The Islamic State split off from Al-Qaeda in the context of the Syrian civil war in 2013, a product of a fundamentally theological fight against the way the area had been treated. While Al-Qaeda proposed model of global expansion prior to proclaiming the existence of a global caliphate, the Islamic State declared itself a caliphate in the territorial space afforded to it by the power vacuum between Syria and Iraq, with the intention of expanding through a network of affiliates in different countries.
The structure of the Islamic State is comprised of a good part of what was previously Al-Qaeda territory. After the former splintered off from the latter and consolidated its territorial project in Syria and Iraq, Al-Qaeda decided to pledge allegiance – baya’a – to it. That is when they began to join forces despite the physical distance between them and act as boosters of the caliphate’s jihadist model in areas as disparate as the Middle East, the Philippines, Afghanistan, the Sahel, and of course Europe and the United States. However, while the tactics and level of sophistication of the Islamic State are highly lethal and it is capable of carrying out regular attacks over long periods of time, the difficulties it faced in creating commando groups in Europe, playing with the absence of broad social bases and appropriate training spaces, hindered this operational model. The following analysis of attacks that have taken place in the last few years in Europe and the United States sheds light on certain recurring patterns:
- The famous lone wolf. This term, popularized in the media, alludes to people acting alone, inspired by the ideology of the jihadist movement. After September 11, Al-Qaeda’s mechanisms for capturing, recruiting, and training were affected by new internationally-adopted security measures. One of the organization’s top strategists, Mustafa Setmariam, alias Abu Musab al-Suri, designed a new model to guarantee the organization’s operability and it was fully implemented by the Islamic State. Al-Suri adopted the theory of a leaderless resistance, a term coined in the 1980s by the white supremacy movement in the US, and use propaganda to specify what kinds of targets to hit and what modus operandi to use. Taking advantage of increasingly widespread internet access, Al-Qaeda began to indicate which targets were preferred based on their level of risk and likelihood of media success using its publication Inspire as well as the models of attack most likely to ensure success. This is something that the Islamic State would do subsequently first via Dabiq and then via Rumiyah, which were accompanied by videos and PDFs that could be distributed on social media and instant messaging platforms.
- Target selection. Another qualitative change, and in this case also a quantitative one, took place in target selection. While in previous waves of terrorism targets were extremely specific and attempts were made to minimize collateral damage as it was deemed counterproductive – it was difficult to justify to the movement’s base – jihadist terrorism broadened the accepted range of victims that can be referred to as infidels. This category includes non-Muslims (Christians, atheists, etc.), apostates (Muslims who do not behave in accordance with the tenets of Islam, as is the case of leaders like Hosni Mubarak, Saddam Hussein, and the westernized parties and movements they represented), and heretics (mainly in reference to Shiite Muslims and followers of other non-Sunni denominations of Islam). The wide range of potential victims under this classification led jihadist doctrine to deliberately seek out incidents with as many victims as possible. Given this logic, the preference is no longer high-profile targets with impressive security measures, but rather crowds of potential victims with limited security to maximize the number of casualties. Thus, tourist attractions, concert venues, malls, and places of worship are some of the most common places where attacks have occurred in the last few years.
- Low-tech attacks versus low-cost attacks: stabbings and vehicle ramming The above-mentioned logic leads to unsophisticated, low-cost attacks. As terrorism is by definition a low-cost modus operandi in terms of force and skill, using low-tech, unsophisticated attacks, on the one hand, requires a profile of individual attacker with scant training, and, on the other, this person must use tactics that maximize the number of casualties without requiring a great deal of skill. Thus, vehicle ramming has been used repeatedly (Nice, Berlin, London, and las Ramblas in Barcelona) as have automatic weapons (San Bernardino, Pulse nightclub in Orlando, and the Istanbul nightclub shooting) in areas with large crowds, in addition to small explosive devices (Boston Marathon), and stabbings (the same London Bridge attack, subsequent attacks in France, and, the most recent killings in Paris and Nice).
- Complex and/or coordinated attacks. Nevertheless, the environments where a terrorist cells can be trained using personal relationships, planning, and complex attacks can be increased exponentially. If the variable of time is also increased, the result is the combination of multiple modus operandi. Cases like the 2008 Mumbai attacks and the 2015 Paris attacks exemplify this pattern.
The lack of incident during the first wave of the pandemic was not due to a sudden change of heart by the Islamic State or of others associated with global jihadism, but rather with the absence of large crowds in public spaces due to lockdown measures. Moreover, different infographics published in propaganda prevented Islamic State militants from going to Europe due to the risk of contracting the virus. However, as global lockdowns are lifted or reduced by area, the presence of potential victims back in public spaces leads us to believe that the risk of new attacks will return.