By Stanly Johny
July 5, 2016
Despite setbacks, the Islamic State has transformed its ideology from one of an ‘isolated, barbaric world view’ into that of a globalised force.
Since the beginning of Ramzan this year, the holy month in the Islamic calendar, extremists have carried out four massive attacks in three continents, killing at least 310 people. All three attacks were directly or indirectly linked to the Islamic State (IS) terror group. While in Orlando, U.S., the gunman who shot dead nearly 50 people in a gay pub had called up the authorities and pledged his allegiance to the IS, in Istanbul, the Turkish government blamed the group for the airport bombing that killed 41 people.
After last week’s attack on an upmarket café in Dhaka where seven jihadists killed 22 people, the IS’s Amaq news agency published photographs of bodies lying in a pool of blood in the café, giving credit to the group for the assault. The IS has also claimed responsibility for the July 3 bombing in Baghdad that killed more than 200 people.
But each of these attacks has its own nuances. The U.S. government says Orlando was not an IS-directed assault but an inspired one. In Turkey, the outfit did not claim responsibility, something unusual when compared to the boastful claims it makes after terror strikes elsewhere. In Bangladesh, the government has rejected the IS’s claims, blaming local militant networks instead. Baghdad could be the only incident in this set where there’s a consensus on the identity of the perpetrator. But these nuances also reflect the new face of terrorism.
The ISIS is expanding its reach through its ideology even as it’s facing organisational setbacks at its core. All attackers in these four cities may not have got directions from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or his core team. There need not be an organisational link between the IS in Iraq and Syria and the terror cells in Dhaka or Jhenaidah. What connects these men is the deadly world view the ISI is propagating. For the IS, everyone who doesn’t subscribe to its vision is an enemy and it divides these enemies into different sects — crusaders (largely Christians), apostates (mostly non-Sunni Muslims) and sinners (it could be anyone from gays to rebels).
In the three years of its existence, the IS has adopted several tactical approaches to stay relevant as a global jihadist force. Its early focus was on the establishment of a Caliphate. The weak sectarian government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq and the bloody chaotic civil war in Syria let the group capture territories in both countries and declare the Caliphate. In the first year of the Caliphate, the IS kept expanding its territorial reach. Its enemy camp was divided and lacked a comprehensive anti-terror strategy. Syria was descending from chaos into anarchy. The regional black market was flush with weapons as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s enemies were arming rebel groups.
The IS was the biggest beneficiary of this period, and at its peak in 2014, the group controlled territories as big as Great Britain. This approach was different from the al-Qaeda-type terror organisations which were mainly hit-and-run groups. The IS blended both asymmetric terrorism and modern warfare tactics to capture and hold on to territories. But one problem of this strategy is that the enemies could easily target such groups by attacking the areas they control. The IS started facing the heat when its multiple enemies such as Russia, the U.S., Iran and the Kurds launched separate attacks from all sides of the Caliphate .
The decline started in Kobane, the Syrian border town which the IS laid siege to briefly. But the Kurdish fighters repelled the group after weeks-long battle, dealing the first major battlefield blow to the group in January 2015. It’s not a coincidence that the IS started attacking faraway locations using suicide bombers at the same time.
Till Kobane, the IS’s focus was largely on Iraq and Syria. But Kobane shattered the myth of invincibility, prompting the group to change tack. In March that year, IS gunmen killed 22 people in Tunisia’s Bardo national museum. With more territorial losses, the group went in for more suicide attacks. In November they struck Paris, killing 130 people. These attacks were largely planned at the core and executed elsewhere — or the al-Qaeda style of suicide attacks. Be it the Tunisian shooting, the Paris or Brussels attacks or the Beirut bombing, the jihadists were trained in Syria and sent out to carry out the “missions”.
But even this tactic has its limitations. Terror modules could attract the attention of intelligence agencies in countries with functional institutions. There’s a higher chance for them to be busted than attacks being carried out. On the other side, the IS’s core territory kept shrinking. It lost Palmyra in Syria, and Ramadi and Fallujah in Iraq. The group is facing enormous pressure from all sides of the Caliphate — the Iraqis are set to march towards Mosul, while Kurdish forces backed by U.S. aircraft are breathing down on Raqqa.
The IS wanted to strike anywhere outside Iraq and Syria (which is relatively easy for the group) to continue to stay in the business of jihadism. This desperation was apparent in the Ramzan message released by IS spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, who called for “a month of calamity everywhere for non-believers”. This is in line with the group’s propaganda which over the last two years has urged “supporters and soldiers of the Caliphate” to pledge allegiance to the Caliph and then carry out mass murder. “The smallest action you do in the heart of their land is dearer to us than the largest action by us,” Adnani said in the audio message released in May.
The Orlando and Dhaka attacks show that this tactic is paying off. Even in Turkey, where the IS was reluctant to strike in the initial years because the dual game the country was playing in Syria was benefitting the jihadists, the group is changing its approach. It will hit Turkey, but won’t claim responsibility.
This is a far more dangerous phase. Al-Qaeda usually operates from its hideouts through its networks or autonomous cells. The IS has territory (the Caliphate); it has networks and affiliates (from Afghanistan to Nigeria); autonomous cells (possibly the Istanbul attack was carried out by such a cell and that’s why the IS leadership doesn’t claim the assault); and lone wolves and local groups that have subscribed to its world view (Orlando and Dhaka).
Irrespective of the setbacks it suffered at its core, the IS has transformed its ideology, which at the advent of the group was seen as an isolated, barbaric world view propagated by a few wicked human beings, into that of a globalised force. This means that even if the IS is defeated in Mosul and Raqqa, the threat it poses to the modern world is not going to subside anytime soon.