ISIS-Linked Attacks Indicate Success of Militant Outreach

ISIS convoy

Image courtesy of Reuters

ISIS-Linked Attacks Indicate Success of Militant Outreach
| published June 29, 2015 |

By Thursday Review staff

Despite the ongoing and consistent position of the United States, the Iraqi military and some partner nations in the coalition forged to battle the Islamic State, the militant group known as ISIS continues to advance—both geographically and on the world stage.

Multiple and nearly simultaneous terror attacks last week, coupled with well-coordinated offensives in its ground wars in Syria and Iraq, demonstrate that ISIS (also known as ISIL) has an army which still packs a punch and an increasingly effective outreach in scores of countries. Indeed, ISIS may be displacing al Qaeda as the chief terror organization on the world stage, especially when it comes to grabbing the headlines and the seizing the attention of the television cameras.

At the height of Friday prayers in Kuwait and inside a crowded Shiite mosque, a suicide bomber detonated a device so powerful that it killed at least 26 people and injured more than 200. Based on analysis of security video footage, the mosque and its outside areas were swollen with more than 2000 people when the attacker triggered the bomb. Only an hour earlier, police in France responded to a call from a factory and industrial site where a powerful explosion occurred and where a decapitated body was later discovered. One of the French attackers had smashed his car through a metal security fence and moments later into a large propane gas tank, and another—an accomplice still at large—had used magic markers to scrawl radical Islamic messages and ISIS-linked quotes on the remains of the headless body. Another militant was captured as he was attempting to open—or detonate—other gas canisters on the industrial site.

And at a popular and crowded beach resort and hotel in Tunisia, a man armed with a Kalashnikov automatic weapon calmly opened fire on groups of tourists and individual guests, shooting apparently at anyone who appeared to be western or European by ethnicity or clothing style. Tunisian officials have confirmed 37 deaths, but dozens more were seriously injured. The gunman is believed to have arrived on the beach in a small dingy, and some witnesses say that they saw the man unpacking or assembling his weapon only seconds before he began firing at tourists and sunbathers along the beach. The gunman also entered the hotel and began shooting inside, spurring some hotel guests to barricade themselves inside their rooms, or hide under beds and inside bathrooms. At least thirty of those killed in Tunisia were British citizens on vacation.

Eventually, Tunisian police and security killed the main shooter, but there were widespread concerns that a second or third accomplice may have been involved in the Tunisia terror attacks. On Sunday and Monday, authorities rounded up suspects with direct connections to the principal shooter, and police said they are searching for still others who may have been involved, including some with known links to ISIS.

Though ISIS did not immediately claim responsibility for the attacks, authorities in each venue say that each attack bears the unique thumbprint of ISIS-inspired violence (ISIS later acknowledged that the Tunisian gunman, Seifeddine Rezgui, was inspired by direct communications with ISIS handlers). The fact that the attacks were apparently not coordinated to occur on the same day or near the same hour adds the troubling dimension of a radical militant organization whose reach through social media is inspiring scores of individual acts of extreme violence around the world. The attacks may have also been timed to overlap with the holy month of Ramadan, but some experts also suggest that the attacks were part of a campaign to increase ISIS's reach on the one year anniversary of its self-declared Islamic State.  The attacks raised concerns especially in the United States as millions of Americans prepare for the July 4 holiday weekend.  Though the FBI says it has no specific indication of a homeland attack, there are fears that individuals within the U.S. may be motivated by ISIS online propaganda to engage in lone wolf terror attacks.

The core of ISIS formed during the chaos and lawlessness which existed in the early months of the civil war in Syria—now in its fifth year—as various rebel groups jostled for operational control and cultural dominance in the fight against Syrian President Bashir al Assad. In 2014, a heavily-armed ISIS declared itself the center of a caliphate and swept across the border into northwestern Iraq. ISIS units advanced quickly, seizing control of roads, cities and towns, and sending the American-trained Iraqi army into general retreat. ISIS rolled south, along the borders with Jordan and down to within about 40 miles of Baghdad before its advance was halted. ISIS units also took control of most of northern Iraq and northern Syria, often to within a few hundred yards of the border with Turkey.

Late last summer the U.S. and Iraq formed a coalition of partners to attack ISIS from the air using fighter jets, bombers, cruise missiles and drones. The air campaign succeeded in slowing, and in some cases stopping, ISIS advances on the ground—but the air campaign has been largely ineffective at rolling back the wide territorial gains made early by the rapidly advancing militants.

ISIS has cultivated a large following on social media, often fusing its message with gruesome videos of the murders and beheadings of aid workers and journalists from the U.S., Britain and Japan. ISIS also burned to death a Jordanian pilot who had been shot down over Syria.

Neither the Pentagon nor the State Department were willing to characterize the most recent attacks as “coordinated” assaults, and some intelligence analysts and terror experts believe that the timing of Friday’s terror attacks may have been largely coincidental. Still, most American and British intelligence analysts agree that the issue of whether the attacks were coordinated is mostly irrelevant: using social media and the internet, ISIS now has a reach long enough to persuade like-minded radicals in scores of countries to participate in—or stage independently—violent attacks almost anywhere people gather, especially soft targets like shopping centers and malls, hotels and resorts, and markets and restaurants.

Since early last year, ISIS has engaged in an aggressive and often successful campaign to recruit volunteers to fight for its cause. By some U.S. and British estimates, some 70 Americans and at least 300 British citizens are embedded among the militant wing of ISIS. Other non-Arab militants hail from countries as diverse as Denmark, Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada and Australia. The true number of American’s fighting alongside ISIS in Syria and Iraq is in dispute: figures released by the FBI, the State Department and a variety of law enforcement agencies range from as low as 50 to as high as 250. But what worries U.S. law enforcement is the true number of like-minded individuals in the United States capable of pulling off a lone wolf attack in the name of ISIS, or after close coordination with ISIS handlers online or on social media.

ISIS has now reached a dark and dubious milestone: it celebrates one year since its formal declaration of the Islamic State, its stated intention to form a caliphate, and its decree that it will use gruesome violence and deadly force to achieve its ends and enforce its will upon civilians under its control. The anniversary brings with it a surge in ISIS propaganda around the globe, which means a revisiting of the beheadings, the crucifixions, the mass shootings, the burnings, the stonings. Intelligence officials in numerous countries now worry that ISIS’s current campaign of openly inviting terror attacks on non-believers and westerners will lead to an uptick in violence worldwide. And the violence will not be limited to non-Muslims: the Sunni ISIS-inspired bomber in Kuwait detonated a device meant to kill as many Shiite Muslims as possible.

And as has been the case since last year, ISIS militants seek to use fear as a direct weapon to leverage submission from its subjects and to inspire panic and flight in the very military units charged with fighting the radicals. Recent reports on NBC News and ABC News reveal ambiguity by Iraqi soldiers—some say they want to fight ISIS, but those same Iraqis also readily point out that they are hopelessly outgunned by ISIS, an army of radicals now in possession of billions of dollars’ worth of heavy weaponry, much of it confiscated in the Iraqi army’s 2014 retreat.

As recently as early June, the White House conceded that the air campaign has not been enough to truly degrade the battlefield capability of ISIS. President Obama authorized an additional 450 U.S. troops to supplement the more than 2000 military personnel already in Iraq. Their job: train Iraqi soldiers for the ongoing fight against ISIS. Though the President and the Pentagon stressed that the American troops will not be in front line positions, some military analysts believe that it is only a matter of time before U.S. soldiers come in contact with battlefield engagements.

In the meantime ISIS continues to spur new advances and new offensives, despite the air attacks and lethal drone attacks, and despite heavy resistance from Kurdish fighters in several areas of northern Iraq.

Related Thursday Review articles:

U.S. to Send More Troops to Iraq; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; June 10, 2015.

ISIS Militants Take Ramadi; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; May 18, 2015.