July 6, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Many Messages of Islamic State Attacks

• The two types of Islamic State attacks—inspired and directed—carry with them a different set of messages

• The inspired attacks, in which the Islamic State has no involvement but claims responsibility, relay the message that the group’s power is equal to the spread of its propaganda

• The Islamic State’s directed attacks appear to send specific messages related to the countries in which they take place

• Recent attacks in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Jordan appear intended to have specific messages aimed at each government.


This year's month of Ramadan—now ending—has seen numerous examples of the two types of Islamic State terror attacks, each carrying a different message. Attacks such as the Orlando shooting or the Paris knife murders are as much a message to the Islamic State as they are a message from the group. The Islamic State was not aware of the Orlando gunman or his plans; the same can be said for the San Bernardino attackers. In these cases, the attackers sent a message to the Islamic State that they had heard and answered its call to terror—a chilling validation that the group's propaganda is finding an audience. 

The Islamic State receives these messages and repurposes them, announcing to the world that another soldier of the so-called caliphate had shed blood in its name. In the perspective of the Islamic State, the group is responsible for such attacks because it ordered them; the distinction between inspired and directed attacks is lost. The Islamic State asks its supporters to kill in its name, and they do so without geographic or demographic pattern. The message then becomes one in which no one is truly safe; that the group is not aware of the attack ahead of time only serves to amplify it.

In the directed, or likely directed, attacks such as the October 2015 downing of a Metrojet flight over the Sinai and the November 2015 Paris attacks, among others, the message is more tailored. The downing of Metrojet flight 9268 came on the heels of Russia’s air campaign in Syria. It is likely that the June 28 attack at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul was a message directed at Turkey. Ankara has recently moved to mend relations with Moscow after the downing of a Russian jet last November, and has become more aggressive in targeting the Islamic State inside Turkey. The three attackers in the Istanbul attack were from former Soviet republics—a fact unlikely to be a coincidence and one not lost on Turkish authorities.

The June 27 attack on a Jordanian border crossing that killed seven Jordanian security personnel may have been intended to send a message to Amman regarding its longtime support of Sunni tribal fighters fighting the Islamic State. Jordan is dealing with a latent undercurrent of extremism in towns such as Zarqa and Ma’an, as well as a civil war raging on its borders. The Islamic State has no hope of dissuading Amman from acting against it, but attacks such as this are a way for the Islamic State to keep the issue at the forefront in a country already facing many challenges.

The June 4 bombings in Saudi Arabia may or may not have been coordinated, given their simplistic planning and execution. Had any of the three attacks succeeded, the symbolic payoff would have been enormous. It is difficult to overstate the impact of a mass casualty attack in a place such as Medina. The message from the Islamic State may have aimed to challenge the ruling Saudi family's claim to authority as the guardian of the two holiest sites in Islam. However, as in Turkey, the Islamic State has not claimed credit for the Saudi attacks and, given the backlash over such a brazen attack on a holy Islamic site, it may never do so.

These three latest attacks—as well as the July 2 bombing in Iraq—struck across the Arab crescent, cutting through the Islamic State’s strongest sphere of influence. Whereas the message of the inspired attacks is that they can happen without rhyme or reason in any location, the directed attacks carry tailored messages aimed at various governments. None of the governments will change their attitude towards the Islamic State; it is more likely that the attacks will backfire on the group by building a more determined and unified opposition. The recent attacks in Saudi Arabia and Baghdad, as well as a foiled plot in Kuwait, indicate that the Islamic State will never stop killing its way towards a sectarian war—a goal since the days of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.


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