ISIS has claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks that have killed 129 people. This is the first successful large-scale attack ISIS has been able to coordinate in the Western world. There is a large difference between encouraging disenfranchised youth to act out against the society they live in, and planning and executing a group of attacks like this. It represents a significant extension of the group’s proven capabilities as was predicted in the article on ISIS we released in August, which was the third in a series called Understanding Islamic Extremism.
As a review, the announcement of the death of Mullah Omar reset a significant portion of the loyalty chain that was keeping Al-Qaeda relevant in the global Jihadi movement. Zawahiri is nearly universally disliked while ISIS has been steadily rising in popularity. The death of Mullah Omar effectively put every AQ cell or operative in a position to transfer its allegiance to ISIS, or whomever they choose, without breaking their oath (which is a big deal in the Jihadi world). As expected, we have seen many former AQ operatives and cells go to work for ISIS in much larger numbers than those remaining loyal.
What makes that dangerous is the difference in the quality or talent of the membership. AQ is an exclusive, secretive, and professional network of reasonably skilled operatives with extensive experience. You don’t just hop on a plane to Yemen and sign up to be an AQ operative. You get invited and only after extensive vetting. ISIS took a very different approach to recruiting. They are a volume operation, and tell anyone they can join the “Islamic State”. As such they recruited the disenfranchised, marginalized, angry young Muslims from around the world who, from an operational capacity brought very little to the table. They further encouraged other extremist Sunni Muslim groups to join up via something resembling a franchise program. This too brought very little operational capability to the table. Those organizations did not travel to Syria or Iraq to share information or tactics, but remained in their respective areas, largely doing what they were doing before, but with a different name. What it did do was bring substantial notoriety and legitimacy to ISIS, which further helped their recruitment volume.
As expected, ISIS has been able to pick up the lion’s share of these now effectively free agents from AQ. The successful attack in Paris is a demonstration that they have absorbed the experience of these more highly skilled operatives and are putting it to work. Before this, many were skeptical about ISIS’s ability to export terror beyond their territory or that in which its franchises operated. Clearly ISIS is able to plan effectively, coordinate, supply and execute large-scale attacks in areas they do not control. That is not something they could do even a year ago.
One indicator of the sophistication of this attack is that one of the attackers had a Syrian passport and entered the EU in Greece over three months ago. What we can glean from that is that it takes an extensive support network to move suicide bombers and their equipment across international borders, keep them controlled, and subsequently employ them. They were able to do that in the case of at least one, if not more of the attackers. That network and those rat lines are now being run to ground, with the first arrests in Belgium. Purely from an operational standpoint, this is an impressive operation. More impressive from an organizational standpoint is the speed with which ISIS has capitalized on the experience and skills that came with the AQ defectors.
This is far more complicated then the bombing of the Russian plane last week. An anti-Egyptian government extremist group called Ansar Bait al-Maqdis that became ISIS in the Sinai earlier this year conducted that attack. They have a history of successful attacks in Egypt dating back to 2011 and are certainly a legitimate threat – in Egypt. The bombing of the plane is not an example of ISIS central exporting terror outside its territory. It was merely leveraging the operational capabilities of its franchise in Egypt. Paris is very different.
Given the volume of foiled attacks in France and Western Europe this year, as well as the few successful ones, it is quite clear that ISIS is serious about exporting terror. We would be foolish to assume there are not more operations already underway. We have seen a rash of videos threatening attacks on Israel, Russia, France, the United States as well as a range of Muslim countries. This is quite likely the first successful operation in a fairly extensive list of operations designed to demonstrate their ability to follow through on their threats.
While the Obama Administration plays “whack a mole” with ISIS and touts killing irrelevant mouthpieces like Jihadi John and Deso Dogg as a tactical success, there are very real threats to the safety and security of our nation. The success or failure of those operations is dependent on the abilities of our intelligence services. In France and much of Europe, their intelligence services are overwhelmed by the volume of amateurish, ISIS-inspired, but not controlled attempts. That distraction makes it easier for the professional operatives to hide. In spite of the inept policy and strategy applied to the Middle East, America is not in the same place from a risk perspective as France and much of Europe are.
It is nearly impossible to keep electronic communications secret from the US and our partners (CAN, UK, AUS, NZ). Our ability to backtrack through collected communications after an event (like the bombing of the Russian jet, or the attacks in Paris) and determine what occurred, who and how it was executed, and round up facilitators after the fact is amazing. Our ability to sift through that volume of data and intercede is also very good, but it’s far from perfect. One thing that the former AQ operatives do very well is keep secrets. The facilitators caught in Brussels were on site at the attacks — meaning they were at the operational level, which means they probably know very little beyond the tactical execution of the operation. It’s the planners and facilitators who we need to detain to dismantle the capability to attack. Most of them have probably long since left for Syria or Iraq.
As we look to previously successful attacks, someone we would describe as a lone wolf, or lone wolf with a friend or two has largely conducted them. Those attacks have been clumsy in regards to logistics, tactics, and ultimately effectiveness. That clumsiness is what has allowed EU authorities to stop an unprecedented number of attacks in the past year. Further complicating matters is the volume of French citizens who are traveling to Syria and Iraq, and subsequently returning. With the training, assistance, and professionalization provided by the former AQ operatives, this is a very significant problem. The U. S. has a much smaller and better-monitored population of extremist Muslims.
Depending on whom you talk to, there have been between 3 and 30 ISIS related attacks foiled in the U. S. this year. The variation is based on how you define “ISIS related”, and while I tend to push most towards the criminal side, the media likes to classify everything as terrorism. The bottom line is that ISIS is actively plotting to attack the U. S. and for now we are countering them effectively. The reality of that effectiveness is that it is to prevent an attack; we have to get it right 100% of the time. The terrorists just have to get it right once to kill hundreds or thousands.
The Paris attack was the eventuality of allowing extremist Islam to flourish under the guise of religious freedom. Unfortunately, it is not the only successful attack we can expect. While addressing the cultural issues that attract young, disenfranchised males to radical ideology is certainly a necessary and productive effort, in the much shorter term, we need to tactically degrade the capability of ISIS to export Terror. Deso Dog and Jihadi John had zero operational impact on ISIS.
~ Patrick Henry