Understanding ISIS’ ‘foreign’ jihadist strategy

Was this week’s attack in
Orlando part of ISIS’ plan? André Gagné explains how such violence differs from
the group’s ‘domestic’ approach in Syria and Iraq and why it matters.

By: /
17 June, 2016
A member of the LGBT community lights a candle during a vigil in memory of the victims of the Orlando Pulse gay nightclub shooting. REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera
André Gagné
By: André Gagné
Associate Professor,  Concordia University

June 12, 2016, is now the date of the second-worst mass shooting in the history of the U.S., behind the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. Forty-nine people died and 53 were wounded at the Pulse LGBT nightclub in Orlando at the hands of Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old resident from Port St. Lucie, Florida.

​It is still very difficult to fully understand Mateen’s motivations. Some say that he had attended the Pulse nightclub a dozen times, and had some
interest in homosexuality. Mateen’s father said that the crime had nothing to do with religion; rather, his son was angry after seeing two men kissing in Miami a few months ago. Could this have triggered Mateen to commit such an irremediable act?

Some eyewitnesses trapped in the nightclub’s bathroom heard Mateen telling 911 that he was carrying out this attack because he wanted the U.S. to stop bombing Afghanistan. Was this in reaction to the recent death of Taliban leader Mullah Ahktar Mansoor by a U.S. strike in Pakistan? Mateen’s co-workers recall that he boasted having links to al-Qaeda and Hezbollah.

In the end, the shooter allegedly pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before the massacre in a 911 call. Could Mateen’s extremist religious worldview have fuelled his anger? Could a possible struggle with homosexuality – which he understood as being forbidden by his religion – be the source of his frustration, which led him to commit this horrendous crime against the LGBT community? It seems clear that Mateen was a troubled individual who may have had little understanding of the political and religious conflict happening in the Middle East. Al-Qaeda (sunni) and Hezbollah (shi’a) are definitely not in the same camp, and both are opposed to ISIS.

Then, another attacked happened in Magnanville, France, one day after the Orlando massacre. Larossi Abballa, 25, stabbed a policeman and his wife to death and streamed a video of the gruesome murder on Facebook. A list of targets containing the names of rappers, journalists, police officers and pubic personalities was found at the crime scene, as well as a copy of the Qur’an, a Djellaba (loose-fitting robe), and a book called Authentic Belief. According to the French prosecutor, Abballa clearly pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi a few weeks ago.

Even if they were most likely not directly sent by ISIS to commit these actions, both Abballa and Mateen were somehow inspired by the group to a varying degree.

A few hours after the Orlando massacre, ISIS’ Amaq news agency claimed that the attack was carried out by an ISIS fighter. The group also produced a video reiterating its claim. ISIS therefore interprets Mateen’s actions as a response to its recent call to arms during the Ramadan, when ISIS spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani invited the “Caliphate soldiers” and ISIS supporters to target civilians in the U.S. and in Europe. Al-Adnani stressed the importance of attacking civilians, inflicting harm on them day and night, until neighbours were terrified of each other.

These actions align perfectly with what I consider to be ISIS’ “foreign” jihadist strategy (different from its “domestic” strategy), most likely inspired by the work of Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, better known as Abu Mus‘ab al-Suri. This Syrian intellectual, who lived in several European countries and was educated in France, is believed to have been the mastermind behind the 2004 Madrid attacks.

In 2005, al-Suri published online his famous opus, The Global Islamic Resistance Call. Therein, he tries to radicalize individuals either born in or who have immigrated to Western countries and convince them to launch terror attacks from the inside. Targets should be infidels and apostates; anyone who does not conform to his worldview. This is somewhat different from the way al-Qaeda operated under bin Laden. Al-Suri insists on a move from a commanding top-down system to decentralized operations from fighters who initiate attacks whenever and wherever they deem necessary.

This aspect of modern-day jihadism is what French political scientist Gilles Kepel calls the “third phase of jihad.” Even if the security forces had Mateen and Abballa under surveillance, they could not fully counter a decentralized approach. The manpower required is simply too overwhelming. Al-Suri’s work is known by most jihadist groups, as well as leaders of al-Qaeda and ISIS.

A different approach is used by ISIS when it comes to its “domestic” jihadist operations, as the group struggles to defend conquered territory. Here, Abu Bakr Naji’s work entitled The Management of Savagery is the main playbook. The strategy was adopted by Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, from 2004 to 2006 before the establishment of ISIS. Its purpose is to provide ways to weaken and conquer Muslim countries, since many are seen as harbouring corrupt and apostate governments. The actions of ISIS in Syria and Iraq are clearly inspired by Naji’s work, whereas the attacks committed in Europe and other Western countries are outlined in al-Suri’s work. Chaos in Western countries where people turn against each other is one of the goals of al-Suri’s project.

​It is timely for ISIS to apply al-Suri’s strategy as it is losing ground in Syria and Iraq. This way, it can keep battling the kuffar and dispel perceptions of weakness. With such unexpected decentralized attacks, extremists might have found an unprecedented way to terrorize the West.

What does ISIS’ call for increased ‘foreign’ attacks mean for Canada? It can mean that the war against this radical group is now global; it goes beyond Syria and Iraq. The conflict was not diminished with the withdrawal of Canadian jets in the Middle East. In fact, ISIS wants to us to believe that war is now on our doorstep.

But another possible way to understand ISIS’ new ‘foreign’ strategy would be as one of desperation, as the group might be on the verge of a downfall. This is why we should be careful not to fall into ISIS’ trap. Its ideological war is meant to create fear, hate and suspicion, and seeks to destroy our freedom and way of life. In order to succeed, ISIS will most likely claim atrocities that are not directly related to it, as a way to embolden and empower its mujahideen and sympathizers. Therefore, we cannot give in. We must refuse to let ISIS intimidate us and dictate our way of life.

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