Massacres attributed to the Islamic State have struck on four continents this year, reflecting how the appeal of the group’s ideology is growing even as the territory it controls in Iraq and Syria has receded, according to experts.
The slaughter of civilians in three large attacks in the past week alone — in Istanbul on Tuesday, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Friday, and in Baghdad on Sunday — suggests that militant actions beyond the caliphate’s borders are taking place more frequently and not necessarily with any overt direction from some caliphate headquarters. Even more alarmingly, a growing number of attacks, starting with those in Paris and Brussels, were conducted by gangs of assailants instead of by an individual gunman.
“What’s striking to me about the Istanbul and Dhaka attacks is that both weren’t done by lone wolves at all,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA counterterrorism official and analyst of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State who is at the Brookings Institution. “These were done by teams of terrorists working with a very thought-through attack plan. I call them ‘wolf pack’ attacks. They are rapidly becoming the Islamic State’s signature.”
In the latest incidents in the Middle East, the Associated Press reports that an explosion has gone off outside one of Islam’s holiest sites in Medina, Saudi Arabia, the same day that two suicide bombers struck in the Saudi cities of Qatif and Jiddah. Only the bombers were killed in those two incidents, AP reported. The Jiddah attack occurred near the U.S. Consulate.
Last week, to mark the two-year anniversary of its self-
declared caliphate, the Islamic State created a chart showing its influence, stretching from the moderate control it claims in the Philippines to a “covert” presence in France, with 15 other countries in between. Even countries not on the list are fearful. In India, the government says dozens of Indian Muslims are being monitored after they have undergone some kind of training with the Islamic State, but Indian officials acknowledge the actual number may be much higher.
While the core of the caliphate in Iraq and Syria has been pummeled by coalition airstrikes and by armies and militias fighting them on the ground, Islamic State soldiers have spread throughout the Middle East and far afield. Attacks in Turkey, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Libya, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait and several European capitals, and the lone-wolf attacks in Orlando and San Bernardino, show the Islamic State’s potency as an ideology.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday that the Islamic State is “vicious and adaptive” in what he called a “global terrorism campaign.”
“It’s very much losing territory, but at the same time, expanding its global presence,” he said.
U.S. intelligence officials say battlefield setbacks in Iraq and Syria appear to have driven the Islamic State’s leaders to speed up their timeline for attacks abroad. Many intelligence officials and terrorism experts think that recent terrorist strikes in Paris, Brussels, Turkey and Bangladesh are a reflection of that strategy.
“We judge that [the Islamic State] will intensify its global terror campaign to maintain its dominance of the global terrorism agenda,” CIA Director John Brennan said in testimony before the Senate last month.
While the Islamic State had been primarily focused on building and defending its caliphate, the group has long expressed ambitions for attacking targets outside the Middle East. The jihadists’ English-language magazine, Dabiq, regularly includes discussions of plans to conquer Rome and other cities of symbolic importance, in addition to capturing all lands that were once part of the Islamic empires of history. In Dhaka, foreign customers at the Holey Artisan Bakery who were from “Crusader countries” were singled out for death.
A “news bulletin” radio broadcast that the Islamic State disseminates on social media recently provided a rapid-fire listing of attacks conducted by its fighters, which it characterizes as the “forces of the caliphate.”
The group’s aspirations date back to its earliest days, when it was called al-Qaeda in Iraq and led by Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
“We perform jihad here while our eyes are upon al-Quds [Jerusalem]. We fight here, while our goal is Rome,” Zarqawi famously said, in a line frequently cited by the Islamic State’s leadership.
The group’s highly regimented structure includes a unit dedicated to facilitating attacks on foreign soil, U.S. and European officials say. Former Islamic State fighters now in custody have told investigators that the unit, called EMNI or AMNI, has been active in Europe for more than a year.
One jailed French recruit named Nicholas Moreau recalled meeting some of the EMNI operatives in Syria and described them as part of the “secret service for the exterior of the Islamic State,” according to notes of the interview obtained by The Washington Post.
“The external mission is to send people all over the world to do violence, to kill or recruit young people, or to obtain cameras, or chemicals for weapons,” Moreau said, according to a translation of the French investigators’ notes. He identified as an EMNI operative the Belgian national Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the reported field commander of November’s terrorist strike in Paris, and said at least four others had traveled to northern Europe to make preparations. It is not clear whether the four have been identified and arrested.
“They are dangerous and know the background about weapons,” Moreau was quoted as saying. “I think they are in Europe. I do not know where they are exactly.”
Secretary of State John F. Kerry has frequently said that attacks, whether conducted by or inspired by the Islamic State, are a sign of the group’s desperation as the territory it controls in Iraq and Syria is chipped away. Nevertheless, the group apparently remains rooted enough that it recently issued its own caliphate dinar currency, embossed with the words Islamic State.
But increasingly, it’s the idea of the Islamic State, rather than the group’s control of any territory, that has taken on greater significance.
“As Dhaka and Istanbul demonstrate, the idea is being translated into a tactic that is much more dangerous than inspiring a single individual to go out and carry out an attack,” Riedel said. “As horrific as Orlando was, had it been four guys in the bar, think how much more complicated it would have been.
“It’s making the challenge of defeating it more and more urgent, as well as more and more difficult.”
Souad Mekhennet in Frankfurt, Germany, and Rama Lakshmi in New Delhi contributed to this report.