ISIS in 2018: A View to the Enduring Threat | An article by Michael S. Smith II
Michael S. Smith II is a terrorism analyst and internationally recognized expert on the influence operations of Salafi-Jihadist groups like al-Qa’ida and Islamic State.
Among foremost pressing concerns for policymakers and national security managers in the West is the matter of what can be done to more rapidly strip away durability from the enterprise which presently poses as the most competent source of terrorist threats to global security: Islamic State, or ISIS. When attempting to formulate strategies that may be implemented to more effectively pursue this objective, the following are among a long list of important questions which should be contemplated:
- What is ISIS’s current position in the Middle East and other regions where the group has garnered support since the declaration of its so-called “caliphate” in mid-2014?
- How is ISIS likely to evolve pursuant to newer circumstance it has encountered, and developments which we may reasonably expect to emerge?
- Are there indications ISIS could achieve a similar scale of system-wide disruptive effects in areas beyond the Middle East?
- What is the most important feature of threats Salafi-Jihadist groups like ISIS pose in the West?
Without answers to these questions, it will be difficult to define a more effective strategy to undermine ISIS leaders’ capabilities to build and reinforce support. This includes support furnished in the form of terrorist attacks perpetrated here in the West, which, in turn, can serve to further endear the group to some people whose worldviews have been shaped by decades- and even centuries-old grievances concerning the effects of Western, secularist influence across so-called “historically Muslim lands.”
“And we call upon every Muslim in every place to perform hijrah to the Islamic State
or fight in his land wherever that may be.” — Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
Excerpt of an address titled “March Forth Whether Light or Heavy” (May 2015)
During 2018, Islamic State has continued to encounter considerable setbacks within its original primary areas of operation in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the group has increased the tempo of its terrorism campaigns in other regions where ISIS claims to have established wilayat (provinces), with apparent focus on increasing the group’s operational footprint in the Khorasan region. There, while the group has claimed responsibility for attacks in Pakistan, a majority of ISIS attacks have occurred in Afghanistan.
Here, it is important to consider that, in an official video released in mid-2016 which detailed the structure of its “caliphate,” ISIS claimed 16 of the 35 wilayat it had established since mid-2014 were located beyond Iraq and Syria. Accordingly, the group’s footholds spanned from West to North to East Africa, from Yemen to the Caucasus, and from the Khorasan to the Philippines. ISIS’s program of establishing provinces on “historically Muslim lands” situated far from Iraq and Syria was intended to demonstrate adherence with the manhaj (methodology) of the Salaf, or manhaj as-Salaf. A term used to refer to the first three generations of Muslims, the Salaf rapidly transformed the original Islamic State established by the Prophet Mohammed and his Companions into one of the largest empires in world history.
In effect, ISIS’s expansion of its operations into areas beyond the Middle East where ISIS members could enjoy wide-ranging maneuverability, access to vital resources used to fuel terrorism campaigns both within those environs and beyond, and, in some cases, establish a façade of newfound capacities to govern local populaces has factored importantly in the group’s work convincing both acquired and prospective supporters that ISIS is the group whose operations most closely conform to the manhaj as-Salaf. In other words, not only has ISIS claimed to have achieved the ultimate goal of al-Qa’ida and other Salafi-Jihadist elements comprising the Global Jihad movement (i.e., “restoration of the caliphate”); ISIS has been striving to emulate the expansionist program of Islam’s earliest practitioners—meanwhile providing would-be terrorists unable to make hijrah (emigration) into ISIS’s original primary areas of operation with opportunities to become stakeholders in ISIS’s bold international program by working to establish provinces of ISIS’s “caliphate” on, or in closer proximity of their respective homelands. Indeed, unlike al-Qa’ida, which has historically been selective about who may join the ranks of its jihadist “vanguard,” ISIS has demanded all Sunni Muslims join the group. Thereby, reducing perceived barriers to achieving meaningful participation in the group’s efforts to restore the “pure” faith’s prestige in the international system to levels perhaps not seen since the disestablishment of the Abbasid caliphate.
As with past years, during 2018, ISIS propagandists have persisted with their regular distribution of photo packets and videos of varying lengths and thematic composition that depict Islamic State as “remaining and expanding” in Iraq and Syria. However, the extents to which Islamic State is managing to assert governance of population centers in these environs are nominal when compared to the proto-state status that was once achieved by the group. Still, group members continue to conduct military operations against Syrian and aligned foreign forces, with operations in and around Damascus receiving considerable attention in ISIS propaganda during 2018.
While there have been far fewer indications ISIS intends to mobilize attacks in Turkey from Syria than in previous years, an absence of evidence that such plans exist should not be viewed as an absence of intent on the parts of ISIS’s units in Syria. Similarly, a lull in ISIS activity in Saudi Arabia should not necessarily be interpreted as a sign that ISIS no longer aspires to wage jihad against the House of Saud and its kingdom’s clerical establishment.
In Egypt, it is likely ISIS’s network on the Sinai Peninsula will orient more of its resources to threaten Israelis. Following the opening of the new United States embassy, ISIS’s leadership will likely view mobilizing more attacks against Israelis as a means to further contrast the group with al-Qa’ida by way of matching group leaders’ words concerning intentions to wage jihad against the Jewish state with actual deeds. Meanwhile, Egypt’s Coptic churches are very likely to remain priority targets for ISIS due to the international media exposure generated by attacks targeting Christians in the country. At this writing (May 16, 2018), the most recent claim for an attack in Egypt covered the targeting of an Egyptian military vehicle on May 14, 2018 in Arish, the city in North Sinai that has been the epicenter of ISIS’s activities in on the peninsula for several years.
In Iraq, despite its “defeat” in Mosul, the group has persisted with perpetrating attacks in and around this former stronghold. Meanwhile, the group has mobilized a steady stream of mass-casualty attacks against civilian (mostly Shiite) targets from areas north of Baghdad. Much as in West Iraq, the group’s maneuverability around population centers north of Baghdad like Samarra remains a major problem for Iraq’s domestic security. As with other areas of Iraq and Syria, ISIS’s operations in that zone have become increasingly clandestine.
Not only do ISIS’s operations in Iraq reflect a persistent effort to exacerbate centuries-old sectarian tensions; there are strong indications disrupting elections in Iraq has become a priority of paramountcy for the group. In his most recent address that was released in the second quarter of 2018, the group’s current spokesman, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, publicly directed the group’s members in Iraq to orient resources towards disrupting political elections. Soon after, the assassination of a Sunni political candidate in the northern village of al-Lazaka provided more indication the group may be planning to orient significant resources in Iraq towards the objective of undermining perceptions of local and national governments as legitimate representatives of Sunni Iraqis by suppressing participation among would-be candidates and voters vis-à-vis the specter of terrorist threats against even Iraq’s Sunnis. As ISIS has insisted participation in popular elections is a form of apostasy, according to the group’s takfirist logic, even Sunni participants in Iraq’s elections and Sunni government office holders are legitimate targets in terrorist attacks.
While Islamic State has continued to perpetrate attacks in other areas of the Middle East (such as Yemen, which is home to an ISIS wilayah that has produced regular updates on ISIS’s mostly small-scale attacks there), in various regions of the African continent (from which we have seen a steady stream of propaganda documenting mostly small-scale attacks perpetrated in Somalia in particular), the Caucasus, and even Indonesia, as noted, Afghanistan has transitioned into a key base of ISIS operations—from which the group has sought to derive considerable propaganda value during the past year. An infographic distributed by ISIS’s Amaq Agency “news service” that provides statistics for the group’s “most significant operations” in Afghanistan between April 21, 2017 and April 21, 2018 notes the number of the group’s terrorist operations in the country exceeded 175 during this period. According to this infographic, these attacks reportedly resulted in the deaths of 634 government personnel, 411 Shiites, 207 Taliban members, 31 Americans, and 8 Turks. As nearly 70 percent of these operations reportedly occurred in Nangarhar, it is evident this province has remained ISIS’s primary base for managing operations in the Khorasan.
In Afghanistan, ISIS has persisted with efforts to peel away support from other jihadist elements by, for example, characterizing the Afghan Taliban and aligned enterprises as hypocrites and partners of the so-called “enemies of Islam.” In this competition for influence, ISIS continues to employ a much higher quotient of sectarianism in its operations than longer-standing jihadist stakeholders in Afghanistan. For ISIS, the utility derived from mass-casualty attacks against Shiites in Afghanistan may be seen in the distinction these operations enable ISIS to draw between the group and other Sunni-spectrum terrorist actors who have tolerated the presence of Shiites in the country, or, in the cases of some Afghan Taliban and al-Qa’ida members, have even demonstrated willingness to partner with elements of the Iranian regime, such as its Qods Force, in pursuit of their mutual goal of undermining American and allied nations’ influence in Afghanistan.
As reflected in the statistics furnished in the aforementioned infographic, notable among ISIS’s operations in Afghanistan during 2018 have been mass-casualty attacks targeting Shiites, with particular emphasis on mobilizing attacks in Kabul that can be more easily covered by international news organizations than attacks in remote areas of the country. Meanwhile, in one attack that seemed to reflect the calculus of ISIS propagandists when they staged executions of journalists and foreign aid workers in an apparent effort to grow news coverage of the group’s activities in Syria, the group deliberately targeted journalists covering developments in Afghanistan. However, ISIS dubiously advised the terrorists responsible for this multi-staged attack on April 30, 2018 targeted Afghan intelligence personnel. Soon after, ISIS’s Amaq Agency “news service” distributed an infographic focused on four suicide bombings the group’s members perpetrated targeting the “headquarters of Afghan intelligence in Kabul” during 2018, in which ISIS claimed 245 people were killed and wounded during these attacks, two of which occurred on April 30, 2018. At this writing (May 16, 2018), the most recent major ISIS-claimed attack in Afghanistan occurred on May 12, 2018 in Jalalabad.
During 2018, the group has also distributed photo packets which purportedly document its members destroying small poppy crops in areas where the Afghan Taliban is known to have benefited from the opium trade. Certainly, it is more notable that ISIS has continued to claim responsibility for attacks targeting Afghan Taliban members. As with ongoing claims of responsibility for killing al-Qa’ida-linked jihadis in Syria, ISIS’s attacks targeting Afghan Taliban members indicate the group’s leadership remains unwilling to contemplate collaborative relations with other jihadist groups that do not entail subordination of their leaders to ISIS’s “caliph” in hiding, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In effect, during 2018, claims of responsibility for attacks targeting the Afghan Taliban have become an important aspect of ISIS’s ongoing efforts to engineer perceptions of the group as being a strong, dedicated steward of Salafi-Jihadists’ values—thus an enterprise which is worthy of support, both in Afghanistan and beyond.
Looking further east, there remain reasons to be concerned about ISIS’s influence in Bangladesh, the Philippines and Indonesia, where a group of ISIS members boldly staged a violent riot at a criminal detention center in Jakarta in May 2018. During this incident, ISIS’s official propaganda enterprises, such as the group’s Amaq Agency “news service,” both notified the group’s worldwide online audience ISIS was responsible and, to provide supporting evidence, distributed photos of the responsible terrorists posing for a group portrait, along with photos of weapons they seized during early stages of the incident. ISIS attributed the photos to the group’s “East Asia” branch. Days later, ISIS claimed responsibility for the triple-suicide bombing attack in Indonesia on May 13, 2018, during which group members targeted Christians in the East Java city of Surabaya. The following day, ISIS claimed responsibility for vehicle-borne improvised explosive attack at the police headquarters in Surabaya. Two days later, on May 16, 2018, via its Amaq Agency “news service” ISIS reported “Islamic State” fighters were responsible for killing a police officer in Pekanbaru, a city in central Sumatra.
As with the “defeat” of ISIS in Mosul, counterterrorism practitioners should remain cautious in their optimism that positive developments in counterterrorism operations in Marawi in the southern Philippines will spell either an end to ISIS’s operations in the area, or use of the Philippines as a base from which ISIS may plan and remotely manage attacks in other countries. Here, it is important to consider that, shortly after ISIS spokesman Abu Mohamed al-Adnani (d. 2016) publicly declared the group’s establishment of its “caliphate” in mid-2014, in its flagship ezine, Dabiq, ISIS named the Philippines on the shortlist of countries where the group was garnering support, and it is clear that not all of the group’s human resources in the country were expended in operations around Marawi, as ISIS’s Amaq Agency “news service” distributed a sitrep on May 16, 2018 covering the group’s recent operations against Filipino military forces in Sulu province. Indeed, the campaign in Marawi may have been a pilot program intended to enable ISIS to assess Filipino counterterrorism capabilities, as well as the extents of outside support for counter-ISIS operations in the Philippines that may materialize in the face of ISIS moving to overtly assert governance on territories nominally controlled by the country’s central government. Of course, we would be remiss in not acknowledging that the Marawi crisis highlighted ramifications of the international community’s years-long inchoate response to a terrorist group modeling the way for its adherents situated far from the Levant to strive to establish systems of governance prescribed by Salafi-Jihadis. In leading by example—by overtly pursuing establishment of a more “pure” system of Islamic governance that reflects the aspirations of Salafi-Jihadis—ISIS has provided a form of encouragement for jihadis the world over that is likely to constitute a key source of inspiration for terrorism campaigns which appear as localized insurgencies in places like the Philippines for years to come. (Given that ISIS has repeatedly touted its successes recruiting individuals from Trinidad and Tobago, prudence welcomes continued monitoring of “radical” networks in this Caribbean island nation, where Islamists staged a failed coup in 1990.)
Fortunately, although certain population segments in the Caucasus, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Indonesia will likely produce support for Salafi-Jihadist elements during the next decade, it does not appear such support will translate into capacity for ISIS to achieve proto-state status in these places. Similarly, indications ISIS can achieve governance capacity in areas of Afghanistan on par with what it once attained in the Levant are notable by their absence. Still, conditions in other places are more similar to those exploited by ISIS in Iraq and Syria to seize control of towns and cities, especially in West Africa.
Although Nigeria-based jihadis which have comprised the ranks of Boko Haram publicly merged with ISIS in 2015, the size of ISIS’s real support base in West Africa, as well as the group’s capabilities to retain and, crucially, grow this support remain an important “known unknown.” Yet, as areas in West Africa where ISIS continues to claim responsibility for attacks remain difficult spaces for the region’s governments to manage in ways that degrade the maneuverability of Salafi-Jihadis therein, and as Wahhabi-funded evangelical programs in this and other regions on the continent continue to generate conversions to a school of Islam whose fundaments largely overlap with the fundaments of Salafiyya Jihadiyya, it is reasonable to anticipate new growth opportunities in West Africa will be in the cards for Salafi-Jihadist groups during the next decade. (Whether this occurs will be a reflection of priorities on the parts of local governments and their technologically-superior counterterrorism partners in the West, as the vast space these elements enjoy room to operate on can be reduced during this period with increased emplacements of more robust networks of sensor systems which can be used to track movements of terrorists and other illicit actors, along with deployments of larger fleets of lethal remotely-piloted aircraft.)
Although ISIS’s capacity to govern and—perhaps more problematic from a Western security perspective—extract vital monetary and other resources from local populations has been vastly diminished in most of its areas of operation, this does not mean ISIS is incapable of generating appeal among both acquired and prospective supporters of the wider Global Jihad movement, in which ISIS has been jockeying for dominance since 2014. The group’s operations in various regions continue to undermine the integrity of the Westphalian system—a rejection of which is featured prominently in the master narratives used to build support for the agendas of Salafi-Jihadist groups. Further, as the profile of ISIS’s operations in even places where al-Qa’ida poses as equal, and, in some instances, a far greater threat remains, comparatively, much higher in international news coverage, sustaining operations in West Africa will help ISIS reassure would-be terrorists here in the United States and Europe that ISIS remains a legitimate threat—despite what they may have read in news headlines about the crushing “defeat” of ISIS in Mosul. Thus we see that, published on May 11, 2018, in the 131st issue of its weekly publication, al-Naba, ISIS provided an infographic with statistics concerning the past month’s battles near Lake Chad. (This is not meant to imply prudence welcomes characterizations of news coverage of ISIS’s operations as de facto propaganda. Indeed, in our democracies here in the West, the public’s knowledge of the threat environment is the mother’s milk of sound national security policymaking that, in turn, can serve to widen the efficacy of international counterterrorism programs against groups like ISIS.)
Here, as ISIS has used the optic of governance to fashion itself as the most competent steward of Salafi-Jihadis’ aspirations, it is important to consider ISIS has concomitantly fashioned itself as a terrorist group, and doing so enables ISIS to appear as a legitimate enterprise that deserves support despite its most important claim—as echoed in the group’s very namesake—having been voided by counter-ISIS operations. Indeed, unlike many entities which have been designated as terrorist organizations by global powers, Islamic State members have explicitly defined themselves as terrorists within official propaganda. For example, in ISIS’s video titled “Kill Them Wherever You Find Them” that features missives from several participants in the November 2015 Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud (d. 2015), who helped guide this and earlier plots in Europe advises (emphasis added): “So if you have sent your ‘Hunter’ fighter jets to bomb the Muslims, then know that the Islamic State has sent to you ‘hunters’ who thirst for the blood of the disbelievers, hunters who will not hesitate to slaughter you. For we are terrorists.” ISIS has also explicitly embraced its status as a terrorist group in other ways. For example, in the fourteenth issue of Dabiq, the group asserted such expressions as “Terrorism is not Islam” and “Terrorism has no religion” should be viewed as “slogans of apostasy.” In other words, according to the group’s takfirist logic, Muslims who deny Islamic State’s terrorism campaigns reflect adherence to their professed faith and early traditions of the “faithful” are themselves legitimate targets for attacks.
During the past year, terrorist attacks perpetrated by ISIS supporters in the United States and Europe demonstrate that, despite changing circumstances manifesting in ISIS’s loss of capacity to govern major majority-Muslim population centers in the manners it once did in Iraq and Syria, the group has retained a power of persuasion which is far greater than that of any other Salafi-Jihadist elements that have meanwhile been calling for their sympathizers to perpetrate attacks here in the West. In other words, as I noted in my testimony during a United States Senate hearing on October 31, 2017—minutes after an ISIS supporter perpetrated a vehicular attack in New York in conformance with directives devolved in group propaganda—while they may no longer be functionally governing much of anything, ISIS’s “caliph” and his proxies clearly can continue commanding violence even in the United States. As noted, these terrorist attacks, which have materialized far more frequently during the past five years than attacks in the West called for by al-Qa’ida, are, in turn, used by ISIS as tools to build and reinforce support in its primary areas of operation. Hence, in claim after claim of responsibility for these attacks issued via its Amaq Agency “news service,” ISIS has stated the parties behind attacks like those which unfolded in France on March 23, 2018 and May 12, 2018 were responding to ISIS’s calls for retributive attacks against countries waging aggressive military campaigns against the group. Campaigns which, for parties whose knowledge of developments in the Levant are influenced by ISIS’s digital propaganda and mainstream news sources alike, appear to have yielded a steadily growing volume of civilian casualties during the past 12 months. Meanwhile, by executing attacks in the West publicly called for by ISIS’s leadership since the fall of 2014, terrorists motivated to act pursuant to their consumption of ISIS propaganda are not only enabling ISIS to appear as a more dedicated and competent threat to Western powers than competing Salafi-Jihadist groups; they are also helping to motivate others here in the West to follow their examples. This is especially the case when these terrorists send ISIS members videos of themselves pledging bayat (allegiance) to al-Baghdadi, such as the video released by Amaq which contained footage of the terrorist responsible for the latest ISIS-claimed attack in France doing just that.
During recent years, the volume of successful and failed ISIS-linked terrorist plots in the West has highlighted not only the problems manifest by the appeal which can be generated by a Salafi-Jihadist group vis-à-vis successes realized with a state-building program in the Muslim world; this situation has brought into stark focus the ease with which a Salafi-Jihadist group can transfer ideological indoctrination materials used to incite violence against civilian populaces into the West from, for example, an Internet café in Raqqa, Syria. In addition, this situation has highlighted the problems which may be manifest by simply monitoring Salafi-Jihadis as they build out so-called “cyber sanctuaries”—online communities within which they may remotely recruit and mobilize attacks around the world—versus more aggressively working to disrupt such activities.
Disrupting these activities could be achieved by modifying the online operating environments encountered by terrorist actors in such ways as to increase the risks they must be willing to tolerate when using, for example, social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr to identify and attempt to cultivate prospective recruits. As I noted during the aforementioned October 2017 Senate hearing, one way to achieve such effects entails governments requiring not only social media, but also popular file-sharing platforms, such as YouTube, Google Drive, Archive.org, Sendvid, and JustPaste.it, to deny access to their sites to parties whose identities are unknown to platform managers should they seek to login to accounts while simultaneously using virtual private networks (VPNs) and other technologies which can make it difficult, or impossible for investigators to identify their physical locations after suspicious or illicit activity is detected. ISIS has rigorously encouraged its supporters in the West to utilize these technologies when active online. For example, in an issue of the group’s French-language ezine, Dar al-Islam, ISIS published a lengthy article focused on how to use VPNs and encryption technologies to achieve strong communication and online operational security.
Today, there remains a real risk that ISIS’s ongoing operations in the Middle East and other regions will further serve to stimulate perceptions of its program as being a manifestation of divine providence for audiences situated far from jihad theaters—thus, for some, ISIS will continue to appear as a group which deserves support. This is especially the case with consumers of the group’s digital propaganda located here in the West who (a) do not have contact with non-group members in the various areas where ISIS remains active, and who (b) fail to grasp how misleading ISIS’s propaganda depicting the group as one which either continues to govern, or competently combat various governments’ counter-ISIS initiatives has become. Indeed, much as with previous years, in aggregate, ISIS propaganda program continues to portray ISIS as a group with momentum on its side.
Here, it is worth considering that, while “utopia” which takes the form of such idyllic character in ISIS propaganda as thriving agricultural programs, or even scenic landscapes in areas under ISIS control may have helped attract some support for the group from abroad in past years, for some aspirant jihadis, the contents of ISIS’s steady stream of photo packets and videos depicting ongoing armed conflict in various regions could be viewed as reflecting a sort of utopia in which they wish to immerse themselves. For Salafi-Jihadis of our day, utopia consists of more than just life under a Hanbalist system of governance, as advocated perhaps most notably in their imaginations by either the 13th-14th Century Damascus-based mufti Ibn Taymiyyah, whose three anti-Mongol fatawa remain key sources of inspiration for Salafi-Jihadis, or even Mohamed ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder the Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam that has defined the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s religiopolitical doctrine, and whose works are deemed of such utility by ISIS recruiters that the group has published special editions of half a dozen of them (some in English). This is particularly the case when we consider many jihadis—including ISIS’s leaders, according to articles published in Dabiq—esteem to be viewed as stewards of the jihad previously charted by Usama bin Ladin, who, according to al-Qa’ida’s founding documents, defined jihad, or that which we call terrorism, as his subordinates’ raison d’être. Moreover, whereas jihad has been an essential element of the creeds of al-Qa’ida and various aligned elements, ISIS has elevated the imperative of waging jihad (i.e., perpetration of terrorist attacks) above the domain of creed for its adherents, referring to jihad as the most important form of worship in high-profile propaganda materials. For example, in his penultimate Ramadan address that was released in June 2015, the aforementioned (now deceased) ISIS spokesman Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, who also oversaw the group’s efforts mobilizing attacks in the West, advised that “No acts of worship are equal to jihad,” according to the English-language transcript distributed online by ISIS.
Since 2015, ISIS’s leadership has increasingly encouraged aspirant jihadis here in the West to think more locally by portraying commission of terroristic crimes in Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia as among the group’s foremost priorities. For instance, in his final Ramadan address that precipitated a spate of attacks in the West during the summer of 2016, while calling on ISIS’s supporters to consider the barriers to making hijrah had grown too high, thus they should target civilians with terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe, al-Adnani advised: “Truly, the smallest act you do in their lands is more beloved to us than the biggest act done here; it is more effective for us and more harmful to them.” In essence, ISIS’s leadership has characterized waging jihad here in the West as the most important form of worship for its sympathizers located in Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia. Therefore, during the next six months, it is very likely the group will continue orienting considerable resources towards cultivating “exemplars” of a jihadist utopia that may be attained here in the West—terrorists whose attacks will serve as inspiration for yet more attacks in a cycle of violence which is unlikely to conclude with even the death of Baghdadi, as ISIS has for years been grooming its members and supporters to anticipate its leaders will be killed. Therefore, inasmuch as more rigorous application of leadership studies scholarship to analysis of ISIS’s power of persuasion is in order, so too is the application of social marketing theory to analysis of how ISIS has managed to mobilize a volume of terrorist attacks in the West that has dwarfed that of al-Qa’ida-claimed attacks since 2014.
In the next year, it is likely Europe will continue to contend with two persistent and potentially more lethal issues than ISIS worldwide recruitment-cum-incitement program in the cyber domain focused on grooming terrorists to perpetrate small-scale attacks like the attack in Paris on May 12, 2018: Threats posed by sleeper cells consisting of trained bomb-makers and operatives who were deployed to the continent from Syria as far back as 2014, and who seem to have been tasked with ensuring the group can continue organizing attacks in France, Germany, Belgium, and the United Kingdom for a period of years; and, individual returnees from the Syrian Jihad who may not initially intend to employ new military skillsets to perpetrate violent crimes, but who may subsequently become reenergized in their resolve to support the group for a variety of reasons.
Meanwhile, it is almost certain that, as with past years, during the next 12 months, ISIS’s ability to engage with would-be terrorists located here in the West over the Internet will constitute a significant source of terrorist threats in the West. Just as the passive engagement which takes the form of calls for attacks contained in propaganda will remain a significant problem, so too will the desensitizing effects for some consumers of graphic scenes of violence contained in the torrent of ISIS propaganda which remains easy to access online, with hundreds of newer and older videos alike constantly being promoted via propagandist-run channels and chatrooms on Telegram Messenger’s platform, as well as on the standalone websites ISIS continues to use to promote its propaganda, meanwhile employing technologies offered by the American company Cloudflare to protect these sites by masking their IP addresses. These gruesome spectacles help ISIS psychologically condition individuals who possess no experience with commission of violent crimes to do just that against civilians here in the West.
Of course, most problematic from the perspective of counterterrorism practitioners working to identify credible threats to public safety is the persistent issue of ISIS members’ converting an ever-widening array of user-friendly social media and encrypted chatting platforms and programs into tools used to engage in the more active forms of cultivation that we have seen evidence of following many attacks perpetrated in the West by terrorists who have never set foot in a conflict zone, but who have been in contact with ISIS members located abroad. Indeed, while social media and file-sharing platform managers may be expanding their efforts aiming to both reduce the shelf lives of terrorist propaganda posted on their popular websites, and to more quickly identify and suspend clusters of accounts used to promote such content, there is no indication ISIS is relenting in its low-cost, low-risk, high-impact efforts to induce support among individuals located here in the West across the cyber domain. As with past years, ISIS propagandists have frequently reminded group sympathizers with access to group-managed Telegram channels and chatrooms that it is important for them to help proliferate ISIS propaganda on easier-to-access and more visible spaces of the cyber domain, such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Meanwhile, one of ISIS’s newer tactics for growing its direct access to parties interested in its official propaganda has entailed distribution of Telegram account details which may be used to contact propagandists and request links to by-invitation-only ISIS-run Telegram channels and chatrooms versus simply broadcasting invitation links to these forums. This has enabled ISIS propagandists to gather more prospective recruits’ account details on Telegram. Similarly, in 2017, ISIS’s Amaq Agency “news service” began building out a list of interested parties’ e-mail addresses by inviting them to join Amaq’s direct-distribution program via a sign-up page on Amaq websites. As with past years, during 2018, managers of Amaq and other ISIS-run websites have continued producing FireFox and Google Chrome browser plug-ins used to direct consumers of ISIS propaganda to each new official ISIS propaganda site that is established after previous sites have been suspended (Note: These plug-ins are not available from the current Amaq website, which is accessible via the following address: newseurope.ru). Clearly, ISIS has not been deterred in its uses of standalone websites to host propaganda.
Much as with recent years, events that occur in the West during Ramadan this year will offer important insights of the present status of ISIS’s capabilities to convince would-be terrorists they should fulfill directives devolved in ISIS propaganda, and wage jihad at home against civilians. Whether the emphasis placed on perpetrating attacks in Russia discernible from the latest public address by ISIS’s current spokesman is a sign the group has lower expectations it can continue remotely mobilizing attacks here in the West over the Internet remains to be seen. Meanwhile, it is important to consider that information about al-Qa’ida’s plot to strike in South Africa during the 2010 World Cup emanated from its Iraq branch, now known as Islamic State, and it is very likely matches in Russia attended by Europeans and Americans will be viewed as priority targets for the group, which has claimed responsibility for attack in Russia during 2018.
Ultimately, as concerns ISIS’s strategy to threaten the West, little has changed since 2014. While the group may be producing fewer incitement-focused propaganda pieces tailored for non-Arabic speakers here in the West, analysts who view this as a sign of diminishing influence capacity should consider that the group’s online recruiters continue to promote older propaganda pieces designed for audiences here in the West alongside new releases, which, often by way of omission of content concerning setbacks, cast ISIS in the light of a resilient and dedicated fighting force that remains worthy of support. At the same time, analysts who view high account suspension figures touted by social media companies as a sign of reduced capacity for terrorists to recruit online should consider that serious recruiters will take care to avoid posting content which will draw attention to their accounts from platform managers and counterterrorism investigators alike.
Meanwhile, it cannot be ruled out that Islamic State’s loss of its “caliphate” has motivated al-Qa’ida to orient more of its resources to mobilize attacks in the West that can help the group to eclipse the specter of threats posed by its former Iraq branch. For al-Qa’ida, ISIS’s losses in the Middle East may be viewed as an opportunity to reorient enthusiasm here in the West for jihadist enterprises away from ISIS and towards its former parent organization, whose senior leaders’ missives continue to provide indication mobilizing attacks in the West remains a high priority for the group.
Michael S. Smith II is a terrorism analyst and internationally recognized expert on the influence operations of Salafi-Jihadist groups like al-Qa’ida and Islamic State. Since 2009, his work with prominent think tanks and as Principal and COO of Kronos Advisory, a private United States-based national security consultancy Smith cofounded in 2011, has been at the nexus of strategic and tactical threat analysis, technical mitigation support, and the formulation of United States national security policy. During this time, Mr. Smith’s insights on al-Qa’ida’s and Islamic State’s activities, along with opportunities to more effectively manage threats posed by them have been sought by members of the United States Congress, Executive Branch officials in the United States Government, and governments comprising the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.