Taking Terror Abroad The Islamic State's New Strategy
The attacks in Paris mark a shift in the Islamic State's strategy. For the first time, the Syrian jihadists have organized attacks abroad, making the terrorist organization look more like al-Qaida.
First the bombing of a Russian passenger jet over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, and then the attacks in Paris. Within the scope of two weeks, the terrorist organization Islamic State (IS) has conducted devastating attacks on targets abroad. Around 350 people perished in the strikes.
IS has directed its attacks against civilians from Russia and France, two countries currently conducting air strikes against Islamic State positions in Iraq and Syria.
Foreign intelligence officials say the attacks have been orchestrated by high-level Islamic State operatives in Syria. In the case of the downed Russian Metrojet aircraft en route from Sharm el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg on Oct. 31, intercepted conversations between jihadists in the unofficial IS capital of Raqqa and the organization's offshoot in Egypt suggest a hand in the bombing. Meanwhile, Belgian Islamist Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who is currently in Syria, is believed to have been the mastermind behind the Paris attacks. It appears he trained at least some of the suicide attackers in Syria and then sent them back to Europe in order to conduct the attacks.
Growing Similarities Between IS and Al-Qaida
The centrally steered attacks mark a shift in strategy for the Islamic State. For the first time, the jihadists have planned and carried out attacks against countries currently waging war against IS. The attacks in Paris, in particular, carried out as commando actions, took European intelligence services by surprise.
As recently as late summer, German security authorities believed that IS viewed the "consolidation of existing spheres of influence" to be its main priority. That, they believed, required focusing its resources on Syria and Iraq, thus reducing its "operational capacity" for "coordinating international attacks in Western countries," an internal review by the German Interior Ministry states.
The interpretation by German intelligence services and police authorities was that the terrorist militia had been focusing on expanding its Islamist caliphate. IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had declared the battle against the Syrian regime his organization's chief goal, after breaking ties with al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden successor Ayman al-Zawahiri in April 2013.
IS leaders never officially excluded attacks against Western countries. And although the Islamic State praised the killing of editorial staff at Charlie Hebdo in January, it at best inspired the actions of the radicalized perpetrators, rather than organize or order such attacks itself, a journalist with Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote on Monday.
But that appears to have changed now. "We have to prepare for a new situation," a high-ranking security official in Berlin said.
Increasingly, IS' actions are starting to resemble those of al-Qaida at the start of the new millennium. At the time, al-Qaida terrorist cells carried out attacks in New York, Washington, Madrid and London in the name of the organization. After this weekend's Paris attacks, IS has already announced the US capital to be a future target. The head of the CIA has said he assumes there will be further IS attacks against targets in the West.
There's another disturbing novelty here as well: Paris marks the first time the terrorist militia has deployed suicide bombers in Europe. Even though dozens of volunteers from the West have already died in Syria and Iraq as suicide bombers, their home countries had been spared until Friday of this perfidious form of attack.
Suicide Attacks Almost Impossible to Prevent
The Islamic State in Syria and Iraq relies heavily on foreigners because "these men are highly ideological, they aren't rooted locally and are prepared to do anything," Peter Neumann, a terrorism researcher at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence in London, recently told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Suicide attacks make sense from a military perspective. With relatively little effort, they can inflict major damage while at the same time spreading extreme fear."
German security agencies have also been taken by surprise. "This has a new and special quality," says one intelligence source. "For one thing, it requires one to be incredibly radical and determined. For another, these types of attacks can no longer be stopped once the perpetrators are out on the street."