June 17, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State’s Ramadan Threat

• With a penchant for theater and symbolism, the Islamic State has used the month of Ramadan to undertake significant operations or announcements

• Last year, Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the creation of the ‘caliphate’, a hugely symbolic pronouncement

• In 2013, the precursor to the Islamic State, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, conducted a mass prison break at the infamous Abu Ghraib Prison, adding hardened criminals and former members to its ranks

• This year will mark the first Ramadan where the Islamic State’s expansive social media presence is actively calling for ‘lone wolf’ attacks outside of Iraq and Syria.


Most terrorist groups maintain an obsession with history, dates, and anniversaries. Their philosophies and origin stories are crafted on symbolic dates that serve to annually reenergize their followers. The Islamic State is no exception, and has incorporated the annual celebration of Ramadan into its own origin story. Last year, at the start of Ramadan, weeks after seizing Mosul, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of the Islamic State, announced what he called the reestablishment of the Caliphate, the last of which had ended with the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War One. While the proclamation was met with derision by nearly everyone but the group’s members and supporters, that derision has given way to a numbed horror at how difficult the last year has been and how difficult the coming ones will be.

The group has previously marked Ramadan with spectacular operations. During Ramadan in 2013, the group pulled off a massive prison break at the most infamous prison in Iraq, Abu Ghraib, and another prison in Taji. Using a coordinated attack of mortars and car bombings, the group broke into Abu Ghraib and let more than 500 inmates loose, many of whom were members of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (the group’s name at the time), who then joined its campaign of assassination and intimidation. That prison break concluded a year-long operation called 'Breaking the Walls' in which the group broke down prison walls to free its members. The Ramadan 2013 prison break was the shot of adrenaline that helped drive the group to its final push to Mosul 10 months later.

There is considerable speculation and consternation as to what the Islamic State will either attempt or announce this Ramadan, which starts June 18 and runs until July 17. While the group has achieved recent victories in Ramadi and Palmyra, it is under greater pressure across a broader area than at any time since its low point in 2008-2009. A vital supply line from Turkey to the group's capital in Raqqa has been cut off with the fall of Tal Abyad. The Islamic State might attempt a move on Deir az-Zor further to the south in Syria, though mounting pressure may make it cautious of over-extending itself.

Up until last year’s Ramadan proclamation, the group had primarily been a significant threat to the people of Syria and Iraq. This Ramadan sees an internally embattled group with a vast network of social media supporters and an unknown number of people determined to act in the group’s name. All year long the group has called for its supporters to carry out attacks wherever and however possible, resulting in several low-scale high-impact attacks characteristic of the ‘The New Terror Spectacular’. The risk of these attacks will increase during the month of Ramadan, adding extra motivation and meaning to people attracted to the group’s violent ideology but unable or unwilling to travel to Syria.

If the group has a modicum of command and control over its many wilayats, it might attempt an al-Qaeda-esque simultaneous multi-country attack. However, the wide capabilities gap between the wilayats makes this a hypothetical fraught with potential embarrassment, even for a group that believes even failed attacks are good publicity. It is possible that one of the wilayats might attempt a high-profile attack, though the Libyan branch has picked an ill-timed fight with al-Qaeda-associated militias in Derna and elsewhere that might make pulling off a successful attack more difficult now than it would have been weeks ago.

Given the group’s history, it is quite likely it will either make what it believes to be a significant announcement or attempt a significant capture or attack. Even under pressure, the group tends to go on the offensive when logic would suggest a more defensive posture. It is the unknown threat of the lone wolves who have remained at home and joined the group in absentia that presents the greatest danger in a geographically undefinable area. The group depends on theatrics and imagery to survive and perpetuate its origin story; this Ramadan will be the first one in which the group has to write a next chapter.


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