January 28, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State Lashes Out

• The Islamic State is trying to regain both its narrative and momentum after meaningful losses in Syria and Iraq, marking an exceedingly dangerous period of confrontation

• By claiming credit for any and all terrorist attacks abroad—from those with possible connections such as the Tripoli, Libya hotel attack or those with only inspirational connections such as the Sydney or Ottawa attacks—the group is trying to perpetuate an aura of truly ‘remaining and expanding’ and shifting the fight away from its embattled borders

• The latest call by the group for its supporters to attack the West wherever and however possible, proclamations of a new Khorasan emirate in the Pak-Afghan region, and the markedly different dealings with several hostages show a still-dangerous group struggling with a changing dynamic

• The Islamic State isn’t in any danger of collapsing but it is concerned with losing its image among its supporters as a unique pseudo-state instead of merely a powerful terrorist group.


The fight against the Islamic State has entered a dangerous but likely necessary stage. The group is lashing out on many fronts as it experiences meaningful and sustained defeats in Iraq and Syria for the first time since it proclaimed itself a Caliphate last summer. As the group struggles to adjust to a new reality in which it is no longer expanding in the two countries it calls home, it will increasingly seek attack options further from its borders. The group is pursuing a dual-track strategy to regain both its momentum and narrative, against increasing odds in Syria and Iraq. The first track is encouraging and highlighting the establishment of small groups in chaotic areas such as Libya, Egypt’s Sinai, and Afghanistan to perpetuate its image as well as conduct actual attacks against Western targets. Much as the West seeks to “take the fight the enemy,” so too does the Islamic State as its ability to move and operate in Syria and Iraq is decreased. These new groups seek to co-opt existing narratives in the name of the Islamic State.

The January 27 attack on the Corinthian Hotel in Tripoli, Libya by a group claiming a connection with the Islamic State is a perfect example. The group calling itself “Islamic State-Tripoli” named its attack on the hotel “the Raid of Shaykh Abu Anas al-Libi,” after the recently deceased long-time al-Qaeda (AQ) member implicated in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings. By naming the raid after a prominent AQ member who retains a degree of popular support in fractured Libya and who had nothing to do with the Islamic State, the new group is trying to co-opt as its own an existing current of ideology and support. This fits with the Islamic State’s refusal to abide by traditional terrorist affiliations, as it sees itself superseding such provincial matters. There will likely be similar attacks wherever the Islamic State can find enough supporters, such as in the Egyptian Sinai and perhaps in southern Afghanistan—both places with conflicts ripe for co-opting.

The second track is re-energizing the Islamic State’s impressive pool of radicalized online supporters and inciting random, spontaneous, and nearly unstoppable small-scale attacks by these supporters. The group is rushing to claim responsibility for any and all terrorist attacks in order to push more supporters into similar action. This new ‘terror spectacular’ has virtually no downside for the Islamic State and potentially huge benefits, with supporters causing huge disruptions in the group’s name.

The Soufan Group wrote last July that “the problem with a pyramid-scheme Caliphate is that once the appearance of victories fades, the whole artifice crumbles,” a scenario that the Islamic State is now desperately trying to avoid. In his January 26 audio message, Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani strongly reiterated the group’s call for its supporters to strike against Western targets however, wherever, and whenever they are able. Understandably, there was no mention of the losses in Kobani, Syria or in Diyala Province, Iraq, with the message focused on inciting more and more attacks while highlighting similar attacks in Paris, Sydney, and Ottawa.

The Islamic State can’t fully escape reality, in that it is experiencing actual losses even as it remains quite powerful in Syria and Iraq. What it can do is minimize these losses by creating mini-affiliates in far-flung locales to create as much fear as possible, and totally ignore these losses online as it exhorts its anonymous supporters to act in its name. The international and regional battle with the Islamic State is shifting into its next stage, one likely marked by increasingly intense fighting around Mosul, Iraq, and increasingly intense efforts by the group to lash out beyond its borders.


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