May 6, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Dual Definitions of the Islamic State

• The question of whether the Islamic State was behind the failed attack in Garland, Texas is a question of definition, as it is the ideology of the Islamic State and not a distinct cell that is to blame

• The Islamic State continues to inspire disparate attacks across the world that generate disproportionate reactions from the media and the public

• The Islamic State will claim responsibility for any attack that makes headlines—and in doing so will ensure even more headlines—a feedback loop that obscures the true nature of the threat

• The foiled attack was a win-win for the Islamic State and for those seeking to define a religion according to the actions of violent extremists; these seemingly opposing sides are intent on defining Islam in an identical violent light.


There are dual definitions of the Islamic State, with important distinctions that merit different reactions and counter-measures. The first definition of the Islamic State is as a hybrid terrorist-insurgent force with thousands of members and supporters, controlling actual physical territory in Syria and Iraq. Thus defined, the group can and does impose its will in the areas under its control; and is a lethal menace not just to the people suffering under its cruelty but to future generations that will be forced to rebuild what the group has destroyed. According to this first definition, attacks by the Islamic State involve some semblance of command and control, financing, logistics, and communications. It is difficult to overstate the threat this definition of the groups poses to the people of the regions in which it operates. This embodiment of the group, headquartered in Iraq and Syria, will have to be removed militarily, economically, and then socially.

However, there is a second definition of the Islamic State, one in which the group maintains no command and control, nor logistical or financial support. This second definition of the Islamic State is appropriate when speaking of the group’s influence and power in countries far removed from Iraq and Syria, particularly the United States. This definition is one of an ideology, of message and image, and of proclaimed and perceived power more so than actual power. As such, it is far too easy to confuse the first definition of a concrete group with this second definition of a concrete ideology. This second definition not only resists military or heavy-handed counter-measures, it thrives on them. And this definition is exceedingly difficult to disrupt, as it isn't a network but rather a belief.

The issue of ‘linking’ an attack to the Islamic State—such as the foiled attack in Garland, Texas, in which a security officer was wounded and the two attackers were killed by a police officer—is a matter of which of these two definitions to use. The group would have us believe attackers such as the two in Texas were ‘soldiers of the caliphate’, with the implication that the group’s leadership in Raqqa or Mosul knew about the attack or had some involvement in it. Statements such as the one claiming credit for the Texas attack seek to cement in the minds of the West the first definition of the group, as capable of projecting its will across oceans and borders. Unlike al-Qaeda, the Islamic State believes there is no such thing as a failed attack, nor any such thing as bad publicity. If someone wants to act violently in the group’s name, the Islamic State will claim their actions as another example of the group defending Islam against all foes, real or imagined.

Yet the real threat to the West is in the second definition of the Islamic State as a spreading ideology. One of the failed attackers in Texas, Elton Simpson, was well-known to federal authorities, after investigating his potential travel to Somalia in 2011 for purposes of fighting with the al-Qaeda-affiliate al-Shabab. Just prior to leaving Phoenix to conduct the attack in Texas, Simpson reportedly tweeted his allegiance to the Islamic State, a perfect illustration of how deep his commitment to the group ran versus his commitment to its ideology. This blending of allegiances and preferences, be it al-Qaeda or Islamic State, is now common as the second definition, one of ideology, takes precedence over actual allegiance and affiliation. But what is more disturbing is the apparent under-the-radar radicalization of the second man, Nadir Hamid Soofi. By all early accounts, Soofi wasn’t a ‘known wolf of terror’, but someone who disengaged from society without much notice, and ended up dying in an attack driven by a violent ideology. This sort of radicalization at cyber speed is almost impossible to detect and deter.

Outside of perhaps some direct Twitter messages, it is unlikely that the two men, who never traveled to extremist strongholds such as Syria or Iraq, had meaningful contact with the Islamic State as defined as a group. This direct connection will prove less and less relevant in the coming years. For people who choose to lash out domestically, the ideology will suffice. For those defending against such attacks, it is important to address whichever of the dual definitions of the Islamic State is most relevant and to respond to them within their context.


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