June 29, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Killing for the Islamic State

• The June 26 terror attacks in Tunisia and Kuwait that killed 62 people, and possibly the attack in France, represent a new terror tactic combining lower-level coordination with higher-level inspiration

• The Islamic State has managed to think globally while acting locally, resulting in plots that are exceedingly difficult for law enforcement to disrupt given the lack of distinct international command-and-control communications

• There will likely be more attacks in the remaining weeks of Ramadan, of differing scale and location; the group has called for such attacks and now can claim credit for whatever else comes.


It is tempting to say that last Friday's attacks in Tunisia and Kuwait, and perhaps France, were the result of anonymous actors inspired by the Islamic State’s call for worldwide attacks. Calling for its followers to commit acts of terror in its name, wherever and however they are able, the Islamic State has crowdsourced its external operations to a degree unseen with its parent organization al-Qaeda, whose focus is on highly coordinated simultaneous attacks.

Yet aspects of the attacks in Tunisia and Kuwait, and even France, give rise to a more troubling reality where the Islamic State provides some level of communication and direction along with inspiration. The suicide operative in the Kuwait bombing of a Shi’a mosque, Fahd Suliman Abdul-Muhsen al-Qabaa, flew from Saudi Arabia to Kuwait via Bahrain. Al-Qabba needed a network in place to pull off his attack in Kuwait. He did not leave the airport in Kuwait acting on his own; he needed transportation and the explosive vest, among other logistical needs. He arrived in Kuwait from Saudi Arabia after a short layover in Bahrain. He clearly had some help along the way to the Shi’a mosque, whether it was inspirational or directional. The Ramadan call for terror attacks by the Islamic State was not sufficient to pull off such an attack; local authorities are still scrambling to determine the extent of al-Qabaa’s network.

The same goes for the Tunisian attacker who machine-gunned tourists, many of them British and German, at a beachfront resort in Sousse. The gunman, Seifeddine Rezgui, was shown to have ties to extremist ideology but only after the fact. His attack, resulting in the murder of at least 37 tourists, was quickly claimed by the local wilayat of the Islamic State. Both the Tunisia and Kuwait attacks appear to be at least semi-directed by the Islamic State, in that the group has active affiliates in the area and some degree of communication with the groups radiating out from Raqqa, Syria. The beauty of this arrangement is that it does not matter if the Islamic State maintains command-and-control of groups from Syria: what matters is the fearful reaction in the West.

The lone wolf attack in France appears to be a mix between workplace violence and terrorism, much like a recent beheading in Oklahoma earlier this year. The attack in Lyon, in which an employee beheaded his supervisor and tried to blow up a factory, is no less worrisome for the fact that he ultimately failed. The shocking murder of the supervisor, beheaded in symbolic manner, was largely overshadowed by the more deadly attacks in Tunisia and Kuwait but is part of the same larger trend. In fact, the actions of a true lone wolf are much harder to detect and disrupt than attacks by cells in Tunisia and Kuwait. While they all differ in style and scope, they embrace the violent ideology of bin Ladinism. The France attacker evidently texted photographic evidence of his crime to a Canadian cell phone number belonging to an Islamic State supporter currently in Raqqa. Such diffused but important nodes of terror support are the hallmark of the new terror spectacular.

There will likely be more attacks of this nature, both in the remaining weeks of Ramadan and in the months and years to come as the Islamic State vacillates between caliphate and terrorist group. There is no way of knowing who will act upon its message of hate, even if most of the actors are known wolves of terror. There are too many known wolves to monitor and every day more are added to the pack. It is important to run down the leads of semi-directed attacks such as those in Kuwait and Tunisia, but it is increasingly irrelevant. The fuse is lit by an ideology and not an order, making it impossible to determine who holds the match. This reality requires a fundamental rethinking of modern counterterrorism.


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