July 5, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: A Month of Terror

• On July 4, three separate suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia continued the escalation in terror attacks during the month of Ramadan

• A July 2 suicide bombing in Baghdad killed at least 215 people in one of the deadliest single attacks since the 2003 invasion

• Answering the Islamic State’s call for attacks during Ramadan, the group’s supporters and members have perpetrated acts of terror across the world

• The attacks are a sign that the group is reverting to its terror capabilities, but can now rely on a far broader support system than at any time in its history.


The annual spike in terror attacks called for by the so-called Islamic State during Ramadan claimed a new wave of casualties in the last days of the holy period. On July 4, a suicide bomber struck outside the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia—the second holiest city in Islam. There are conflicting reports regarding the number of casualties in the attack. Hours earlier, a suicide bomber detonated his vest near a Shi’a mosque in the eastern Saudi city of Qatif, killing only himself. Likewise, a suicide bomber killed only himself near the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The three attacks in Saudi Arabia highlight the scope of the Islamic State's targets: Shi’a worshippers in Qatif, Westerners in Jeddah, and the heart of Saudi Arabia's legitimacy in Medina. That these attacks failed to produce high casualty counts is irrelevant to the group; the attention and symbolism are enough. Also on July 4, Malaysian authorities reported that a grenade attack at a dance club was the first known Islamic State attack in the country, and Israeli authorities confirmed that an attack in June was also linked to the Islamic State. The day before the Saudi attacks, Kuwaiti officials announced that they had arrested several people associated with the Islamic State suspected of planning Ramadan attacks against targets that included a Shi'a mosque.

Two days earlier in Baghad, a suicide car bombing in the Karrada neighborhood may have been the deadliest terror attack in Iraq since the 2003 invasion. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, which killed at least 215 people and injured over one hundred. The Karrada attack—along with a second attack in Baghdad’s Shaab neighborhood—targeted primarily Shi’a areas, in keeping with the group’s mission to ignite a Sunni-Shi’a sectarian war. The attacks come as the group is under tremendous military pressure, having lost Fallujah and facing the eventual loss of its Iraqi capital of Mosul. Attacks such as the one in Karrada should not be seen as a sign of weakness; rather, they are the predictable actions of a group realigning its targets with its capabilities. There will be more such attacks in the near future. The government’s inability to prevent these attacks, given the extent to which the Islamic State is entrenched in Iraq, will further stress the tenuous stability of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government.

The attacks in Baghdad were preceded by a string of attacks across the world that demonstrated the difficulty in countering a threat that is both directed and inspired. On July 1, six gunmen killed 22 people in a bakery in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Most of the attackers were well-educated and came from well-off families. The attack highlighted the serious risk that Bangladesh now faces of slipping into persistent extremism. A June 28 attack at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, Turkey killed 44 people and is believed to have been directed by the Islamic State, though the group has not claimed responsibility. In both Turkey and Bangladesh, the Islamic State has no shortage of members and supporters willing and capable of killing in the group’s name.

A June 27 suicide car bombing along the Jordanian-Syrian border killed seven Jordanian security officials and showed, as in Turkey, that no security service can contain a metastasizing threat from a raging civil war right next door. Yet the threat the Islamic State poses radiates far beyond the troubled borders of persistent wars. A June 13 attack by a terrorist who live-streamed his allegiance to the Islamic State left two French police officials dead—the latest in a long series of attacks in France.

On June 12, a lone gunman killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The gunman proclaimed his allegiance to the Islamic State in a call to police during the attack. The blurring of the lines between directed and inspired attacks will continue for the foreseeable future. On May 21, Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani called for supporters to make the coming month of Ramadan one of ‘calamity everywhere for the non-believers.’ True to form, however, most of the Islamic State’s most recent victims are Muslim. The group has successfully decoupled its dwindling territorial holdings from its capability to direct and inspire attacks across the world. 


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