The terrorist wave that has just hit Europe reveals that what we are facing is a terrorist enemy with an ever-evolving strategy
The terrorist attacks that hit Brussels and shocked the whole of Europe last Tuesday brought with them many moral reflections, political analysis, questions with no apparent answer, and (unsurprisingly) finger-pointing across religious lines.
However, of the many things that can be said in front of this latest wave of hatred that brutally struck our societies and our lives, a consideration stands out: the attacks of Tuesday testify the new worrying and growing capacity of ISIS to adapt its action (at both the planning and operational level) to changing circumstances.
When the group, in 2010, emerged from the ashes of al-Zaraqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and re-invented itself under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, among its defining features one in particular claims attention: the group’s localized strategy. Unlike bin Laden’s Al Qaeda (of which AQI was from 2004 to 2014 an affiliate) and more in line with what had already been the path followed by al-Zarqawi, ISIS gave itself a strictly local dimension. It refused to follow Al Qaeda’s universalism and pursuit of a global jihad, and preferred instead to focus its action on the local fight in Iraq and al-Sham. Aware of the risks and limits inherent in a global and de-localized approach, Al Baghdadi created a group whose goal was not to hit the “far enemy” but rather the “close enemy” – foreign forces and Shia groups in the Sunni areas across Iraq and Syria.
Such a strategy proved to be one of ISIS’s main points of strength: it allowed the group to avoid dispersions and distractions and to focus all its manpower and financial resources on the pursuit of a specific, concrete and single goal – the creation of that Caliphate that since the end of June 2014 has been redrawing the map of the Levant.
After creating a new abhorrent – but not less concrete – reality in the Middle Eastern theatre, ISIS found itself targeted by more enemies on more sides and had to deal with the costs of having no friends. But still, the group has proven resilient. Thanks to a clearly defined and coherent pyramidal organization; to an efficient administrative division of the territories occupied; to the unparalleled recruiting capacity both in the Middle East and abroad; to a considerable degree of financial autonomy; and to the ability to exploit the war in Syria to divert its enemies’ attention, ISIS has managed to resist and survive up to this date.
Nevertheless, everyone has to face his own limits sooner or later and the group has more recently suffered a series of major setbacks that are unveiling all its vulnerabilities. According to recent data, in 2015 ISIS lost 14% of its territory (and with it also financing sources) and in many other parts of the so-called Caliphate the group is on the defensive and struggling to hold the areas occupied in the period 2012-2014.
Therefore, in order to survive, it became for ISIS necessary to adapt its modus operandi to its own vulnerabilities and to adopt a new strategy.
As proved by the attacks that in the past months hit Turkey, Lebanon, France, and Belgium, ISIS is now opening up to a more global strategy: the group is trying to compensate the loss of territory in Iraq and Syria with attacks that hit soft targets in foreign countries and that bring to ISIS worldwide visibility, credibility, and legitimacy in the eyes of its supporters. Retrieving – and improving –Al Qaeda’s traditional way of action, al-Baghdadi’s group is thus trying to preserve its prominence in the jihadist universe by pushing beyond the Levant’s borders the boundaries of its action.
This shift in the modus operandi is particularly worrying for countries such as Lebanon, Turkey and the EU – countries whose fight against ISIS, whose geographic position and whose political relevance have turned into preferred targets for al-Baghdadi and his followers.
In particular, in the case of Europe, the attacks recently perpetrated by ISIS-affiliates on European soil reveal how the group has been able to set up in our countries a network of well-trained jihadists who have the expertise necessary to carry out multiple and sophisticated attacks. Attacks that spread terror, threaten the multi-religious coexistence of our societies and challenge our political liberal systems.
What the whole of Europe – our countries, citizens, politicians, intelligence services and police forces – is now facing is therefore the latest face of a jihadist terrorism extremely resilient and versatile. Our enemy has adopted a new, global terrorist action in order to survive. Now it’s our turn: we need to adopt a new, EU counter-terrorism strategy in order to defend what we are and what we have built.