Islamic State’s Terror in the West: Who Directs It?

Analysis by Alex IRELAND

From the outside, Islamic State (IS) can seem a monolithic organisation expertly exporting terror attacks to the Western world. However, this impression is far from accurate. In fact, IS is mostly focused on holding and expanding territory in the Middle East, and places far greater emphasis on potential recruits to immigrate to its territory than to carry out terror attacks where they are based.

That being said, creating terror attacks abroad is certainly part of IS’s strategy. But in contrast to some exaggerated media suggestions, IS seem to prefer to rely on inspiring lone wolf attacks in the West, rather than creating and directing attacks themselves.

For example, of the ten IS-related terror attacks in the West between October 2014 and December 2015, only two were directed by or definitively linked to IS. The remaining eight were simply fanatics inspired by IS’s message, and for which IS has taken credit retrospectively.

Soldiers on guard in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo attack, which was perpetrated by AQAP - Herman Pijpers, licensed under CC BY 2.0
Soldiers on guard in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo attack, which was perpetrated by AQAP – Herman Pijpers, licensed under CC BY 2.0

This approach has many benefits for IS. It is extremely cost-effective, given that IS-inspired terrorists do not receive any central funding or direction from IS itself, and that the inspiration itself can be done at very low marginal cost because most of the messages and propaganda that IS uses to attract recruits online can inspire lone wolf attacks as well. Although the proportion of people susceptible to IS propaganda is incredibly small, the massive scale that social media brings to recruitment efforts means that it is not difficult to find and radicalise people to carry out attacks.

Unfortunately, this raises a potentially worrying notion. Although it is true that IS is largely avoiding centrally directing and funding terrorist attacks in the West, this may not be because it is against IS’s strategy or because of a lack of ability, but simply because the alternative of inspiring lone wolf attacks is so cheap and effective. IS is an incredibly wealthy organisation, and has a large amount of available manpower to plan terror attacks against Western targets – it is both richer and larger by multiples than al-Qaeda when it carried out 9/11, for example. It seems highly unlikely that IS is incapable of directing attacks in the West, and neither does it seem particularly at odds with IS’s grand strategy for it to coordinate attacks directly.

Thus, any action that majorly frustrates IS’s ability to inspire domestic attacks of terror in the West may risk pushing IS towards carrying out their own centrally coordinated attacks instead. Or, worse, IS may simply have been relying on lone wolf attacks to begin with whilst it builds its capacity to direct terror itself. There are some suggestions that this may be the case, with one US official claiming that IS has set up a dedicated ‘external operations unit’ for directing terror attacks abroad.

Furthermore, anything that raises the value to IS of terror attacks in the West is likely to provoke IS into further spending of resources and manpower on centrally-directed attacks. The most obvious candidates for such a scenario are increased Western attacks on IS-held territory, which raise the value of being seen to retaliate against the West, and the steady loss of territory and security that the current air strike campaign is contributing to. Such a loss of IS’s territorial integrity, and halting of its expansion, deals a sharp blow to a vital source of legitimacy. It would be highly plausible for IS to attempt to patch up its legitimacy and fearsome reputation – vital to recruit the manpower it needs to stay militarily and administratively viable – by looking to carry out more, and more deadly, terror operations in the West. Centrally planning attacks would be an obvious way of ensuring that more take place, and of realising higher casualties by bringing IS’s operational expertise to bear.

Whilst IS’s current terror operations in the West do not suggest a systematic attempt to centrally plan attacks, the massive resources available to IS – and the group’s deteriorating strategic situation – make it highly likely that IS will move towards such a strategy in the future.

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