A Change of Strategy for ISIS?

A look at a month of historic attacks attributed to the Islamic State, and what they might mean.

Dominique Faget / AFP / Getty

Friday’s attack on Paris, claimed by ISIS, was different. It was different in the scale of the carnage—the worst terrorist attack in Europe since the Madrid bombings, claimed by al-Qaeda, in 2004; the worst violence on French soil since World War II. Mass-casualty terrorist attacks are rare in the West, but this one has claimed at least 129 lives so far.

It was different in the methods used by the group. On Friday night, when it was still unclear who could have done this, the evidence of coordination and preparation seemed initially to point towards al-Qaeda, ISIS’s former ally and current rival, better-known for links to complex attacks on international targets, like the Madrid and London bombings. The attack on London a decade ago was the last time a mass-casualty suicide attack, involving multiple bombers, struck Western Europe. (The suicide bombing in Burgas, Bulgaria, in 2012, killed six people in addition to the single bomber.)

But it was also different from an al-Qaeda attack, because of the targets. As Rukmini Callimachi wrote for The New York Times:

The style of the attack was in line with the Islamic State’s tactic of indiscriminate killings and goes against Al Qaeda’s guidelines. In a 2013 directive, the leader of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri, stated that Qaeda operatives should avoid attacks that could inadvertently cause the death of Muslim civilians and noncombatant women or children. …

He argued that targeting markets, for example, was unadvisable because innocent Muslims might accidentally be killed.

Although Qaeda branches have deviated from these guidelines on numerous occasions, their attacks reflect more carefully defined targeting. That was the case in the killings at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris in January, when cartoonists were singled out and defined as legitimate targets because of what the group considered to be blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad.

It was different in its reach. ISIS has never before conducted an operation on such a scale in Europe, though the past month has apparently shown the organization projecting violence further and wider than it has ever done. Since mid-October alone, the group and its local affiliates are believed to have conducted, or at least inspired, three or four historic attacks, though attribution is murky in some cases.

On October 10, it was the bombings in Ankara, Turkey, which the government has blamed on ISIS and which killed more than 100 people in what was reportedly the worst terrorist attack the country had ever seen. On October 31, it was the explosion of a Russian jetliner over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, which killed 224 people in the worst aviation disaster in Russian history and which, if local ISIS ally Sinai Province’s claim of responsibility proves correct, was the second-deadliest jihadist terrorist attack outside of a war zone since 9/11. On November 12, it was the Beirut bombing, also claimed by ISIS, that killed more than 40 people in the worst suicide bombing the city has seen since Lebanon’s civil war ended in 1990.*

In the Financial Times, Sam Jones summarized the apparent shift.

In the past few months, two senior western counter-terrorism officials told the Financial Times that their assessment of Isis’s objectives and ambitions far beyond its borders had shifted dramatically. Isis wanted to mount a “spectacular” attack of the kind al-Qaeda made its name perpetrating, one of them said, but what had been unclear — until Friday — was whether they had the capability.

Isis, which has long focused on inspiring random acts of violence — urging “lone” wolves to kill, as in the Brussels Jewish museum shootings of May 2014, or the Sousse beach massacre of July this year — now appears to be honing its efforts to inspire followers, and focusing it with more careful planning and co-ordination.

“They are projecting their terror further and more deliberately,” Patrick Skinner, a former CIA official now with the intelligence consultancy the Soufan Group, told Jones. Will McCants, author of the recently published history of the group The ISIS Apocalypse, wrote on Twitter that “If the Paris attack and those in Egypt and Lebanon were all directed by ISIS Central, they represent a major shift in its global strategy.”

Another analyst isn’t so sure. The journalist Yassin Musharbash observed on Twitter that “ is complex enough to follow more than one path at a time. Which means that, well, not everything that happens is a strategy shift!”

It is, at least, a shift in tactics and targets. But it’s also worth noting that complex mass-casualty attacks like these, while still rare outside of conflict zones even as worldwide deaths from terrorism have spiked since 9/11, are already a gruesome routine in the lands ISIS seeks to control. What’s really new is the export.

* This article originally referred to the November 12 suicide bombing in Beirut as the worst violence Lebanon had seen since the 1990s. The bombing was the worst violence Beirut has seen since then; Lebanon itself suffered some 1,000 casualties in the 2006 war with Israel. We regret the error.