Despite recent losses of territory in Iraq and Syria, Islamic State operatives have pulled off several high-profile, deadly attacks on multiple continents, making good on the group’s carefully cultivated plans to remain the world’s dominant terror organization.
Whether directed by IS leadership, enabled, inspired or even linked erroneously, each recent attack has put the terror group in the headlines. And intelligence officials fear Islamic State is well enough positioned to use such symbolic victories to its advantage, building on the narrative of a powerful movement that cannot be stopped.
“The string of attacks over the last several days that have reportedly left over 200 people dead is a terrible reminder that groups like ISIL maintain the intent and capability to direct, support and inspire acts of violence,” a U.S. counterterror official told VOA on condition of anonymity, using an acronym for the terror group.
The official cautioned a “clear accounting” of the attacks in Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad and Saudi Arabia will take time, but that they show governments worldwide will face “significant difficulty in preventing groups of determined, suicidal individuals.”
Supporters of a Pakistani religious group chant slogans condemning a suicide bombing in Medina, Saudi Arabia, during a demonstration in Lahore, Pakistan, July 5, 2016.
U.S. officials also point out that despite rapidly losing ground in Iraq and in Syria, the Islamic State’s ability to reach out and strike at so-called soft targets around the world has rarely been in doubt.
“Sadly, we’re not surprised that ISIL is able to strike in some fashion like this,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said Tuesday, when asked about Sunday’s bombings in Baghdad that killed at least 175 people and injured 200 more.
“This was clearly a devastating attack and a painful reminder of the lethal capabilities of ISIL,” he said.
Keeping the pressure on
Just last month, CIA Director John Brennan warned lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee that U.S. efforts had “not reduced the group's terrorism capability and global reach” and that the group was likely to intensify its campaign of terror across the world.
But the latest wave of attacks and bombings, coming at the end of Ramadan, worry some in the intelligence community who fear IS is honing its abilities to be effective and deadly even as its self-declared caliphate faces what may be an imminent collapse.
“All of this is indicative of a directed, organized strategic bombing campaign from ISIS proper [that] has coordinated all of these attacks but let the locals carry them out as they saw fit,” said former counterterrorism and intelligence officer Malcolm Nance, using another of the terror group’s acronyms.
Policemen patrol outside the Holey Artisan Bakery and the O'Kitchen Restaurant as others inspect the site after gunmen attacked, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, July 3, 2016.
Nance, who now heads the Terror Asymmetrics Project (TAPSTRI), believes IS leadership will continue to seek out partners and enable new attacks, whether in Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh or Malaysia, presenting an appearance of momentum even if the group is being routed in its core territories.
“They have deep knowledge of the people and the places which would have the most impact if a terrorist attack was carried out,” Nance said. “It’s very important for them to keep the pressure on, for people to believe that ISIS is a solid organization.”
In some ways, the strategy could make IS even more treacherous.
“The brilliance of the Islamic State has been — unlike al-Qaida and other groups — not to get it wrong with logistics, funding, planning,” Middle East Forum President Daniel Pipes recently told VOA via Skype.
“[It] makes it far easier for them to incite such violence and makes it far more difficult for security agencies to stop it,” Pipes said. “You can’t stop the flow of money. You don’t have chatter. You don’t have all these mechanisms, these vulnerabilities.”
Already, the group is promising more of the same, according to the SITE Intelligence Group. In a video released Tuesday, two Bangladeshi fighters in Raqqa, Syria, praised the July 1 attack at a bakery in Dhaka that killed more than 20, threatening more such attacks would follow.
How much more?
Still, there are questions about how many more waves of terror IS will be able to unleash before the group’s manpower is exhausted.
Forensic experts work outside Istanbul Ataturk Airport, Turkey, following explosions, June 28, 2016.
“I don't know if ISIS has the capacity to try to develop a formal physical presence in a country like Bangladesh where it would find a pretty inhospitable environment,” said Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. “You don't have an enabling environment for the type of sectarian-focused extremism that ISIS tends to thrive on.
“In Bangladesh, you have militants who are willing to and would like to identify with ISIS and are happy to claim attacks in their name,” he added.
Some intelligence officials and analysts also question how long IS can survive if the group is untethered from its core territorial holdings in Iraq and Syria, or if IS leadership is even willing to take that path.
“ISIS, at its core, is still in my view an Iraqi military organization that has an outsized global network,” said Jessica McFate, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer now with the Institute for the Study of War. “It’s never going to cease to orient its entire worldview around Iraq.”
But McFate and others acknowledge that at least for a while, IS may be willing to go virtual and continually inspire attacks whenever and wherever it can, with key leaders melting back into the population until conditions are ripe for the group to re-emerge.
“As ISIS starts to lose its manpower and its central caliphate starts being destroyed, which may happen in the next year, ISIS is going to devolve into what I call the ‘Ghost Caliphate’ where they go completely covert and everything is done via the internet,” said TAPSTRI’s Malcolm Nance.
“The inspired model [of terrorism] is going to become the future,” he said. “That is so dangerous, because no one can predict that.”