ISIS’ Shifting Focus

by Dr. Bruce Hoffman

ISIS has claimed responsibility for a series of Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka that killed more than 300 people and injured 500 more.  Sri Lanka’s government is blaming the attacks on a local Islamist group, National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ).  A government official said an early investigation indicated the attacks could have been carried out in retaliation for a terrorist attack at two mosques last month in Christchurch, New Zealand.

The claim from ISIS comes on the heels of an attack in Kabul on Sunday, a claim of responsibility for a first-time attack in the Democratic Republic of Congo and news of a foiled attack in Saudi Arabia.

The Cipher Brief asked terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman about the current state of the terrorist group now that it has lost its caliphate and what to expect as ISIS shifts its tactics and focus. 

ISIS has of course been badly battered by the unprecedented 79 partner country coalition that massed against it. Its caliphate has been dismantled and the Islamic State’s sovereignty and enslavement over Western Iraq and Syria has ended. However, territory and terrorism have never been co-terminus and, in this respect, ISIS’s ideology and capacity to engage in violence far from its former battlefields still exists.

Already, in September 2016, ISIS’s founder and leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi told foreign fighters not to come to the rapidly eroding caliphate but instead to migrate to one of the organizations branches. As the U.S. National Strategy for Counterterrorism released in October 2018 itself cautioned, “The group’s global reach remains robust, with eight official branches and more than two dozen networks regularly conducting terrorist and insurgent operations across Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.’” (page 8). Moreover, according to some estimates, as many as 30,000 of the 40,000 foreign fighters from 120 plus countries who came to fight with ISIS in its caliphate between 2014-2016 may have survived the international coalition’s sustained military operations against the group–thus ensuring a continuing hardcore of seasoned combatants, now deployed to other theaters.

The fact of the matter is that ISIS suffered grievous setbacks in Western Iraq and Syria. But severely damaging a terrorist group is not the same as undermining its ideology or destroying its raison d’être. Revenge and retaliation for the lost caliphate has now infused ISIS with new-found purpose and energy. Moreover, ISIS was quick to exploit the massacre of Muslims at two mosques in New Zealand last month to justify a resumed a terrorism campaign and attempt to make itself again relevant. The group will merely revert to the terrorist operations on a local, regional and international scale embedded in its DNA–and which has been present from the time its predecessor organization was originally founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi exactly twenty years ago. That the core of what is ISIS’s extremist ideology–even among already extreme Salafi-Jihadi justifications for violence–has survived this world is testament to its ongoing appeal to at least a small number of adherents who nonetheless possess a disproportionate capacity to inflict wholesale pain and suffering on innocent peoples across multiple continents.

ISIS’s focus has thus shifted, as the U.S. counterterrorism strategy notes, from the center (the fallen caliphate) to its far-flung branches and networks with the intention of spreading the ISIS brand further. In this critical respect, ISIS is unbowed by its battlefield defeats and the loss of its caliphate. Instead, as ISIS’s recent appearance in the Democratic Republic of the Congo demonstrates, the group’s continued vitality and intention to opportunistically continue to prosecute its terrorist campaigns and expansion of its malignant ideology to whatever venues are available is evident.

Sunday’s horrific attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka may prove to be another manifestation of this opportunism. The coordination and lethality of the attacks suggest an organizational acumen not common among most terrorist organizations–especially hitherto unproven local entities. Sri Lanka’s minority Muslim community has long been the victim of systematic discrimination and prejudice by both that country’s majority Sinhalese people and larger minority Tamils. Reports of radicalization by external influences had surfaced as far back as more than two decades ago, when I first conducted field work on terrorism in Sri Lanka. More recently, and therefore not surprisingly, some two dozen Sri Lankan Muslims reportedly left that island-state to fight with ISIS in the Levant and Iraq. Much as ISIS unexpectedly appeared in the Philippines two years ago, a potential appearance in Sri Lanka in connection with Sunday’s bombings cannot be entirely discounted. Indeed, the SITE Intelligence Group is reporting this morning that an April 22nd communication from an alleged ISIS supporter over a pro-ISIS Telegram feed reveals the names with photos allegedly of three of the suicide bombers who struck yesterday. They are pictured alongside an ISIS flag, with the date April 21 stamped beneath the photograph.

If the Sri Lanka attacks are conclusively linked to ISIS, then coupled with Sunday’s foiled ISIS attack in Saudi Arabia and the successful one in Kabul, alongside ISIS’s spread to the Congo, this concatenation of developments would indicate that ISIS is recovering from the setbacks it suffered in Syria, Iraq, and Libya in recent years to again become threatening–at least as an international terrorist movement with the capacity to synchronize strikes in multiple countries.

The shift in ISIS’s strategy to emphasis opportunistic external operations wherever it is capable of operating is ominous as it raise the prospect of both sustained, planned, premeditated and coordinated, commando-like attacks in addition to the continued inspiration of lone actors worldwide–the main challenge that has consumed intelligence, security, and law enforcement officials around the world in recent years.

The bottom line is that the recent succession of triumphalist statements that have attended the defeat of the caliphate in Syria and Iraq does not mean that the threat to international security from ISIS has abated. The assumption that, with the fall of the caliphate that, the lingering ISIS threat was narrowly one mainly from lone actors has thus been seriously undermined by the tragic events of the past few days.

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