Meet the New Islamic State: Same as the Old Islamic State
The recent attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Sharm Al-Sheikh demonstrated to world leaders that we have a serious problem: If the self-proclaimed Islamic State appeared to be contained in Syria and Iraq, the recent attacks proved exactly the opposite, that the group can execute external operations even while its territory is shrinking. The recent attacks also provoked a much-needed debate about whether this is a recent strategic shift by the Islamic State to focus more on terrorism abroad, or rather a chain of tactical wins representing the culmination of a strategy that was put in place a long time ago.
Those that argue that the recent attacks symbolize a strategic shift say that, as a result of losing territory, the Islamic State has decided to allocate more resources to terror operations abroad. This argument further suggests that because the group cannot show success on the ground due to these territorial losses, it needs to focus more on global terror to maintain its reputation and flow of recruits. This argument makes sense, especially in light of recent Islamic State defeats in Sinjar and Northern Syria, but other factors suggest that the group’s recent successes abroad are actually part of a global effort the organization started long before its so-called state was shrinking.
The November 13 attacks in Paris were not the first time that Islamic State supporters or affiliates tried to target western countries. In fact, a series of active Islamic State plots have been disrupted all across Europe in the last year, set to be carried out while the group was at the height of its territorial gains. The individual identified as the “mastermind” of the Paris attack, Abdelhamid Abbaoud, was connected to another plot in Belgium that was foiled by the Belgian police in January this year, and was in contact with other extremist cells in Europe. European officials even suggested that the Belgium plot in January could have been directed by Islamic State leadership. Had the plot been successful, the attack would have coincided with the group making important ground advances in Syria and Iraq. The prime minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, stated last week that their security services had foiled seven domestic Islamic State plots. Other attempts were detected in Spain and Italy, and the United States has also thwarted numerous plots.
One should also keep in mind that, for any media report about a plot foiled, there were probably more incidents that were not reported, as governments do not want to create panic. True, some of these plots are just the work of lone wolves or inspired individuals, rather than plans directed by the Islamic State’s leadership. Yet there were some terror plots in the works that had distinct connections to the group’s operatives in Syria, such as the case in Belgium.
Another thing to remember is that attacks, such as the most recent in Paris, take time to plan and execute. Many details are still unknown about the Paris attacks, but what is known is that three teams, totaling about eight attackers, coordinated attacks at six locations in Paris. Apparently, six of the attackers had spent time in Syria, and the assailants used automatic weapons and suicide belts that were made by skilled professionals. The attackers and their comrades rented three different hideouts in Paris, and made sure that they could still stay in touch while in the city. An elaborate attack such as this takes time and cannot be thrown together in the wake of a territorial loss that occurred in recent months.
First of all, forming the right group of people and sending them from Syria to Europe undetected takes time. The logistical preparations, which according to some reports took place in Belgium, also require resources and time. This includes getting your hands on explosives and weapons, assembling the vests, and finding the easiest and fastest routes to get into France undetected. Assuming that the group had affiliates in France, those affiliates would also have needed to gather intelligence on the targets, examining the level of security in these places and casing them for their busiest hours. The operatives would have had to find an apartment that could be used as a safe place to organize the attack.
All these things take time, which means that if there had been an order from Islamic State leadership to execute an attack in Europe, it would have had to come down a long time ago. The Mumbai attack in 2008, for example, which some analysts suggested gave inspiration to the Paris attack assailants, took more than a year to plan and execute.
The Islamic State has declared time and time again that it will target the West. Last January, the group’s spokesperson, Muhammad Al-Adnani, threatened that:
there were many others who killed, ran others over, threatened, frightened, and terrorized people, to the event that we saw the Crusader armies deployed on the streets in Australia, Canada, France, Belgium and other strongholds of the cross to whom we promise — by Allah’s permission — a continuation of their state of alert, terror, fear and loss of security.
True, these are just statements. But these statements, along with the number of plots disrupted in Europe, prove that the Islamic State already tried to follow up on these statements. Some of the group’s affiliates were stopped by Western law enforcement agencies during the last year as was noted, but it was expected that the Islamic State would adapt and try to find new ways to overcome their failures.
As it takes a long time and effort to plan such an attack, resources and close attention are needed — both things for which the Islamic State does not lack. As many experts have noted, including my colleague Matthew Levitt, executing an attack in the West is not that expensive. Some estimates suggested that the Paris attacks cost around $10,000. If that’s the case, the Islamic State has enough resources to support such an operation and still allocate most of its resources to governance and fighting in Syria and Iraq: Its war budget is estimated to be between $1 and $2 billion.
What about close attention? Daniel Byman, a Senior Fellow at Brookings, wrote that the Islamic State has always focused its energies locally and regionally, and that the insurgency was its number one priority. That is a fair statement. But this does not negate an external operations component. Terrorist organizations can pursue multiple lines of effort at the same time. They can be involved in fighting while also executing terror attacks abroad. Hezbollah, for example, has a unit dedicated entirely to external operations, Unit 910. In July 2012, when Hezbollah blew up a bus in Bulgaria killing several Israelis and a Bulgarian, all eyes looked at Unit 910. This attack came while Hezbollah was already involved in the Syrian civil war, meaning that powerful terror organizations can execute external operations while fighting on the ground.
Why does it matter if this is a recent strategic shift or just a tactical win?
Basically, it means that the Islamic State has been trying to target the West for a long time, but now it has also found a way to make it happen by adapting their tactics. The Paris attacks show that the group’s operatives learned how to adjust to some of the security measures European countries put in place. If Abdelhamid Abbaoud was able to get into France undetected, despite being known to intelligence agencies as a facilitator of numerous terror cells in Europe, it means that Abbaoud himself found a breach — a breach that can be used by other Islamic State operatives. Some will say that this can be the exception that does not necessarily prove the rule, meaning that Abbaoud was “lucky” and this is not any indication of a greater trend. The fact that multiple assailants made their way from Syria to Europe, the number of people involved in the plot, the use of suicide vests, which means that a bomb maker was involved, and the possible use of encrypted messages all point to the fact that even with great luck, these guys knew what they were doing.
So far we have not witnessed many successes by the Islamic State, mostly because intelligence and law enforcement agencies were very efficient, but also because complex operations, such as the one in Paris, take time to execute. It is apparent that the group drew lessons from past failures. Now it is time for the West to do the same and once again limit the Islamic State’s external operational capabilities. A thorough investigation of the Paris attacks and close cooperation between intelligence and law enforcement agencies to understand what happened will be a good start.
Nadav Pollak is the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation fellow at The Washington Institute.