May 24, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: Attacks Amid Setbacks for the Islamic State
• On May 23, at least 78 people were killed in a series of coordinated bombings in two Syrian coastal cities that had been largely spared from such violence since the war began
• The attacks were claimed by the Islamic State, but took place in cities the group heretofore was not thought to have an operational presence
• Despite the Islamic State’s claim of responsibility, the Assad regime blamed the Western-backed group Ahrar al-Sham
• The bombings in Syria, as well as those in Yemen on the same day, show that the Islamic State will maintain its devastating capabilities even as its military fortunes wane.
The so-called Islamic State continued its pattern of trying to extend the battlefield beyond its growing territorial losses on May 23. A series of well-planned and well-executed bombings in two Syrian coastal towns killed at least 78 people. Nearly all those killed in the attacks were civilians, including many who had fled other parts of Syria to what appeared to be a relative refuge from the war. The loss of life puts the bombings—which targeted bus stations, first responders, and hospitals—among the deadliest in a war that has already killed hundreds of thousands of people, and shows no sign of ending despite ongoing peace talks.
On the same day, the Islamic State claimed credit for two bombings in Aden that targeted army recruits waiting in line, killing as many as 40 individuals that Yemen desperately needs to help combat violence and extremism. Unlike in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State in Yemen does not have the numbers or capability to act as a military and seize territory. This leaves car bombings and suicide bombings as its most reliable means of projecting power—showing the limits of the government's power to protect the country.
If any cities in Syria could be considered under firm regime control with substantial local support, Tartus and Jableh would be among the stronger candidates. The attacks in both cities demonstrate more than the Islamic State’s ability to pull off coordinated bombings against multiple targets in an area considered hostile territory for the group; they show the group's continued ability to kill as many civilians and needed medical personnel as possible. The attacks employed a mix of car bombs and suicide vests—car bombs created casualties that drew in urgent medical response teams, which were in turn targeted by suicide bombers. The bombings in Jableh first struck a bus station, followed by the emergency room in the hospital where the wounded were rushed for care. In Tartus, another bus station was the target, as well as the subsequent first responders.
Assessments that these kind of attacks point to the Islamic State’s growing 'desperation’ ignore the fact that terrorist groups act like terrorist groups until they no longer have to. The Islamic State has always bombed civilians with extreme zeal. Only when the Islamic State has faced opponents over which it possesses military superiority—like the Iraqi army in 2014—has the group acted like a military. Now that its opponents have strengthened, the Islamic State will continue to do what it always has done—target civilians.
Unfortunately, military success against the group may very well lead to an increase in civilian deaths in both Syria and Iraq. The recent car bombing campaign in Baghdad will likely continue. The same can be said in any place the group has the resources to build bombs, which now includes a lot more places than 2014. The recent message by Islamic State spokesman Mohammed Abu al-Adnani made clear that the group does not see its battlefield as one where civilians are non-combatants. Further, the group’s vast stockpiles of heavy weapons and explosives will ensure the Islamic State remains among the world's most dangerous terrorist groups long after it loses control of Raqqa and Mosul.
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