In the wake of the Paris terror attacks, the Russian plane crash and the bombings in Beirut, the Islamic State group would like for you to believe it has legions of fighters ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.
“The Islamic State dispatched its brave knights to wage war in the homelands of the wicked crusaders, leaving Paris and its residents ‘shocked and awed,’” the terrorist network claimed in the latest edition of its slickly produced online recruiting magazine, Dabiq, playing on a phrase synonymous with U.S. combat operations in Iraq in 2003. The article goes on to describe how the so-called knights brought Paris to its knees following France’s “conceit in the face of Islam,” forcing the former colonial power to declare a nationwide emergency, all for eight men armed only with assault rifles and suicide vests.
Right now, however, deploying fighters en masse remains outside the capabilities of the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, ISIL or regionally as Daesh. The primary lethality of the extremists today exists within a different form of warfare, one not founded in a traditional military headquarters that can plan and execute attacks but instead in an apparatus that increasingly exploits the personal relationships of disaffected believers abroad.
The success of the group’s attacks appears to hinge largely on networks involving friends and family – members of which may be able to travel to and from Syria and return to Europe – as well as affiliated extremist organizations like Boko Haram that can extend its tentacles even farther. Some attackers may have advanced training in weapons and tactics, having met and worked directly with recruiters who helped radicalize them. Others may have done none of these things but, having self-radicalized, become critical elements of the Islamic State group through their ability to wage a fatalistic brand of holy war.
This undated image made available in the Islamic State’s English-language magazine Dabiq, shows Belgian Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected leader of the Paris attacks.
More and more, though, a Western-led war in Iraq and Syria is forcing the Islamic State group’s dominant recruiting narrative away from its unprecedented ability to seize and hold territory in an effort to create a caliphate. Instead, the group is focusing increasingly on what CIA Director John Brennan calls its “external operations agenda” – one focused on attracting the support of international affiliates.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, Brennan conceded the group is now implementing that agenda “with lethal effect.”
“They’re looking a lot now like what al-Qaida used to look like,” says Karl Kaltenthaler, a terrorism analyst and professor at the University of Akron.
Indeed, the Islamic State group has proved its ability to exploit existing relationships among potential operatives who are impressionable, easy to recruit and – perhaps most importantly – very loyal to one another. Then, a decentralized leader can oversee all phases of the operation. These networks employ face-to-face meetings, shunning the kinds of electronic communications that can attract the attention of Western security agencies trolling for signals intelligence. If they must use electronics, they usually limit their communications to encrypted messages, via services like the Telegram app, and further limit that communication to between one or two planners.
Many fundamental questions still exist surrounding the identities and motivations of the eight people who carried out the Paris attacks, but at least two of them were related. Salah Abdeslam, whose full role in the attacks remains unclear, had a history of petty crime and was still wanted by European authorities this week. His brother, Ibrahim, blew himself up with a suicide vest outside a cafe on Paris’ Boulevard Voltaire. Both had French citizenship and had been questioned by Belgian authorities earlier this year after Ibrahim attempted to travel to Syria by way of Turkey. He was stopped and sent back to Belgium, where the brothers reportedly had contact with extremists.
The recent history of successful terrorist plotters is increasingly based on similar network connections, from the Kouachi brothers who perpetrated the Charlie Hebdo attacks earlier this year to the Tsarnaevs who detonated homemade bombs at the Boston Marathon in 2013.
And even if not based on bloodlines, it’s a pattern of close ties that has existed throughout the history of Islamic extremism, going back to the founding of al-Qaida. Ayman al-Zawahri, an Egyptian, became a lieutenant to Osama bin Laden in the 1990s and remains the organization’s top officer since bin Laden’s death. He originally practiced Islamic extremism in Egypt and joined al-Qaida by merging his existing network of planners and operatives into it.
A woman walks past Belgium soldiers who patrol on an underground station after the service partially reopened on Wednesday in Brussels.
The same is true for alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a Kuwaiti whose family was from the Baluchistan region of the Iran-Pakistan border. Though he and bin Laden apparently fought together against the Soviets in the 1980s, Mohammed acknowledged a later meeting between the two that hatched the 9/11 plot likely only occurred because of the renown of Mohammed’s nephew, Ramzi Yousef, who inspired Mohammed’s future activities by planning the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Additionally, the so-called Hamburg cell of those who would carry out the 9/11 attacks was rooted in the relationships between students based in Germany.
Still, U.S. intelligence agencies believe the Islamic State group’s recent success abroad is largely founded in opportunism, not simply careful planning by operatives to attack specific targets.
“Attacking Western targets is not a ‘shift’ per se. It is the next logical development for a terrorist organization seeking to supplant al-Qaida,” a U.S. counterterrorism official says, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The Islamic State group’s focus after battling U.S.-led forces in Iraq and Syria rests now on the kinds of high-profile attacks that can cause the most panic and casualties. And it doesn’t care how it accomplishes those goals.
“Whether that’s an individual or a group, whether it is self-motivated or part of planned external operations, doesn’t matter to ISIL,” the official says. “At the end of the day, it’s about the results. ISIL measures success in the body count of innocent victims.”
And for all its social media and online recruitment efforts, the Islamic State group holds a particularly furtive draw. It depicts itself as a truer and more pious defender of the Islamic faith than other Muslim fanatics with which it remains at war, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan or al-Qaida affiliates around the globe. This branding may appeal to recruits who are more secretive and isolated from their families, or encourage willing followers to keep their beliefs private.
Three teenage schoolgirls from London, for example, successfully evaded suspicion from their parents and ventured to Syria to become brides of Islamic State group fighters, and even foiled British officials tasked with exploring whether they had extremist sympathies.
The latest incidents in Paris represent yet another example of the potency of the Islamic State group’s allure, and exposed fears about would-be attackers’ ability to enter and exit Islamic State group territory. These attackers, like those before, demonstrated a clear proficiency in casing and assaulting targets, using weapons and explosives, crossing international borders and funding their operation – all while keeping their plans hidden from Western intelligence sources.
“It appears, yet again, that the extremists are homegrown nationals and from within disenfranchised communities,” says Robert Milton, a security consultant who previously served as a commander of the London Metropolitan Police Service. He is concerned about what might come next.
“I think ISIL confidence will grow on the success of Paris and they will seek to carry out further attacks, with perhaps far greater central control and planning.”