Islamic State signals a shift to more global targets

Zeina Karam and Vivian Salama
Associated Press

Baghdad – — As the deadly attacks in Paris made horrifically clear, the Islamic State group is determined to establish itself as the dominant jihadist movement capable of operating far beyond the limits of its self-declared “caliphate.”

Doing so achieves numerous aims for the group, not least of which could be winning it clout to attract even more recruits. Others may include sharpening divisions between Muslims and non-Muslims in Europe — and forcing the West into a difficult choice of either backing off or being drawn into what the militants would see as a holy war in Syria and Iraq.

Coming soon after the Islamic State group claimed the downing of the Russian plane in Egypt and deadly suicide bombings in Lebanon and Turkey, the Paris attacks appear to signal a fundamental shift in strategy toward a more global approach that experts suggest is likely to intensify.

“The message is that this is an open war, not restricted to the conflict zone in Iraq and Syria,” said Bilal Saab, a resident senior fellow for Middle East Security at Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. Until now, the militant Sunni group had mostly focused on its internal rivals — Bashar Assad’s regime and rival Muslim Shiites, which the group considers to be heretics.

The Islamic State group claimed that Friday night’s attacks, during which scores of innocent victims where methodically gunned down in the heart of Paris, was a response to France’s role in U.S.-led airstrikes against the Islamic State group in both Iraq and Syria. The group has also said it was responsible for bringing down a Russian jetliner over Egypt’s Sinai region earlier this month, describing it as retaliation for Russian airstrikes in Syria.

Islamic State activity outside its “caliphate” hub in Sunni areas of Syria and Iraq is in itself not new as a concept. But mass murder in the heart of Europe suggests the nature and scale is changing.

As the group is secretive and elusive, it remains unclear clear why it chose this particular moment to go global.

One possibility is that they have identified an inflection point in the Russian decision to join the fray in Syria two months ago. After a year and a half of seemingly halfhearted and largely ineffectual coalition efforts against the Islamic State, The Russian intervention, to some in the region, does have the whiff of a game-changer.

Attacks abroad help spread the message that the Islamic State is a serious and effective alternative to al-Qaida, the organization that claimed the leadership of a global jihadi movement but has seemed in eclipse in recent years.

Hassan Hassan, an associate fellow at Chatham House in London and co-author of “ ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,” said the Islamic State has a twin strategy of state-building within its self-declared caliphate and establishing itself as a “global leader of jihad” in place of al-Qaida. “They wanted to show they are the new al-Qaida … that this is going to be the new organization that everyone has to be part of. The old organization is dying.”

The group has urged supporters around the world to carry out attacks in the West.

In September 2014, the Islamic State group’s spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, called for lone-wolf attacks on Westerners and any “disbelievers” among countries fighting the Islamic State — a term understood to reference not only non-Muslims but anyone who is not a devout Sunni.

That statement’s specific targets included any “disbelieving American or European — especially the spiteful and filthy French.” Other statements have threatened to topple Rome — apparently related to the location of the Vatican.

“They always speak about Iraq and Syria as the beginning of something, but with an eye on the West and conquering Rome,” Hassan said.

Online, almost all commentators referred to the new Islamic State principle of retaliating promptly to what militants say are Western attacks against Muslims that that kill hundreds of people including women and children. That taps into frustration in the region over civilian deaths in the wars of recent years.

Hussein bin Mahmoud, a leading militant ideologue, mocked those who fight Muslims in the region yet “think that we don’t have the right to kill them in a Paris theater, in train stations in London or Madrid or in a building in New York.”

“Sorry Paris for those evil villains who killed peaceful and civilized Parisians while your beautiful planes and your modern bombs kill the wicked Arab children,” he wrote in a piece carried by Islamic State media arm al-Battar.

Observers assess that high-profile attacks involving mass murder of perceived enemies serves multiple goals for the Islamic State that go far beyond muscle-flexing.

The group may be looking to foment tensions over Islam in Europe, which it considers to be a recruiting ground.

The militants may perhaps also be trying to make up perhaps for recent setbacks in Syria and Iraq, although an operation like the one in Paris attacks would have had to be planned in advance. In both Syria and Iraq, the group’s territory has contracted slightly in recent months.

Saab pointed to another possible goal: To encourage the deployment of Western ground troops. Although many in the West argue that this would be the only way to dislodge them, many would welcome such an apocalyptic, man-to-man scenario. “ISIS would cherish that because it’s the fight they’ve been seeking,” he said.

Some have suggested that the Islamic State is worried about the recent diplomatic activity to end the Syria war, a conflict that has allowed the extremists to flourish.

Muwaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq’s former national security adviser, said the expansion of the group comes because of the lack of effective response by the West. “If we don’t have a comprehensive multi-faceted plan to combat this threat then we will see more of these,” he said.

Experts said the group is now learning how to bypass various international security measures and expect such attacks to increase dramatically.

“We will see their tactics improving and their targets getting bigger. They see 9/11 as the example,” said Hisham al-Hashimi, a Baghdad-based expert on IS. “They want an attack that is so dramatic and large scale that it impacts every area of life,” he added.