In the wake of the Orlando shooting, CIA Chief John Brennan spoke out on the nature of the terrorist threat. The picture he painted was grim: the Islamic State’s ability to launch terrorist attacks is still intact, and the group is likely to step up its efforts to attack the West as the pressure on its caliphate is mounting. And indeed, the recent terrorist attacks – some of which depended on the direct involvement of the Islamic State (Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, Baghdad, Jakarta), while others were carried out by sympathisers with no direct ties to the group (Orlando, San Bernardino, Magnanville) – suggest that Brennan’s prediction began to come true at least eight months ago. But while Brennan is probably right, there is more ground for optimism than one would expect from his account.
In fact, the Islamic State’s increased focus on terrorism has to be understood against a backdrop of crisis and defeat. The world has long been led to believe that the Islamic State was made up of well-trained and disciplined fighters who would not hesitate to give their lives to the cause, but recent news reports show that the truth is more prosaic. As the group’s military campaign is running out of steam, Western fighters are fleeing the battlefield in increasing numbers, displaying an opportunism that is quite unbecoming of a true fighter for Allah.
Also, the Islamic State is running out of money. The organization has frequently been labeled the richest terrorist organization in the world, but the Islamic State leadership recently decided to cut salaries by half, and did so to their detriment: some among the group’s rank-and-file are now so short of cash that they are selling sensitive information about their operations to the coalition forces. Finally, many analysts believed the Islamic State was here to stay because it was forging ties with the local population. That very same local population, however, is now working with Shia militias to free themselves of the Islamic State’s brutality.
Islamic State terror tactics: increased aggression, not increased strength
All of this has severely undermined the group’s ability to control territory, and the Islamic State’s increasing involvement in terrorist attacks, in the Middle East and elsewhere, should be viewed as a shift to a less demanding modus operandi. After all, terrorism requires relatively few resources, and the attention of the media is guaranteed, making it an efficient way to spread fear and avoid the impression that the Islamic State is a spent force. An armed group has to do more than spread fear, however, to impose its will on an entire population.
As the Islamic State knows from experience, any group that aspires to be a state, has to fend off enemy forces and provide public services to the population in order to become the legitimate governing power. Terrorism is not enough to do either of these, and given that the establishment of a caliphate was the Islamic State’s ultimate goal, the focus on terrorist attacks is clearly a step back.
A second reason to see the Islamic State’s emphasis on terrorist attacks in a cautiously optimistic light is that caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his men will find it increasingly difficult to carry out such attacks. It is, sadly, true that the Islamic State has proved itself able to plan deadly attacks in Europe, but these attacks would not have been possible without crucial mistakes by various European intelligence services and law enforcement agencies. This shows that even the most professionally planned terrorist plot can be foiled. Planning a terrorist attack is thus always a roll of the dice, and with the increasing willingness of Western police and intelligence services to finally wage an orchestrated campaign against their terrorist foe, the odds are increasingly stacked against the Islamic State.
For instance, terrorist attacks in the German towns of Düsseldorf and Hannover were prevented through the joint efforts of German and French authorities, and the network that had its center of gravity in the Brussels district of Molenbeek was dismantled by the Belgian police with the help of the Dutch. Also, the information exchange in Europol is beginning to take off. In early 2015, the Europol Information System (EIS), a shared database of criminal suspects, contained data on 233 foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria. By May 2016, this number had increased to some 4,000. In another boost for Europol’s standing as Europe’s foremost counterterrorism agency, the UK’s security service, MI5, and the US’s Federal Bureau of Investigation recently decided to participate in the EIS. None of this is to suggest that the problems in Europe’s counterterrorism efforts are going to disappear overnight, but the window for the successful planning and execution of terrorist attacks in Europe is slowly closing.
The Islamic State can, of course, bank on terrorists who stay below the radar of the intelligence services and the police. Such “lone wolf” attacks, however, have their drawbacks. For one thing, attacks by lone wolfs and isolated cells tend to be less professional and deadly than attacks that are ordered and prepared by the Islamic State or, previously, Al-Qaeda. The shooting in the Pulse Club in Orlando is, of course, a tragic exception, but its lethality is easily explained by the ludicrous US gun laws that allow the selling of assault rifles designed for use by US special operations forces.
Another reason the “lone wolf” approach may not be as attractive to the Islamic State as it seems, has to do with the lack of response. The Islamic State may call for “the destruction of infidels everywhere”, but the numbers tell a different story. The handful of lone wolfs and isolated cells that carried out jihadist attacks have drawn their fair share of media attention, but they are hardly everywhere. Furthermore, as the Islamic State depends on the willingness of others to step up to the plate, there is precious little it can do to get the numbers up other than issuing calls for attacks. Moreover, the response rates to these calls are likely to go down as the allure of the Islamic State as the ruling force in the caliphate continues to fade.
When the terrorist threat to Western interests is as severe as it is today, it is easy to forget that terrorism is the weapon of the weak. Any armed group would choose a military campaign and territorial conquest over a terrorist campaign; the Islamic State is no exception. Thus, the fact that the group is relapsing into terrorism may be a sign of increased aggression, but not of increased strength. Al-Baghdadi and his fighters still control large swaths of Iraq and Syria and will remain a force to reckon with in the near future. At the same time, they commit terrorist attacks because they have no other option, and even then their success rate is likely to diminish over time. This being the case, the threat posed by the group may well turn out to be manageable after all.