France attack points to change of tack by ISIL
The images of a white lorry mowing down crowds in the French Riviera city of Nice have triggered a wave of panic in Europe. The attack, which killed 84 people and injured more than 200 on Bastille Day, was the work of an unstable French-Tunisian man who, according to Bernard Cazeneuve, France’s interior minister, had “been recently radicalised”. The horror of the images aside, the Nice terror act, which was claimed by ISIL, points to the rapid transformation of the organisation’s global terror strategy.
Before he ploughed into the Bastille Day crowds, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel was a 31-year-old man who worked as a heavy-goods vehicle driver in Nice. Neighbours spoke of an unstable, irreligious individual and a womaniser.
But on Saturday, he was hailed by ISIL as a soldier who carried out “the operation in response to calls to target nationals of states that are part of the coalition fighting ISIL”.
Setbacks suffered by ISIL in Iraq and Syria at the hands of a coalition help explain the terror organisation’s mounting campaign of carnage. Increasing military and intelligence pressure has forced the organisation to adapt its strategy in terms of means and targets.
First, ISIL is decentralising its operations by combining different tools – from highly-skilled cells to lone wolves who execute its terror operations.
In March, coordinated attacks in Brussels claimed by ISIL resulted in more than 30 deaths and 200 injured. The Brussels bombings came four months after the infamous November attack in Paris that resulted in the deaths of 130 people. Belgian and French intelligence services uncovered a wide network of cells linked to one another, through its members criminal past or their role in the Syrian conflict, where some appear to have fought.
Today in France there are more than 900 people who have waged jihad in Syria. Some of these soldiers have gone back to Europe after being indoctrinated, acquiring the necessary military skills, and more importantly developing useful connections to an underground terror network.
ISIL reliance on lone wolves is another means to project power by relying on people inspired by jihadi ideologies but without necessarily a direct connection to a specific group.
The Nice attack, which appears to fall within the latter category, also highlights another important point: ISIL is willing to let go, if needed, of its centralised caliphate and move to a global cult-like movement, giving religious justification to acts of violence of disgruntled and unstable people.
The terror organisation has recently warned western countries that no security measures would spare them “from the blows of the mujahideen”, lone wolf operations being extremely difficult to detect.
Second, ISIL is diversifying its targets and adapting its strategy. As an example, countries with decentralised intelligence services or large numbers of radicalised youth may be more vulnerable to organised and highly-skilled operations. Places with large jihadi populations include Tunisia, (6,500 fighters), Europe (6,000), Russia (3,000) and Saudi Arabia (3,000).
Other countries that could be prone to a similar type of threat are Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, due to their proximity to Syria and Iraq, and the existence within their borders of large groups of marginalised refugees.
In June, ISIL claimed responsibility for a suicide attack that killed seven members of the Jordanian security forces and wounded 13 others on at a military checkpoint in Rukban, on the country’s border crossing with Syria.
The Jordan bombing was followed the next day by eight suicide bombings targeting the Lebanese village of Qaa, resulting in five deaths. Nearly concomitantly, three terrorists took Istanbul airport by storm, killing 44 people.
Evidently, Iraq will remain the focus of the organisation’s terror efforts.
Early this month, Baghdad was struck by what was considered as the deadliest attack in years, targeting the predominantly Shiite neighbourhood of Karrada, where hundreds were killed.
As its territory shrinks, ISIL is expected to resort to larger acts of violence, specifically aimed at fuelling religious tensions and sectarian backlashes that can allow it to preserve some level of popular support within its community in Iraq.
Conversely, countries such as the US, with small jihadi populations and where Muslim are better integrated, are more susceptible to lone wolf operations. Only 250 US nationals have gone to fight with radical organisations in Iraq and Syria.
This, however, does not shield such countries from terror operations abroad. In Saudi Arabia this month, a man detonated his suicide vest after he was intercepted by security guards near a hospital in Jeddah, located on the corner of the heavily fortified US consulate.
ISIL’s motto has been to “remain and expand”. As it faces increasing losses in Iraq and Syria, it will try compensating for those defeats with easy terror achievements.
The organisation’s perpetuation of a deadly cycle of violence will allow it for the short period to gain recruits and score small but spectacular victories on the international scene.
Mona Alami is a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East
Updated: July 17, 2016 04:00 AM