ISIS Can’t Even Direct Lone-Wolf Attacks Anymore

But the group is hoping for a resurgence while the West is distracted in Ukraine.

Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Anchal Vohra
By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut.
A member of the Syrian pro-government forces carries an Islamic State (IS) group flag as he stands on a street in the ancient city of Palmyra on March 27, 2016, after troops recaptured the city from IS jihadists.
A member of the Syrian pro-government forces carries an Islamic State (IS) group flag as he stands on a street in the ancient city of Palmyra on March 27, 2016, after troops recaptured the city from IS jihadists.
A member of the Syrian pro-government forces carries an Islamic State (IS) group flag as he stands on a street in the ancient city of Palmyra on March 27, 2016, after troops recaptured the city from IS jihadists. STR/AFP via Getty Images

The jihadi Islamic State group recently called on its supporters to resume attacks in Europe while the West is focused on Russia’s Ukraine invasion. In a speech posted online last week, Islamic State spokesman Abu Omar al-Muhajir asked supporters to take advantage of the “crusaders fighting each other” by launching a global offensive to take revenge for a former Islamic State chief killed during a raid by U.S. special forces in northwest Syria earlier this year. He also asked sympathizers in Israel to “arm themselves” against the Israeli state and claimed that only the return of an Islamic caliphate could liberate Palestinians.

Since the Islamic State was territorially defeated in 2019, analysts have been debating whether the group will reemerge as a major threat. That conversation became urgent in January when the group carried out a prison break in Hasakah, northeast Syria, to free thousands of its members. In 2020, the group claimed an average of 45 attacks in Syria every month. It has also gained strength in Afghanistan and in parts of Africa over the last few years. At least two recent terrorist attacks in Israel, in the cities of Beersheba and Hadera, were claimed by Islamic State sympathizers.

While it is true that the Islamic State’s ideology has not evaporated, the group no longer seems capable of directing even basic lone-wolf attacks. Most of the recent attacks claimed by the group were carried out by individuals who simply piggybacked on its jihad without having any logistical or material support.

The jihadi Islamic State group recently called on its supporters to resume attacks in Europe while the West is focused on Russia’s Ukraine invasion. In a speech posted online last week, Islamic State spokesman Abu Omar al-Muhajir asked supporters to take advantage of the “crusaders fighting each other” by launching a global offensive to take revenge for a former Islamic State chief killed during a raid by U.S. special forces in northwest Syria earlier this year. He also asked sympathizers in Israel to “arm themselves” against the Israeli state and claimed that only the return of an Islamic caliphate could liberate Palestinians.

Since the Islamic State was territorially defeated in 2019, analysts have been debating whether the group will reemerge as a major threat. That conversation became urgent in January when the group carried out a prison break in Hasakah, northeast Syria, to free thousands of its members. In 2020, the group claimed an average of 45 attacks in Syria every month. It has also gained strength in Afghanistan and in parts of Africa over the last few years. At least two recent terrorist attacks in Israel, in the cities of Beersheba and Hadera, were claimed by Islamic State sympathizers.

While it is true that the Islamic State’s ideology has not evaporated, the group no longer seems capable of directing even basic lone-wolf attacks. Most of the recent attacks claimed by the group were carried out by individuals who simply piggybacked on its jihad without having any logistical or material support.

The Islamic State’s resurgence in the West is a possibility, but there are no signs of it as of yet. The Islamic State has neither the manpower nor the resources, and above all it has lost the popularity it once had to lure disaffected Europeans to launch massive attacks in the West. “I don’t think the Ukraine war matters much for what happens with IS,” said Aron Lund, a fellow with the Century Foundation. He added that in its latest message the group is merely trying “to sound relevant and up to date, latching onto current events.”

An analysis of the attacks claimed by the group since its fall shows that it remains weak and has been reduced to merely making appeals to sympathizers in the West that it isn’t even sure it still has. The group no longer has a physical state, which had played a huge role in enticing young Muslims living on the fringes of Western societies to join its ranks. Nor does it have control of oil wells and taxes from locals, which it had used to run its affairs and fund extremist attacks. Moreover, intelligence cooperation between European intelligence services and their Middle Eastern counterparts is much stronger than it once was. Islamic State members have been arrested in several European nations, and their subsequent court trials have sent a deterring message to potential recruits. Joining the Islamic State is simply not as attractive as it once was for wannabe jihadis in Europe. “It has not really pulled off any major attacks in Europe since 2017. Five years is a very long time for a jihadist group that used to be front and center on the security map,” said Olivier Guitta, managing director of the risk consultancy GlobalStrat.

Guitta added that he did not believe that Western security agencies were being distracted by the war in Ukraine and that the war does not really make a difference for the Islamic State’s ability to pull off terrorist attacks in Europe. “If they could, they would have done so since 2017 or even during the pandemic. Except in Africa and Afghanistan where it has really expanded its operations, the group has retreated almost everywhere else. The caliphate is now only a small fraction of what it was in 2015,” he said.  

The biggest Islamic State attacks in Europe were in France and Belgium, and the attackers had received combat training by the Islamic State in the territory it then controlled in Syria. The absence of such territory has reduced it to just another Islamist jihadi group. It does not eliminate the risk of lone-wolf strikes, but it has drastically reduced the chances of large attacks. 

Most recent attacks in Europe were unsophisticated, mainly stabbings and ramming vehicles into crowds of people. In almost all such attacks since 2017, the attackers sympathized with the group, but they were not members of a global Islamic State franchise. They received neither tools nor training from the Islamic State to carry out the attacks and merely associated themselves with it because it was the last group that had earned its stripes in the jihadi sphere. 

Moreover, increased cooperation among European intelligence agencies has enabled the security agencies to thwart multiple Islamic State attacks. Germany foiled nine major bomb plots between 2015 and 2020, while many European nations have arrested Islamic State suspects and began trials against them. Earlier this month, Germany arrested an Islamic State member who is suspected of participating in the massacre of 700 Syrians of the Shaitat tribe in August 2014. A survivor of the massacre, living as a refugee in Berlin, said he recognized the suspect and reported him to German authorities. “I was there while ISIS was massacring my people. I managed to stay alive because I was a car dealer and ISIS needed cars,” he said. “I knew the ISIS member I reported because he was from the Shaitat area.” The survivor spoke on the condition of anonymity, as he feared his friends and family back home might be targeted by Islamic State remnants. 

Europe is home to a million Syrian refugees, and security agencies believe that many have entered without proper documentation or with forged papers, including Islamic State members. But there are many victims and survivors among the refugees, too, who are keen to identify Islamic State members and bring them to justice. 

In many Western countries, Islamic State members have been put on trial. The three most prominent trials have been held in France, the United States, and Germany. Salah Abdeslam was a member of a group of 10 terrorists who attacked six restaurants and bars, the Bataclan concert hall, and the national soccer stadium in Paris in 2015. He says he froze at the last minute and did not explode the bomb tied to him. But he isn’t glorifying the Islamic State in testimony and has instead become a cautionary tale for anyone else who might want to follow in his footsteps.  

Abdeslam now seeks forgiveness from his fellow French citizens. “I want to present my condolences and my apologies to all the victims,” he said in court earlier this month. “I ask you to hate me with moderation. … I ask you to forgive me.”

In the United States, two members of the Islamic State’s so-called Beatles group have been tried and convicted. El Shafee Elsheikh, 33, was involved in the murders of the American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, as well as the aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller. A British national, Elsheikh was captured in January 2018 by Kurdish forces in Syria along with fellow Beatles member and Islamic State terrorist Alexanda Amon Kotey. Both Elsheikh and Kotey have been convicted. 

The testimonies in trials like these paint the Islamic State members, or those who carried out attacks in the group’s name, as sorry figures and not heroes of Islam to be emulated and followed. Security agencies hope their convictions will deter others from joining the Islamic State.

The growing view among observers is that the Islamic State threat has not been entirely eliminated but that it has certainly been mitigated. The Islamic State could see a resurgence if it ever expands again in Syria and Iraq, and if security agencies take their eyes off radicalization attempts at home. Islamic State leadership is believed to be holed up in the last rebel-held enclave in northwest Syria, which is under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) whose parent organization was a former affiliate of al Qaeda. While the group has some sympathizers in the region, HTS doesn’t want to be seen as an ally of the Islamic State. The West could use the animosity between these groups to its advantage. The Islamic State is also present in the Syrian desert, but there is no known presence of Western fighters in its midst. 

The group is undoubtedly trying to regenerate support among Muslims who feel excluded in the West and is hoping potential recruits will organize their own lone-wolf attacks that it can then use to reclaim its renewed relevance. The only long-term solution for such attacks is to build more inclusive and well-integrated societies where different cultures easily coexist. In that sense, to get rid of the Islamic State threat—or that of any other Islamist jihadi group—the West must look within.

Anchal Vohra is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut. Twitter: @anchalvohra

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