Small Wars Journal

Why the West Should NOT Worry about ISIS External Operations

Wed, 10/28/2020 - 8:32pm

Why the West Should NOT Worry about ISIS External Operations

Pasar Sherko

 

On October 03, a bomb was found in a wagon of a regional train in Cologne, Germany. The bomb consisted of a fuse connected to fireworks, black powder containers and was filled with nails and screws. Days before, on September 29, 2020, a man armed with a meat cleaver stabbed two people outside the former office of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris. None of these incidents have been confirmed to be traced to the Islamic State (ISIS). However, ISIS remains among the initial suspects of such attacks due to having directed a bloody attack against the office and killing 12 of the magazine's personnel in 2015. The attack in 2015 was among the nearly 80 attacks ISIS made between 2014 and 2019 against Europe and North America. And that, according to one study, within the fifteen months since the collapse of the caliphate, ISIS attempted 33 attacks against Europe - that is an attempt every fortnight.

Directing violent operations against the west has been a major threat coming from Salafi-jihadi groups. While the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaeda is the most widely-known external attack, since the declaration of the ISIS caliphate in June 2014, conducting external operations is almost exclusive to the Islamic State.

To define the external operations, examining the ISIS organization is needed. The organization has its core Wilayas or provinces in Iraq and Syria, and couple of dozens of distant or external Wilayas overseas. The term "external operations" is then refer to those violent operations by ISIS operatives conducted outside its core and the distant Wiyalas. This article argues that ISIS has semi-abandoned its external operations supporting the argument with practical and ideological reasons for that abandonment, and explains why Europe and North America, among others, need to focus on the core and distant Wilayas of ISIS rather than solely on their territories.

ISIS is unprepared for directing external operations. Since the death of Abu Muhammed al-Adnani in August 2016, the deputy caliph and the spokesman of ISIS, the external operation of ISIS started to decline. According to the Pentagon, al-Adnani who was killed in a precision strike near the Syrian city of al-Bab, was overseeing the external operation division of ISIS and responsible for recruiting operatives and coordinating external operations, and had the attacks on Paris, Brussels, and Daka of Bangladesh on his portfolio. Since the September 2014 strikes of the US on the Khorasan group of al-Qaeda in Syria that was assessed to have external ambitions, the external operation capacities of jihadi groups in Syria had been a major target of the coalition and it still is.

Following al-Adnani, Hajji Abdullah al-'Afri filled the position of the emir of the delegated committee, he became responsible for running the external operations. Al-'Afri hardly directed any successful complex external operations in that position and with the death of al-Baghdadi, al-'Afri faced existential challenges to deal with. Al-'fri, now known as ISIS Caliph Abu Ibrahim al-Qurashi, put ISIS on the survival mode and it took him months to recover and get over the death of al-Baghdadi and curb the schism attempts. Under Abu Ibrahim, the case of external operations was handed over to Hajji Taysir, and with Hajji Taysir's elimination in May 2020, the external operation apparatus sustained another serious blow. In addition to these serious challenges in the core Wilayas of ISIS, the violent competition with other jihadi groups particularly with al-Qaeda in the distant Wilayas has prevented ISIS from allocating its resources for external operations.

Ideologically, too, ISIS has excuses to stop directing external operations. Two main reasons: firstly, the ideology of the ISIS, since Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, was to fight the near enemy - and this was a key difference of al-Zarqawi with al-Qaeda senior leadership who encouraged him to focus on the distant enemy, the US, rather than the Iraqi Shiites. The second reason is to do with the difference between the defensive jihad and the offensive jihad. While the former is an individual duty when a Muslim land is invaded, the latter is bound to the availability of an Islamic State or Caliphate to conquer new lands and support the Muslims overseas against the suppressing infidel rulers. So, while Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's declaration of the Caliphate obliged the organization to direct external operations; the US-led recapture of Baghuz in March 2019 as the final stronghold of ISIS and the end of al-Baghdadi's territorial caliphate in March 2019, this requirement became obsolete.

The recapture of Baghuz is a major turning point in the history of ISIS. Al-Baghdadi's special statement for this event and claiming the attacks in Sri Lanka as a revenge for Baghuz signifies the importance of the event for ISIS. Since the recapture of Baghuz in March 2019 as the last stronghold of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the organization has carried out only one complex external attack. The attack is known as Sri Lanka Easter bombings in April 21, 2019, that left 270 people dead and more than 500 injured. The attack was then claimed by al-Baghdadi as a revenge for the fall of Baghuz. Since then, ISIS has been responsible for other violent mass-causality operations beyond Iraq and Syria such as in Afghanistan and Niger, but these operations were claimed by ISIS provinces of Khorasan and the West Africa respectively rather than by a dispatched group of external operatives to a territory beyond ISIS formal provinces, and so, are not counted as external operations.

This abandonment is also related to the Islamic State's apocalyptic narration. Under al-Baghdadi, and aided particularly by Abu Muhammed al-Adnani and Abu Muhammed al-Furqan, ISIS adopted an increasing apocalyptic narration to obtain legitimacy. Apart from the black banner, and the battle of Dabiq where the Muslims shall defeat the "Rome", and al-Baghdadi's claim that "there are but few days left" until the end times, ISIS claimed its final battle against the west. Weeks after the declaration of the Islamic Caliphate, Abu Muhammed al-Adnani vowed that "we will conquer your Rome." But when ISIS lost Baghuz, ISIS withdrew from making these big claims, rather, it insisted that triumph of the jihadists comes is contingent to the will of God, and a jihadist needs to persist and to stay patient. Without the need to fight the final battle, ISIS did not need to carry out operations that would have only increased the aerial strikes on the already deteriorating organization.

Outsourcing and seeking simpler external attacks had started earlier. Although the external attacks was part of branding the Islamic State, recruiting and fundraising, al-Adnani's public in call to stop migrating to core ISIS Wilayas and carry out simple attacks instead means the favoring simple and "lone wolf" attacks rather that complex attacks and recruitment for the core Wilayas of the Caliphate.

It is true that ISIS cannot afford to abandon external operations to fulfill its the slogan of continuity and reap the rewards of being the flag-bearer of global jihadism, yet, due to the above practical and ideological factors, ISIS has failed to direct complex external attacks. In contrast to the caliphate times when ISIS was able to execute complex attacks on certain dates or as revenge of great losses, the organization has failed to carry out such operations even against the countries it formally vowed to attack. In January 2020, the ISIS spokesman, Abu Hamza al-Qurashi vowed to attack Israel, and in May 2020, he vowed to attack Qatar, yet months have passed and the inability to fulfill these vows has rendered the statements irrelevant. Al-Quraishi's most recent statement of October 2020, asks for attacks against Saudi Arabia without making any reference whatsoever to attacks on Europe and the west.

This insight would suffice to encourage the re-direction of the focus from particularly the external attacks, to a wider focus to include the core and distant Wilayas of the Islamic State. 

About the Author(s)

Pasar Sherko is PhD student from Iraqi Kurdistan.