With a spectacular and bloody assault in central Tehran, the Sunni jihadi group is fanning the flames of a sectarian war.
- By Will McCantsWill McCants is a senior fellow at Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy and director of its Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World. He is also adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins University and has held various government and think tank positions related to Islam, the Middle East, and terrorism. From 2009 to 2011, McCants served as a U.S. State Department senior adviser for countering violent extremism. He is the author of The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State. Follow him on Twitter: @will_mccants.
After years of waiting and wanting to strike Iran, the Islamic State claims to have finally done so. According to recent news reports, four militants went on a shooting spree in Iran’s parliament, while other operatives detonated a bomb inside the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, killing 12 people. If the Islamic State indeed ordered the attacks, it has struck at the temporal and spiritual heart of the Iranian revolutionary government.
The Islamic State has aimed to strike Iran since at least 2007, when it openly threatened to attack the country for supporting the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq. It regards Persian Shiites as apostate traitors who have sold out the Sunni Arabs to Israel and the United States. This determination to strike Iran marked a key difference with al Qaeda, which long held off attacking the Islamic Republic in order to use it as a rear base and financial hub.
In 2007, Osama bin Laden wrote a private letter to the leaders of the Islamic State urging them to cease and desist. “You did not consult with us on that serious issue that affects the general welfare of all of us,” the al Qaeda chief wrote. “Iran is our main artery for funds, personnel, and communication, as well as the matter of hostages,” bin Laden went on to explain. “There is no need to fight with Iran, unless you are forced to.”
Bin Laden’s concerns were well placed. After 9/11, a contingent of al Qaeda operatives and members of bin Laden’s family fled to Iran, where they were kept under house arrest or close surveillance. Among them was Bin Laden’s son Hamza, now promoted by al Qaeda as its heir apparent. The Iranian government loosened or tightened its leash on the operatives and family for strategic reasons, and al Qaeda refrained from attacking the government to protect its people and to preserve its corridor to Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Islamic State did not like the directive but bent the knee to its emir, bin Laden. But when al Qaeda and the Islamic State split in 2014, an Islamic State spokesman used this disagreement to paint his organization as the more committed jihadi group. He revealed that its rank and file had long pressed for an attack, but al Qaeda forbade it because the organization wanted to “protect its interests and its supply lines.”
Presuming the Islamic State’s claim of responsibility for today’s attack is authentic, why did it wait three years to carry out a strike if it had been free to do so since 2014? Absent internal testimony from the organization, there are several ways to think about the timing. The Islamic State may not have had operatives capable of carrying out the attacks until now. During the past few years, it steadily assembled and trained a cadre of Iranian commandos. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that some of them were able to return home and carry out a sophisticated attack, as French and Belgian jihadis have done over the past two years.
There may also be strategic reasons, as found in one of the group’s favorite insurgent manuals, The Management of Savagery. Reasons for attacking Iran might include punishing an adversary for attacking its territory, provoking an all-out sectarian war to force Iraqi Sunnis to side with the Islamic State, or provoking the Iranian government to launch a domestic crackdown on Sunnis that would lead them to turn to the Islamic State for protection.
Finally, the Islamic State wants to win its struggle with al Qaeda for the hearts and minds of global jihadis. The group badly needs recruits in order to replenish its decimated ranks in Syria and Iraq. A daring attack on Iran’s capital makes al Qaeda look foolish for refusing to carry out a siege of its own. The timing of the assault is also significant. To prove that it is still relevant in order to attract new recruits, the Islamic State seeks to inspire or direct global attacks during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. Last Ramadan was incredibly bloody, and this Ramadan is on pace to match or surpass it.
Whatever the case may be, if the claim proves true, the Islamic State will have succeeded where so many other Sunni jihadi groups have failed. It has struck at the heart of the hated theocracy of “Safavids,” as the group describes Iran. At a time when the Islamic State’s caliphate is crumbling and its morale flagging, the strike won’t reverse its ill-fortunes — Iran may decide to hasten the demise of the Islamic State in response. But it is a vital shot in the arm for the group as it transitions from a proto-state to an insurgency.
Photo credit: OMID VAHABZADEH/AFP/Getty Images