Analysts falsely believed Islamic State was too weak to carry out terror attacks abroad. But IS views terror as a means to an end — and will launch attacks as long as they continue to serve its broader strategy.
“It was a terrible night. We heard the roar of the jets, the detonations. Then, the power suddenly went out and everything sunk into darkness,” the young woman on the phone says. She said that she could only see the flashes from the explosions, with one bomb landing right near where she was. “But I don’t want to die after all that we have already gone through here.”
The woman is from Raqqa, where Islamic State has its headquarters in Syria. She lives there together with her parents and brothers. Still. As do so many other civilians. On the phone, she was describing the first wave of attacks in the “war” that French President François Hollande declared against Islamic State following the attacks in Paris. The bombs dropped by French fighter jets hit both used and abandoned IS bases, the former army camp of Bashar Assad’s Division 17, the polyclinic, the horse racetrack and a main power cable. The woman’s brother is a taxi driver, and he witnessed numerous injured fighters being brought to the hospital, which had been closed to civilians.Still, the raid isn’t likely to have hit any Islamic State leaders. The air strikes over the weekend were apparently an attempt to kill Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who is thought to have been a key figure behind the Paris attacks and who the French initially thought might be in Raqqa. He was ultimately killed in Wednesday morning police raids in the Paris suburb of Saint Denis.
But the upper echelons of IS have been living for months in the city’s densely populated residential areas and are careful to keep their movements inconspicuous. As such, they have likely been able to escape the US-led coalition’s airstrikes, which have been ongoing for 15 months.
The attacks in Paris, Beirut and Ankara, and the bombing of the Russian Metrojet flight over the Sinai Peninsula, have shown the people around the world just how vulnerable they are. That is not quite as true, however, for the authors of those attacks: At the most, airstrikes have weakened Islamic State, but have certainly not defeated it. Hollande has declared a war that is almost impossible to wage.
‘Not a Sustainable Approach’
The French jets had hardly landed before US President Barack Obama issued a rejection of any more involved forms of warfare. Sending ground troops into Syria or Iraq, he said, would be a mistake. US Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told SPIEGEL: “It’s not simply a reluctance to commit ground forces. It’s a belief that that’s not a sustainable approach.”
In the aftermath of Paris, the question as to how we can best oppose Islamic State has become more urgent than ever. But to answer that question, we need a clear idea as to what strategy the jihadists might be following. The idea that the attacks were the desperate actions of a collapsing group of apocalyptic extremists isn’t consistent with the military situation on the ground, nor with the organization itself. It’s also implausible that the attacks took place now because the opportunity only just now presented itself.
Because whatever Islamic State has done in recent years, whether taking control of cities or conquering entire regions, it has only launched offensives after thorough preparation and at moments when success seemed most likely. An organization that was able to deploy 23 armored trucks full of explosives, heavy artillery and mustard gas merely for a September attack on two small Syrian cities certainly has the military and financial means, as well as the expertise, to launch attacks elsewhere as well.
Previous assassinations of rebel commanders and journalists outside of Syria and Iraq have revealed a pattern: IS smuggles sleepers in over an extended period, or recruits them locally. It then only activates them months later — and the murderers are often close confidants of their victims. Since 2013 at the latest, Islamic State has been able to infiltrate enemy forces, such as Kurdish militias which logically suggests that IS may have established several cells in Europe that are simply waiting for the signal to strike.
Only now, it would seem, does the terror group seem to believe that attacks in the West, which it has long been threatening, carry more benefits than costs. Europe has become more fragile recently, not least because of the acceptance of more than a million refugees, and has become more open to prejudice, panic and political polarization. This is exactly the vulnerability that the terrorists apparently aim to exploit. The fact that an intact (though probably fake) Syrian passport was found near the bodies of one of the suicide bombers is likely no coincidence. Suddenly, all Syrian refugees are viewed as potential terrorists — just as IS had hoped.
The Paris attacks were logistically complicated operations with at least eight terrorists striking at several locations in the city. They likely prepared the attack over an extended period of time, avoiding attention all the while. But it was also a relatively simple attack from a technical standpoint. The terrorists targeted unsecured restaurants and a concert hall — and proved unable to breach the security at Stade de France.
Prior to the latest attacks, the prevailing theory was that Islamic State wasn’t perpetrating terror attacks abroad because it was unable to do so. That was a mistake stemming from a misunderstanding by terror experts, politicians and journalists that Islamic State would ascribe to al-Qaida’s ill-conceived notion that terror by itself would lead to the collapse of Arab regimes from Saudi Arabia to Egypt as well as to the dissolution of the United States.
But al-Qaida’s prediction was very wrong. Both the attack on tourists in Luxor in Egypt as well as the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the US engendered swift and severe responses. In Egypt, the response resulted in the collapse of violence-prone Islamist groups while al-Qaida was driven out of Afghanistan following 9/11.
Al-Qaida believed that the masses would rise up to support them, which never happened. The idea of resurrecting the global Islamic empire may have existed as a vague utopia, but the group wasn’t sure how to get there. Al-Qaida never had a military strategy for the conquering of territory, no plans for taking entire cities and no ideas for establishing control over reliable sources of revenue.
Islamic State, by contrast, aimed to establish a state from the very beginning. That goal is part of the group’s DNA. The fact that it long avoided carrying out massive attacks in the West was wrongly interpreted as weakness. But IS had merely reversed the priorities long held by jihadists. Attacking central state power with terror had consistently failed, first in Egypt and most recently in Iraq. That is where IS was born roughly a decade ago, originally as a collection of Iraqi and international radicals before being joined by officers from the Iraqi military and secret services, both of which were disbanded in 2003.
These men, whose formative years were spent preserving Saddam’s power, took over leadership of Islamic State in 2010 and transformed the group into the calculating and successful military monster we know today. Since then, the terror group repeatedly demonstrated its ability to change and adapt. When its first attempt at military expansion failed in Iraq in 2008, it transformed itself into an elusive and fearsome mafia organization in the northern Iraqi trade metropolis of Mosul, living off of protection money. All companies, supermarkets and restaurants — even pharmacies and real-estate agents — were systematically extorted, with murderous thugs dispatched to collect the money. According to US estimates, Islamic State was able to take in some $12 million each month in Mosul alone.
When state authority collapsed in Syria in 2012 as a result of the civil war, the moment had come for Islamic State to expand — clandestinely at first, but then with brutal forthrightness.
The plans developed by IS strategist Haji Bakr — who was killed in early 2014 in northern Syria — to conquer the civil war-torn country were essentially a combination of Saddam Hussein’s proven methods of oppression with Lenin’s strategy of orchestrating a power grab using a small but powerful group of fighters. But they haven’t merely been adept at striking hard — IS has proved perfectly able to conform to whatever situation presented itself. For many years, Haji Bakr had been a colonel in the Iraqi military’s intelligence agency, was a brilliant logistician and a kind of project manager in the shadow world of horror.
Expanding reach and power in the name of jihad was his new Project. The Group was outwardly doing God’s will, but remained so internally flexible that its own ability to morph and transform became its battle cry: “Baqiya wa tatamaddad,” or “remain and expand.” The idea is to attack when possible, but hole up for the winter when necessary, only to emerge and attack again.
In this strategy, terror attacks are merely one means among many. They serve to demonstrate the vulnerability of those attacked, to avenge Western air strikes, to help recruit additional supporters and to underline Islamic State’s claims to omnipotence. Still, such attacks are an ambivalent tactic for Islamic State — because as a state, which it desires to be, IS itself is vulnerable. It presents a territory that can be attacked.
In two collections of files left behind by IS when it fled the Aleppo province following fighting there in January 2014, there were no indications that attacks were being prepared in Europe or the US. There were no plans for the establishment of sleeper cells, no military training and no mention of what European Islamists should do once they returned home. There were likewise no details pertaining to money transfers. The files including documents from Islamic State headquarters in Aleppo and Haji Bakr’s plans for developing IS. Both collections were analyzed exclusively by SPIEGEL. At the time, all of the group’s energy and means were being focused on expanding in Syria and Iraq.
Ratcheting Up European Skepticism
The plans, though, only pertained to part of the larger strategy, and only extended until the end of 2013. But they did reflect Islamic State’s priorities: expansion, control, dominance. If they want a state, they must first create it. This emphasis is on clear display in the decisions taken by IS over the last two years.
All of which begs the question: What calculations have now led IS to perpetrate attacks in the West? For one, it plays into IS hands for Europeans to ratchet up their skepticism of Muslim refugees. For another, IS has positioned itself in the enormous battlefields surrounding its core territories in a way that it would make it difficult for others to launch a ground offensive against the jihadists. Such an offensive would also require a large number of troops. From Western comments, particularly those of the US, Islamic State strategists know that a ground offensive involving Western troops is extremely unlikely.
Should an offensive be launched anyway, though, IS believes that the attack could, paradoxically, help the group on the long term. Ground troops could likely only be deployed with Russia’s approval, and Moscow supports Assad. And if the West were to change course and suddenly intervene in Syria on Assad’s side, all rebels in the country would immediately become enemies of the West. Were that to happen, Islamic State could pose as the last protectors of Sunnis in the region and expand its influence.
The old saying, that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, no longer applies in Syria and Iraq. In both combat zones, US efforts have been hampered thus far. In northern Syria, America’s Kurdish ally is unfortunately the enemy of another Washington ally, the Turks. In Iraq, Islamic State’s Shiite enemy is also America’s enemy. Shiite militias, under the military leadership of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, are heavily engaged in the battle against IS, but with their ferocity, they are also pushing more supporters into Islamic State arms.
Taken together, the Sunni-Shiite conflict combined with the Turkish bombardment of Kurdish positions has reduced pressure on IS. To be sure, Islamic State has been forced to accept some losses in recent days: It lost the small northern Iraq city of Sinjar not long ago following a 15 month fight with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. In two places, the Kurds have managed to block the most important road connecting the two IS “metropolises” of Raqqa and Mosul. US fighter bombers have likewise destroyed 116 tanker trucks used by Islamic State to transport its oil. In Iraq, IS has slowly been losing territory ever since it launched a lightning strike to take over the provincial capital of Ramadi, just west of Baghdad, in mid-May. In Syria, meanwhile, IS expansion has largely been halted since the end of the summer.
Yet it is still a long way from exhibiting the convulsions of a collapsing empire. The constant muttering about the end times and apocalyptic battles may serve as good Islamic State PR — with respect to both its followers and to the rest of the world. But if destruction was the only goal being pursued by IS, it wouldn’t try to establish a state, it wouldn’t be careful to avoid damaging grain silos when taking them over, and it wouldn’t pursue scrupulous realpolitik, even with its own enemies.IS strategists look several moves into the future. To defeat the terror group, the West must do the same. It must bring together pro-regime Syrians with the rebels, a project that will not succeed so long as Assad remains in power and which is made all the more difficult by Russia’s intervention. In Iraq, Sunni and Shiite factions divided by fear and hate must be brought together again — though the West can only help, it is the Iraqis themselves that must achieve this. In short, the West — together with Russia, Iran and the Arab Gulf states — must create the conditions that could make a ground offensive against the jihadists possible in the first place.
But as long as that doesn’t happen, the world will allow a monster to continue growing. It is a monster that is today applying its battle-tested “Syria Model” of power expansion to Libya. And it is a monster that may even cease launching terror attacks were it left alone to continue expanding its foothold in the Middle East. Because terror, in the final analysis, is but the means to an end for Islamic State.