September 7, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Terror Threat from al-Adnani’s Death

• The August 30 death of Abu Mohammad al-Adnani has given rise to fears that more Islamic State external attacks could occur as revenge.

• Online exhortations for revenge attacks are one challenge; the possibility of cells from al-Adnani’s external operations branch moving into position to strike is an entirely different one.

• Incidents of inspired attacks may increase after al-Adnani’s death, but coordinated cell-based plots tend to operate on a different timeline.

• Once a terror cell is in place it must act quickly, since the risk of detection and disruption increases the longer the group waits.


The death of the so-called Islamic State’s head of external operations, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, in an August 30 airstrike in al-Bab, Syria, raises two important questions about the threat of revenge attacks. The first question is whether calls for attacks in al-Adnani’s name will be any more persuasive to the group’s followers than al-Adnani’s previous calls for attacks in the Islamic State’s name. The second question is whether there are cells already in place in Europe—along the lines of the network responsible for the November 2015 Paris attacks—that have the operational capacity to conduct attacks in response to al-Adnani’s death. The first issue is somewhat straightforward, though still unpredictable; the second issue—trained cells with a coordinated attack plan—is much less straightforward. There is a significant difference in how a terror cell operates versus how an inspired individual actor can lash out.

The Islamic State’s calls to avenge al-Adnani’s death could conceivably lead to an increase in inspired attacks by the group’s supporters throughout Europe. Islamic State messaging channels have repeatedly called for revenge attacks; such calls to terror are nothing new, however, as the group’s supporters have long called for attacks in the Islamic State’s name. On September 5, the Islamic State released a new magazine—which is essentially a less polished version of the group’s well-known Dabiq magazine. The new publication, called Rumiyah (Rome), features al-Adnani on its inaugural cover, and repeats the group’s call for individuals to attack the Islamic State’s nearly infinite list of enemies.

Islamic State-inspired attacks—as well as attacks involving some degree of contact between the attacker and a member of the group—often have very short timelines from inception to execution. However, attackers may look online for ideas or possible attack vectors for some time before acting. But given innocuous attack methods involving motor vehicles or knives, web search histories of terror suspects do not always raise the attention of authorities, and often become important only in hindsight. Therefore, while it is possible the death of al-Adnani and resulting calls for revenge will prompt attacks, it may be difficult to evaluate whether his death will generate attacks that were not already in motion.

Conversely, cell-based terror plots operate on a much different timeline. Coordinated attacks planned by a terror network tend to involve a slow and methodical planning process. Generally, however, once a terror cell is in place and has finalized attack plans and preparations, it acts with haste. The longer a cell stays intact at an operationally ready level, the more likely it is to be detected or disrupted. Recent CNN reports about a more expansive terror plot related to the Paris and Brussels attacks demonstrates the Islamic State’s ability to put operatives and plans into place, but once in place, such plans and individuals have a finite shelf life that shortens with every counterterror raid and investigation. Plans for coordinated external attacks set in motion by al-Adnani will not wait around for a symbolic reason to act; if and when a terror cell can attack with a reasonable degree of confidence, it will not hesitate. Therefore, the threat facing Europe in the wake of al-Adnani’s death has less to do with revenge for his killing than it does the system and protocols al-Adnani set up for moving trained operatives into Europe.


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