Small Wars Journal

2018 Ramadan Radicals: Revenge and Redemption - Potential Actors, Motivators, and Dates

Thu, 04/26/2018 - 7:23pm

2018 Ramadan Radicals: Revenge and Redemption - Potential Actors, Motivators, and Dates

James Emery

Ramadan - a sacred month of fasting, prayers, and spiritual renewal for over 1.9 billion Muslims around the world - will occur May 16 to June 14, 2018, depending upon the sighting of the new crescent moon. For radical terrorist and insurgent groups, Ramadan is an opportunity to encourage and initiate increased attacks, suicide bombings, and carnage against perceived enemies around the world, regardless of nationality, location, or religious affiliation. Virtually everything about these attacks and the motivation behind them goes against the core teaching of the Qur'an.

Waging war during Ramadan is prohibited by the Qur’an. There are exceptions noted in the second surah, verses 194 and 217, which terrorists and jihadis twist to encourage attacks and martyrdom during Ramadan. Most of the jihadi groups behind these attacks are motivated by power, prestige, and money, not religious conviction or nationalism.

Ramadan has a bloody history of celebrated battles and carnage dating back to its earliest days, through numerous attacks that took place last year. While numbers vary, one monitoring source counted 124 Islamic terrorist attacks in 24 countries during Ramadan 2017. 

This year, the violence has increased. The jihad report counted 171 attacks in March and 550 in 36 countries through mid-April 2018. Some reporting agencies show less attacks, some more, depending upon methodology, reporting, and coverage. One grey area is insurgent attacks that are terrorist in nature.

The competition between Islamic State and al-Qaeda is partially responsible for spikes in terrorist attacks. The Islamic State (also IS, ISIS, and Daesh) and al-Qaeda have been competing for leadership of the global jihadi movement dating back to the period when ISIS was an affiliate of al-Qaeda. They've been competing for power and influence, supporters and recruits, the allegiance of fighters and affiliates, media coverage and donations. Islamic State had been self-funding, but they've lost control of the lucrative oil fields and most of their revenue from taxes, extortion, kidnapping, and the sale of antiquities. At one point, the Islamic State was reportedly making up to $50 million a month from oil revenues, in addition to the millions looted from banks.


In predicting and countering Islamic terrorist attacks, it is essential to take a holistic approach that considers all of the cultural, historical, religious, political, military and other drivers and events that are in play. This includes issues, activities, and beliefs that Westerners perceive differently than most Muslims, especially jihadis.

Anthropological field research defines two primary viewpoints - emic and etic. The emic (inside) view is the perspective of the subjects that you are interviewing and researching. How they describe, explain, or justify their culture, traditions, and behavior from marriage practices and residency patterns to honor killings and female genital mutilation (FGM). The etic (outside) view is the perspective of people outside of the respective culture, usually including the anthropologist, based upon culture and subculture variations.

Ambitious maneuvering and position does not trump having advisors with the desirable core traits, meaningful experience, implicit knowledge, and inherent capacity and skill. Too often, so-called experts, title holders, and policy people are uninformed, misinformed, or willfully obtuse when it comes to understanding how other people - especially those deemed as enemies or threats - view things, and perhaps more importantly, why. Understanding the "why" is the key to preventing or countering activities that pose a threat, including enhanced jihadi recruitment and terrorist attacks.

Understanding and countering FGM to terrorism requires one to withhold intellectual and emotional judgment and focus on everything within the enculturation process that shapes the attitudes, behavior, and beliefs of specific individuals, groups, and cultures in order to identify and assign appropriate weight values to specific drivers that can be extrapolated to provide probability and predictability of actors, actions, and reactions. This will provide clues as to targeting, timing, and terrain (location).

Factors That May Increase Violence During Ramadan 2018

- The blowback of recent strikes on Syria by the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Israel will likely increase the number of planned and spontaneous attacks against these and other countries.

- ISIS and their affiliates are trying to salvage their relevance.

- Al-Qaeda and its affiliates are striving to project their dominance among jihadi supporters, donors, and recruits.

- Sunni affiliated jihadi groups, which account for the overwhelming majority of Islamic terrorists and insurgents, are encouraging affiliates, cells, and individuals to carry out local, regional, and international attacks. This includes simple lone wolf attacks utilizing a knife, a gun, a car, or a truck.

- The collapse of ISIS sent many foreign fighters back home and to other countries. Additionally, fighters who would have traveled to join ISIS in Iraq or Syria are now encouraged to carry out attacks in their own country for the Caliphate.

- Hezbollah and other Shi'ite affiliated insurgent and terrorist groups will likely be adding to the Ramadan carnage this year due to the recent attacks on Syria by the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Israel.

- Increasing levels of injustice, chaos, frustration, corrupt and dysfunctional governments, and disparity of wealth and resources around the world is fueling jihadi recruiting and attacks.

Much of the Islamic World and Critics of U.S. Policies Also Cite

- Increasing reliance and willingness of U.S. and NATO to use military options, rather than expanded analysis and diplomacy to shape and achieve foreign policy objectives.

- The proliferation of U.S. corporate controlled media into becoming propagandists for ill-advised military operations, regime changes, and foreign policy initiatives.

- They claim the U.S. is caught up in an escalating cycle of provocations, deployments, attacks, and reprisals, providing self-perpetuating, justification for ever-increasing weapons' procurement and military and defense budgets.

- Many people may question these last three points, but they are circulating throughout the United States and around the world, including print and electronic media outlets, websites, and blogs in Islamic countries. It is vital to know what others think regarding U.S. military operations, especially when they disagree with you. These points are being used to bolster radical Islamic groups, increasing their recruiting and financial support, and encouraging attacks against the United States and NATO, some of which may be carried out on home soil by newly radicalized Westerners.

- The last three points are also being used to undermine support - in the United States and abroad - for U.S. military operations and foreign policy. Negative perceptions also reduce the quality and quantity of sources and information, along with the depth and breadth of indigenous support essential to making policy initiatives and field operations successful and sustainable.

Ramadan Attacks

Ramadan, will likely see an increase in terrorist, insurgent, small cell, and lone wolf activity that will continue throughout the rest of the year. The Middle East and Afghanistan will be the most frequently hit, but attacks will be global, to include North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. In addition to the projected increased attacks from ISIS, al-Qaeda, and their affiliates, Hezbollah and other Shi'ite terrorist groups may initiate attacks.

The United States, United Kingdom, Israel, and France will be the most desirable targets for jihadis, but they're also the most difficult for terrorists to carry out large scale, complex operations. However, small cells and lone wolves can strike anywhere, especially when they are local residents that blend in and have inherent knowledge of the culture and targets.

Possible targets of Islamic extremists include soldiers and military installations, government buildings, power grids, and water supplies. Potential soft targets in the U.S. and abroad include, tourist attractions, shopping areas, restaurants, bars, hotels, sporting events, concerts, trains, subways, and buses. These will appeal to jihadis due to their availability, ease of access, light security, and potential for high casualties with lots of media coverage. Local government officials, soldiers, police officers, and residents will also be targeted, especially in conflict areas, such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

Overseas, specific areas and establishments that are frequented by Westerners will be viewed as low-risk, high yield targets of opportunity for planned and spontaneous attacks. The summer tourist season will provide Islamic extremists with countless potential targets that are filled with Westerners throughout Europe and around the world. Tourist sites, beaches and resorts, shopping and entertainment areas, transportation facilities, special events, and other potential targets are all in play. Terrorists can gain access to lots of Westerners - without having to face the increased security and scrutiny in the West - by attacking easier locations, such as Bali, India, Thailand, Turkey, Greece, and other countries.

An increasing number of women are also being recruited, threatened, or coerced into becoming suicide bombers, including radicals, brainwashed recruits, and wives of martyrs. Expect to see more women used in Ramadan attacks this year. Terrorists and insurgents have also strapped explosives on children and the mentally ill.

Shi’ite shrines, mosques, and communities will be targeted by the Islamic State and other Sunni groups to further increase Shi’ite-Sunni hostilities that they hope will funnel Sunnis - who became retaliatory targets of the Shi’ites - towards radical Sunni groups. The Islamic State’s unwarranted, self-serving attacks on Shi’ites, is reminiscent of the Khawarij sect, a treacherous, treasonous group that provoked unnecessary fighting and warfare between leaders during the early days of Islam.

The Islamic State and the ancient Khawarij sect are deceivers and hypocrites, driven by an insatiable quest of power and wealth. Some Islamic scholars believe both groups were agents of the devil, sullying Islam and killing the righteous and the innocent. It has been said of both groups, “they recite the Qur'an, but it doesn't go beyond their throats.” Another Islamic scholar added, “The most difficult struggle is the one against hypocrisy, for it is the struggle against the cunning, who use the stupid as their weapon.”

Motivation and Timing for Ramadan Attacks

Most Muslims believe that acts carried out during Ramadan, from paying zakat, the annual Islamic charity tax to becoming a martyr in a jihad, will carry much more weight with Allah. There will likely be attacks during the first few days of Ramadan. Jihadi handlers and promoters prime their prey to rush towards a martyr's death to show Allah their devotion to the faith by sacrificing themselves at the start of the blessed month of Ramadan.

There will be periodic attacks throughout Ramadan and often another flurry at the end that may carry over into the Eid al-Fitr celebration. From a cultural and political perspective, symbolic, strategic, or newsworthy targets will be top priorities.

During Ramadan, the Night of Power, which Muslims believe occurred on an odd numbered date during the last ten days of Ramadan is a heightened period for all Muslims seeking spiritual enlightenment and renewal. This also appeals to despondent or radicalized jihadist seeking glory or redemption by carrying out suicide attacks to become a martyr on the Night of Power or during the sacred last ten days.

While the actual date of this event is unknown, most Muslims believe it occurred on an odd numbered night of Ramadan, during the last ten days of Ramadan. This would include the 21st, 23rd, 25th, 27th, and 29th days of Ramadan, tentatively occurring June 5 to June 13, 2018. Being a lunar holiday, actual Gregorian calendar days may vary, depending upon when Ramadan actually begins in each respective community.

These are the most sacred days of Ramadan. During this time, Muslims try to come closer to God through prayer, good deeds, personal sacrifice, and purity of thought and deed. Most Sunnis observe Lailat al-Qadr on the 27th day of Ramadan and most Shi'ites on the 23rd day of Ramadan. 

Lailat al-Qadr will begin at sunset and continue until sunrise of the next day. Most  Sunnis will celebrate it beginning on June 11, continuing until sunrise of the next day. Most Shi’ites will celebrate it beginning on June 7, 2018. These dates may vary, based upon when Ramadan starts in each respective community.

Many Muslims believe that good deeds performed on this night, reap rewards as if they were done for 1,000 months, the equivalent of 30,000 nights.

For some Muslims the Night of Power is a reminder of their failures – to their faith, their families, or to themselves. This remorse is similar to what some people feel on New Year’s Eve when reflecting upon their life during the past year and to date. Some radicalized Muslims and new converts will strive to become martyrs during Lailat al-Qadr or other days of Ramadan. 

Regardless of motivation - redemption, revenge, or glory - jihadi predators will seek out radicalized or vulnerable men, disgraced women, and brainwashed children, encouraging them to the glory of martyrdom. A small number of misguided Muslims will look to fulfill their destiny by carrying out suicide missions.

I suggest a limited presence by Westerners - especially military and police - operating in Muslim communities in the United States and abroad. Nothing good will come from patrolling these areas during the Night of Power and the day after. At the least the patrols will disrupt prayers and services. At worst, they will be perceived as easy targets - delivered by Allah - for motivated or coerced martyrs. Try to avoid becoming a target of opportunity during the Night of Power. The reduced presence of patrols will be much appreciated by Muslims, who will be focused on staying up all night praying during the Night of Power. The next day, they will be trying to make up for lost sleep. They will not want to see or hear from military, police, or other Western representatives.

Potential Target Dates

Within each targeted country, traditional holidays, important historical and religious dates and celebrations, large gatherings, and other activities and events will provide jihadis with specific dates and targets for lone wolf, small cell, or multifaceted terrorist attacks.

In addition to the symbolism of staging attacks on significant religious, national, cultural, and political dates throughout the year, choosing one of these dates makes it easier to coordinate multiple attacks with autonomous cells throughout a specific city, province, country, or region. This is especially useful among illiterate jihadis and in areas where calendars and appointment books may have limited usage and meaning, but virtually everyone knows when significant holidays and events occur.

There are some universal dates during Ramadan that may see increased jihadi activity based upon their association with specific historical events, which may become more of an incentive when they occur on this year's Night of Power, June 7 for most Shi'ites and June 11 for most Sunnis.

While specific dates offer added appeal and perceived benefits for jihadis, increased precautions and situational awareness should be in effect for at least three days before and after the specific date. There are numerous variables, including logistics and perceived opportunity and access to desirable targets.

Here are a few of the additional dates to be aware of:

There is an increased frequency of attacks on Fridays, the Muslim Sabbath. There are four Fridays during Ramadan 2018 - May 18 and 25, June 1 and 8.

By encouraging affiliates, active terrorist cells, and spontaneous recruits to strike on Fridays, The Islamic State and al-Qaeda can create an illusion of global and regional coordinated attacks that are purely coincidental, beyond the ingrained jihadi drivers, and ongoing rhetoric that alludes to additional merit for becoming a martyr on the Sabbath.

Additional Friday attacks may be encouraged through the preaching of radical mullahs and the extremist elements that begin speaking at mosques after traditional Friday services, attracting many of the parishioners with their radical rhetoric. This could include mosques in North America and Europe. This is one of the reasons why so many protests in Islamic countries take place on Fridays; Muslim parishioners – spun up by primary or secondary speakers - spill out of the mosques and into the streets.

May 2, 2011 - Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan by Navy Seals.  This one occurs within two weeks of the start of Ramadan, but may provide inspiration for jihadis and suicide bombers. On the first anniversary of the U.S. mission that killed Osama bin Laden, a compound attack took place in Kabul, Afghanistan less than two hours after President Obama left the city. Two days later a suicide bomber struck Khaar, Pakistan, killing 24 and injuring 66.

On May 2, 2017, ISIS claimed a suicide bombing of a NATO convoy in Kabul that killed eight civilians. Later that month, another bombing killed over 150 and wounded more than 400. Attacks on or around the anniversary of bin Laden's death have also taken place in Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Congo, Russia, and other countries between 2012 and 2017. The attacks have increased during the last two years.

June 7, 1980 - Israeli warplanes bombed the Tamouz Atomic Power Station in the vicinity of Baghdad, Iraq.

June 7, 1967 - the Israeli army entered and occupied Old Jerusalem during the six day war (June 5 - 10, 1967) primarily between Israel and the Arab armies of the United Arab Republic (Egypt), Jordan, and Syria, with other Arab states lending varying levels of support. The loss of Jerusalem and significant territory to the Israelis, combined with the ongoing Palestinian issue, role of Shi'ite affiliated Hezbollah, and June 7th being the Night of Power for most Shi'ites, could provide added incentive to terrorists.

The loss and continued occupation of Jerusalem is a powerful historical, emotional, and psychological issue among Arabs throughout the Middle East. Here is one of the many similar entries found in Islamic websites and history books. "The Zionists, with the support of the West, especially the US, have continued to oppress and expel the native Palestinians, and in addition to Judaizing this Islamic city, have drilled tunnels underneath the sacred al-Aqsa Mosque as part of their sordid plan to destroy the former qibla of Islam."

The accuracy or exaggeration of the statements above and below is irrelevant. True or false, it is part of the programming and enculturation of prospective jihadis and their supporters. It is what they and their community believe to be true.

June 7, 1099 - the Crusaders laid siege to Jerusalem, capturing it on July 15, 1099. Some Islamic and historical texts state: "Many Muslims sought shelter in the al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Dome of the Rock. When the city was starved and forced to surrender, the Crusaders broke all promises and started slaughtering the Muslim men, women, and children. In all, over 70,000 people were massacred...According to their own accounts, the Crusaders boasted of wading in blood up to their ankles, while killing Muslims."

June 7, 1942 - Muammar Gaddafi was born. Many people blame the United States and NATO for the violent deaths of Muammar Gaddafi and his son Mutassim Gaddafi on October 20, 2011. Der Spiegel reported that NATO intercepted a satellite phone call made by Gaddafi and launched several attacks, disabling his convoy, leaving the men on foot. Both men were killed by rebels.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, another son of the former Libyan president, is planning to run in the presidential elections that will take place in 2018 at a date to be determined. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi claims to have support of the major tribes in Libya and wants to unite the factions controlling various parts of the country and restore security, peace, stability, and prosperity.

June 8, 632 - the Prophet Muhammad died. Occurring during the sacred last ten days of Ramadan, this date may be appealing to individual martyrs, in addition to providing a desirable date for scheduling multiple attacks.

June 11, 323 BC. - Alexander the Great died in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II in Babylon. This is not a significant motivator, but it is the death of a prior conquering Westerner on the Sunni Night of Power.

Here is what one Islamic text said about Alexander's conquest: "Because of the laxity of Emperor Darius III and the Persian generals, this upstart adventurer succeeded in seizing from the Iranians what is now Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, and finally Iran itself along with what are now Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Pakistan, all of which were Persian satrapies. Alexander brutally suppressed the people and wantonly destroyed Persepolis (near modern Shiraz, Iran), which was the capital of the vast Achaemenid Empire."

June 14, 1985 - TWA Flight 847 from Athens to Rome is hijacked by Shiite Hezbollah terrorists.

To expand upon this list of potential dates of terrorist and insurgent activity, start with the traditional holidays, important historical and political and religious dates and celebrations, large gatherings, and other activities and events within each of the targeted countries to be reviewed.

Threat from Within

The ongoing recruitment of Americans, Europeans, and other nationalities to ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other extremist groups provides them with planners and operatives that know their respective cultures, countries, and targets. Some Westerners, and Muslims who lived in the West, are likely helping to select the targets and timing of attacks. Other foreign fighters and recruits will help carry out attacks, knowing the culture and terrain, and being able to pass as nonthreatening citizens. Radicalized and supportive local Muslims may be used to facilitate jihadi operations of domestic and foreign terrorists.

Type of Attacks

Biological and chemical agents are unlikely, but terrorists have access to them, so they need to be considered. Terrorists could put biological or chemical agents into water supplies, ventilation systems, subways, crowded festivals, sporting events, and other potential targets. These deadly agents could be delivered passively by ventilation system or water supply, actively with explosives, or by drones, gliders, crop dusters, small airplanes, and helicopters, flying over festivals, stadiums, and crowds.

The Islamic State and al-Qaeda are motivated to carry out large-scale attacks in the United States and Europe. They have added incentive to try and pull these off during Ramadan, with an emphasis on maximum casualties and destruction. Terrorists will give additional consideration to uniqueness and sensationalism that will garner expanded media coverage and enhanced ranking. 

Many of the foreign fighters have returned home, while scores of supporters of Islamic terrorists and jihadi groups never left. Most of these small cells and individuals operate independently. Those with handlers will have little or no contact with them once they’ve been launched, making it more difficult to track their movements. The Islamic State increasingly encourages small terrorist cells to select their own targets and timing, making these random acts of violence more difficult to anticipate and prevent.

The majority of attacks during Ramadan will range from small cells to lone wolves - utilizing suicide bombers and jihadis, explosives, small arms, and vehicles to attack infidels and other perceived enemies throughout the world. A review of attacks carried out during the last two years will provide additional information regarding potential methods, targets, and weapons.

Islamic extremists are at war with the West and with most of the world community. There are going to be terrorist attacks during Ramadan, the only questions are when, where, and how? Security services throughout the world have been monitoring Islamic extremists and initiating measures for interdiction and deterrence, but terrorists have reduced their exposure through new tactics, coupled with the home grown lone wolf phenomenon.

Situational awareness on the part of citizens, law enforcement, and military personnel is vital. Anything that appears suspicious, including individuals, activities, abandoned bags or vehicles, or anything else, should be reported to authorities. Do not assume that it is harmless or that someone else will report it. Enhanced awareness and reporting by citizens can help detect and apprehend lone wolves and jihadi cells.

Categories: terrorism

About the Author(s)

James Emery is a cultural anthropologist, who has covered insurgencies, terrorism, narcotics trafficking, corruption, and political events in Afghanistan and around the world for thirty years. He has worked with and against insurgencies, from making numerous trips into Afghanistan with the mujahideen during the Soviet occupation and working with tribal groups in Southeast Asia, to countering terrorists, insurgents, and narcotics traffickers in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. He provides training and research papers on Afghan, Arab, Asian, and African culture, issues, and events. He lectures on cultural anthropology, cross-cultural communication, Islam, strategic village programs, KLEs with positive and negative influencers, IO and PSYOP, COIN, counter-IED programs, narcotics trafficking, and other topics. For additional information about this report, or other topics, please contact James Emery at:



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