Research note originally commissioned November 2015
The recent wave of ISIS attacks across the world has increased the will on the part of various state actors to destroy the group militarily. Thus far, despite a long-running air campaign, ISIS has managed to maintain its territorial integrity to a significant degree. This has been a propaganda coup for the group and that it has survived so long is likely to help it maintain its ideological influence after its defeat. Its defeat does indeed appear to be coming nearer, with the recent Kurdish advance through Sinjar, starting to cut off the group’s Syrian and Iraqi sections. Moreover, renewed international attention will likely put further military pressure on the group.
ISIS’ high command in Syria seems aware of this and the recent wave of attacks may signal a change in strategy in response to its encroaching military routing in Syria. By hoping to sow instability and violence elsewhere, it is hoping to draw other countries into a cycle of violence which will perpetuate its brutal ideology. This concerning prospect demonstrates that countering its narrative will remain crucial for a long time to come.
The recent attacks in Paris have led to France’s increased involvement in the US-led coalition fighting ISIS, with French jets bombing positions in Raqqa. With another attack in Mali this involvement is likely only to increase. Mali is a former French colony housing a French military presence and the attack was against an American-owned hotel popular with foreigners and in particular housing UN officials working on a peace deal for the country.
Russia has recently announced that a bomb was the cause of the recent destruction of a passenger plane flying between Egypt and Russia, an attack claimed by ISIS. This is likely to increase Russia’s military attention towards ISIS.
The renewed international focus on the group, following the recent series of high-profile attacks, may eventually lead to its military defeat on the ground. Indeed, the recent victory against the group in Sinjar may well be the first step in severing its territorial unity.
The recent conference in Vienna, which brought together many of the countries involved in the Syrian conflict, including now Iran, previously excluded, has led to the beginnings of discussions around a time table for a transition of power in Syria. Cynicism and hesitation abound concerning the implementation of this timeline but it represents the most concrete step so far towards ending the conflict. In any case, potential scenarios for the implementation raise obvious security-related questions. If ISIS is to be removed from its territorial holdings and a militia or state actor fills the security vacuum, they may well then be faced with a protracted insurgency from remaining ISIS cells.
Despite months of airstrikes, ISIS has remained. Indeed, it has encouraged its supports to use slogans based on the theme of “the Caliphate remains”. Its durability as a territorial entity adds credence to its claim that it is a state.
Having managed to remain and maintain its presence for such a considerable time, and to commit such flagrant atrocities and provocations, mean that the dangerous ideology surrounding the group is likely to remain even after its defeat.
France’s response has been swift, sending jets to bomb ISIS positions within days of the attacks in Paris. These strikes by France on Raqqa may be used as justification by ISIS militants for further attacks on French interests, helping to paint the conflict as a ‘clash of civilizations’. One of ISIS’ aims in attacking France appears to be to increase antagonism between Muslim populations and the far right in France and Western Europe. This appears initially to have been successful, with increases in antagonistic rhetoric on social media and reports of attacks. A fire in a Calais migrant camp shortly after the attacks appears to be unrelated but was quickly seized upon my media outlets.
ISIS’ call to carry out attacks far its territory and for fighters to stay in their countries of origin rather than to come represents a shift in strategy. It appears to come as a result of the group’s increasingly precarious position on the ground. This may suggest the group is preparing itself for a potential routing in Syria and Iraq. Such groups typically insert themselves in destabilized societies. With their presence in Syria now acquiring a lot of attention, ISIS may start to funnel more efforts into spreading its activities out, supporting the establishment of new franchises.
The prospect of an Islamist insurrection in France has been the bogeyman paraded out by the far right for years. The prospect is still a ridiculous one, however, ISIS appears to be hoping to create a spiral of violence and its ideology has taken firm root among a small group of disaffected men from France’s disenfranchised Muslim community. Tackling this issue will require authorities in France not only to address the roots of this disenfranchisement but to continue also to show the ISIS ideology for what it is and challenge its narrative wherever it appears. This not only applies to France but all Western European countries with disenfranchised Muslim communities.
ISIS may soon be defeated militarily but the length of its existence has served to strengthen its ability to transmit its ideology. Countering that narrative and understanding why it seems to resonate and so effectively incite acts of brutal violence will likely remain crucial for much longer to come.
While the attacks in Paris reportedly received considerable logistical and financial support from ISIS in Syria, there is also the potential for copycat or lone wolf attacks, whereby individuals self-radicalize and conduct attacks. These have less potential to inflict the scale of casualties seen in an attack such as the one in Paris, however, they may also be harder for security services to predict. This is to be seen in the case of the recent wave of knife attacks carried out by young Palestinians against Israelis. Many of the recent ‘lone wolf’ attackers in Europe may have been initially radicalized in prison. While it is concerning that radicalization can occur on a number of levels, this also offers routes to addressing these issues.
At an international football match in Turkey, a one minute silence was held for the victims of the Paris attacks, to which elements among the Turkish supporters booed, whistled and chanted. While support for ISIS is low in Turkey, this demonstrates the politicized nature of the reactions to the attacks. Some on social media in Turkey, while not supporters of ISIS per se, have seen the attacks as France getting a ‘taste of its own medicine’. Some narratives around the causes and motivations of the attacks have focused on France’s imperial past and current foreign policy activities. Again, the reactions to these attacks have been extremely politicized. ISIS’ support and its activities occur within a complex overlapping of interests and positions.