Losing ground in Syria and Iraq, the terrorist network is shifting strategy abroad to prove it’s still capable of winning.
- By Clint WattsClint Watts is the Robert A. Fox fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at The George Washington University. He has previously served as a U.S. Army officer, a FBI special agent, and the executive officer of the Combating Terrorism Center. Follow him on Twitter at @selectedwisdom.
When strangled, an animal fights wildly, kicking and screaming to avoid death, hoping to create a window of opportunity through which to survive. Today, in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State gasps for air. A year ago, it prospered from battlefield conquests, the imposition of a Sharia state, and social media promotion; but loyalty within the ranks now frays as success wanes. In recent months, the Islamic State has suffered territorial losses to Kurdish forces, the loss of top commanders, seen a rise in defections, killed internal spies, and even suffered an Edward Snowden-type data dump of human resources files.
Recent European attacks, viewed from afar, might imply that the Islamic State is stronger than ever, but it’s the reverse: The group desperately needs to show signs of success to shore up its ranks and inspire international popular support. And since those wins are harder to come by in Syria and Iraq, they have started looking elsewhere. From Paris to Istanbul to Brussels, the Islamic State has decidedly moved to Europe, where they are terrorists without borders.
In doing so, the Islamic State has followed the way of a predecessor that also implemented harsh violence in the pursuit of a state ruled by Islam — Somalia’s al-Shabaab. Similar to Shabaab’s decline in recent years in Somalia, the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq has begun its transition from a more conventional force seeking terrain to a regional and international terrorist menace seeking a new home for survival. As Shabaab lost ground to an international coalition, it shifted to suicide operations and shock attacks against soft targets in Mogadishu, perpetrating regional terror attacks through a network of foreign fighters and affiliates in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania.
The Islamic State now follows a similar track, but the stakes already have proven far higher. Unlike the much smaller Shabaab, the Islamic State’s terrorism possibilities and potential targets for achieving success prove almost limitless. Would-be caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi sits atop the largest, most diverse, and highly trained network of foreign fighters in terrorism history. More than a dozen Islamic State affiliates on four continents reinforce this network of trained and experienced veterans.
It took al Qaeda a decade to achieve two major attacks in Europe — a directed attack on London transportation in 2005 and the inspired bombings of the Madrid train station in 2004. The Islamic State has surpassed al Qaeda’s European successes in a matter of months. After partially inspiring the January 2014 Charlie Hebdo follow-on attack in a Paris kosher supermarket, the Islamic State brought Paris to its knees last November. Former foreign fighters working with new recruits perpetrated suicide bombings and gun runs through the streets of the French capital, sending word of their success back to the Islamic State’s propaganda machines.
The Paris perpetrators proved only the tip of the Islamic State’s iceberg of terrorist facilitation in Europe. A four-month manhunt in Belgium finally brought the final Paris attacker, Salah Abdeslam, into custody. But the arrest spurred a major terrorist attack in Brussels, one that seems to have been in the planning stages for some time. And once again, Islamic State propagandists proliferated images of the airport and subway bombings on the social media app Telegram within hours, giving the terror group the success they so crave.
But those equating the Islamic State’s recent wave of violence as a shift to an al Qaeda model are mistaken. Al Qaeda chose its targets carefully, seeking symbolism and large-scale impact. The leadership plodded along slowly, often trying to minimize civilian causalities while delicately controlling the media cycle — always worried about popular support among the Muslim masses. Cunning, speed, violence, and intensity are the ingredients of the Islamic State’s European rampage. While civilians (including the vast majority of Muslims) may hate them for it, fans of the Islamic State thrive on this brazen display. Former foreign fighters of the Islamic State and those they radicalize locally to their ranks don’t obsess with striking symbolic Western targets like embassies or national landmarks. They plan more hastily, choosing local venues they know personally: a football stadium they attended, a subway platform or airport they transited through, a concert hall they secretly despised as they passed it on the street. In many ways the Islamic State in Europe proves to be the inverse of al Qaeda — fast, aggressive, pervasive, and successful.
The extent of the Islamic State’s presence in Europe has proven revelatory for counterterrorist officials. The attackers in Paris and Brussels initially went into Syria through Turkey, were allegedly spotted in Hungary and Austria, possibly had linkages or support in Germany and Italy, and found sufficient safe harbor among disenfranchised diaspora communities in Belgium and France. While much fuss has been raised regarding Islamic State members infiltrating via refugee caravans, most have been European passport holders who’ve traversed the continent simply by buying a ticket or paying a toll. Europe has proven a permissible playground for Islamic State violence.
Conversely, Europe’s counterterrorist agencies have proven stymied by borders and uneven capability and competency. Intelligence sharing among European countries has proven difficult. Some countries operate a separate intelligence and counterterrorism force at the national level, aggregating terrorist information; other countries pursue counterterrorism intelligence through local law enforcement. Each operates their own intelligence collection systems and computer databases that might share information with other European countries and regional security agencies like Europol and Interpol under different protocols. Coordination and communication is rare and fractured, even in the best of times. Dozens of European countries have watched their young men march off to join the Islamic State in recent years, and are now overwhelmed by these committed foreign fighters returning home. Some estimates place the total of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq as high as 31,000, with upward of 5,000 coming from Western Europe. The British government claims at least 800 citizens have gone to fight for Islamic radicals in the Syrian conflict, and roughly half have returned. No European country appears to have the capacity to cover all the potential Islamic State leads that have come back to roost. But lack of capacity doesn’t explain entirely Europe’s recent counterterrorism failures.
The French seemed aware of some of the Paris attackers in advance, but likely had no access to the plotting and planning in Belgium. France employs federal intelligence and investigative resources against terrorists, whereas Belgium uses a local law enforcement approach. Larger European nations like Britain, France, and Germany have experience and dedicated resources for counterterrorism investigations — but their powers stop at international borders. Meanwhile, smaller European nations — Belgium, the Netherlands, and Denmark in particular — are almost starting from scratch. They previously had little need for robust counterterrorism capabilities, but the Syrian war has forced their hand. Now these countries are home to surprisingly high concentrations of young men who have left to join the Islamic State on the battlefield, and now bring back with them Islamic State ideology, battlefield training, and a resolve to do harm. Unlike the United States, which has employed an increasingly counterterrorism-focused FBI alongside vast spending on international intelligence from the CIA and National Security Agency since 9/11, the European Union lacks a coordinated security entity with the breadth, capability, and authority necessary to impede today’s networked terrorists roaming the continent. European investigators can’t seamlessly hop borders and apply the best counterterrorism assets where they are desperately needed.
But while the Islamic State may be gloating over the Brussels attack, it will lose ground in the coming months as the coalition seems poised to retake Mosul in Iraq and Kurdish forces might push for the Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa, Syria. To survive, it must seek new targets for its fighters and new successes to sustain its brand. Future attacks in Europe aren’t a possibility — they’re a likelihood. This week’s Brussels bombings may have consumed the final remnants of the Paris network, but the Islamic State’s success in these two cities will surely inspire continental copycats. With several intelligence failures under its belt, Europe’s patchwork of counterterrorist agencies must rebound — sharing intelligence, capacity, and capability — or Europe’s cities will again be littered with the blood of innocents.
Photo credit: KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images