Is ISIL really shifting its focus towards terrorist attacks abroad to compensate for its military losses in Iraq and Syria? This theory became popular in media and policy circles after the Paris attacks in November, and resurfaced last week after the strikes on the airport and metro in Belgium.
ISIL undoubtedly wants to increase its foreign attacks because it has suffered a long series of military losses over the past 12 months since its defeat in Tikrit. But those who see the development as anything but part of the organisation’s evolution are missing the mark.
If anything, the attacks in Paris and Brussels portend the weakening of the link between the organisation's international activities and how it is faring on the ground in the region. Military successes in the summer of 2014 helped establish the group as a destination for thousands of foreign fighters, many of whom travelled to Syria and Iraq with their families. ISIL's ability to attract sympathy abroad was largely contingent on its performance on the ground.
But that interdependency between its local and foreign strategies is now significantly, if not completely, diminished. ISIL’s hold on territory in Iraq and Syria is still key to its relevance regionally and internationally, and its hold will probably continue for many years even if that territory is steadily shrinking. However, its loss of territory has little impact on its ability to build influence elsewhere. As an international organisation, ISIL has come of age.
For most of its history, ISIL has been an Iraqi insurgent group focused on fighting the Iraqi government and foreign forces inside the country. It was Al Qaeda that led the international networks. ISIL's leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, announced expansion into Syria only three years ago, and declared the so-called caliphate less than two years ago.
Even when the group was known as Al Qaeda in Iraq between 2004 and 2006, it was dominated by foreign fighters from the Levant and other areas in the region, such as Libya, committed to fighting the “near enemy” in their midst. So its international focus is relatively new, and this puts it in direct rivalry with Al Qaeda in terms of conducting global jihad.
ISIL has begun diversify its messaging over the past year. Its rhetoric in Iraq and Syria is noticeably different from that in Africa and internationally. An early endorsement of the Paris attacks featured a statement by Osama bin Laden, rather than by ISIL’s leadership. The execution of Egyptian Christians on a beach in Libya was portrayed as revenge for the killing of Bin Laden, whose body was reportedly thrown into the sea. ISIL is clearly trying to appeal to Al Qaeda’s sleeper cells and sympathisers, particularly in Africa and Europe.
The United Nations and western intelligence services recently revealed that hundreds of ISIL militants have been returning to their own countries – mostly Libya and Europe – to bolster home fronts or launch attacks. This reverse migration is happening even though armed forces are badly needed in the conflict zones in Syria and Iraq.
ISIL needs Al Qaeda’s operatives to build its global network. While ISIL has more than a decade’s worth of experience in terms of governance and holding territory in Iraq and Syria, Al Qaeda prevails in the international arena. But Al Qaeda’s financial and operational cells have weakened over the years, and ISIL today presents itself as the upcoming group that is better positioned and more willing to wage war against the West and its regional allies.
To facilitate the deadly attacks in Paris and Belgium it would seem that ISIL has relied not only on returnees carrying instructions from Raqqa, but on existing smuggling and operational networks.
ISIL is expanding its reach, and many of Al Qaeda’s former operatives may start casting their lot with the burgeoning extremist organisation. More than waging revenge for its losses in Iraq and Syria, ISIL is clearly trying to replace Al Qaeda as a global organisation by targeting its members.
ISIL knows that battle-hardened, experienced and dogmatic Al Qaeda operatives are more valuable to it than the new recruits it has relied on, or the children it is training to become the next generation of committed and resilient adherents.
ISIL’s terrorist attacks should be examined in this context. They were not the work of fighters whose ability to strike will decrease as their numbers shrink or the group deteriorates militarily in its immediate conflict zone.
Instead, these attacks are the work of a maturing international organisation that increasingly operates independently of the parent insurgent group in Iraq and Syria.
Hassan Hassan is a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror
On Twitter: @hxhassan