, combined with a series of smaller-scale attacks on hotels, has nearly killed a vital tourism industry already reeling since the Arab Spring. The suggestion of a pervasive threat to Westerners may also be intended to undermine foreign investor sentiment: the Bangladesh assault, for example, will further escalate perceived risk around the critical garment export sector, and is likely to accelerate a trend of corporate withdrawal since the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster.
- Third, IS will continue to build its global network. IS is putting energy and resources into networking, particularly among militant networks in south and south-east Asia. Right now, many of these groups have more ambition than capability. However, participation in the IS network will encourage them to carry out more attacks, and experience (and perhaps training) will eventually augment their capability. They will also learn from the success of recent high-impact but low-tech attacks against soft targets and public spaces, particularly those associated with foreign nationals. Over the longer term, IS may come to resemble even more its rival al-Qaida, with a relatively weak ‘core’ leadership providing guidance to more potent regional affiliates.
IS is staffed by a cadre of experienced insurgents, including those – like self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – who survived Al-Qaida in Iraq’s near-death experience at the hands of the US Joint Special Operations Commands (JSOC). These people see the writing on the wall, and are probably preparing to go back underground when Raqqa or Mosul fall, moving IS from a territorial statelet back into a clandestine terrorist network.
Think al-Qaida, but crowd-sourced. IS expanded globally on the back of its military prowess, but also through its mastery of social media for propaganda, recruitment, and incitement. Its influence over a vast foreign fighter community – which featured prominently and regularly in high-quality video productions – provided a conduit to spin up local extremist movements worldwide, including within Europe’s marginalized Muslim communities. Many of these individuals – at least those who survive Syria – are likely to go on to lead a new generation of IS-inspired militancy abroad, drawing on their experience in the so-called ‘caliphate’. IS has already attempted to appropriate bin Laden’s legacy, over the strident objections of al-Qaida, so it seems likely that – depending on events – al-Baghdadi will also join the jihadist pantheon as a reference point for future terrorist groups.
The competition between al-Qaida and IS, though mired in esoteric theological disputes, makes one thing quite clear: local militant groups might ebb, flow, splinter and change allegiance, but they never really disappear. Many of IS’s most robust affiliates – in Egypt, Afghanistan, and elsewhere – were formerly allied with al-Qaida. What global network controllers like al-Qaida and IS try to do, from time to time, is amalgamate local groups and point them at preferred targets in pursuit of a grand strategy. If and when IS falls apart, the main question will be where such groups decide to go next.