December 1, 2015 | House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade

The Paris Attacks: A Strategic Shift by ISIS?

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Chairman Poe, Ranking Member Keating, and distinguished members of the committee, on behalf of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, it is an honor to appear before you to discuss the implications of the Paris attacks, and the broader questions that they raise about U.S. policy toward Syria.

In the immediate wake of the terrorist attack that brought down a Metrojet plane in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and the recent urban warfare-style attacks in Paris, many analysts concluded that these events marked a significant strategic shift on the part of the Islamic State (referred to hereafter as ISIS).  The most prominent articulation of the argument that ISIS had undertaken a strategic shift held that until the most recent wave of attacks, ISIS focused almost exclusively on establishing a caliphate and expanding the boundaries of its state in Syria, Iraq, and the surrounding regions. Thus, this view held that unlike al-Qaeda, which had long focused on planning terrorist attacks against the “far enemy” (the United States and other Western countries), ISIS confined its operations outside of its immediate region to inspiring attacks by sympathizers and adherents living in the West.

The view that ISIS has undertaken a major shift in its use of terrorist attacks abroad is fundamentally flawed. Rather than marking a strategic shift by ISIS, the Paris and Sinai attacks represent the culmination of the group’s long-standing ambitions to carry out mass-casualty, high-profile attacks in Western states. For over a year, ISIS’s top propagandists have made clear the group’s intentions to strike the West. And the group has tried to make good on its threats: Since the beginning of 2015, ISIS operatives in Syria and Iraq have been involved in planning several high-profile plots against Western targets even prior to the most recent attacks.

ISIS’s Attacks on the “Far Enemy”: Not a Strategic Shift

A close reading of ISIS’s propaganda reveals its longstanding intentions to cause mass destruction in the West. In January 2015, ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani released a statement praising ISIS sympathizers for carrying out plots in Australia, Belgium, Canada, and France, and called on Muslims to use any weapon available to inflict damage on the “crusaders.”  After encouraging more lone wolf attacks in the West, Adnani issued a more ominous threat, saying that “what lies ahead will be worse—with Allah’s permission—and more bitter, for you haven’t seen anything from us just yet.” While Adnani’s statement divulged little about ISIS’s operational plans, it suggested that the group harbored grander ambitions for striking the West.

Statements in Dabiq, ISIS’s English-language online magazine, also provide a window into the organization’s intentions toward the West. In the fourth issue (released October 2014), ISIS noted that it is “very important that attacks take place in every country that has entered into the alliance against the Islamic State, especially the US, UK, France, Australia, and Germany.”  This declaration, unlike Adnani’s, was unambiguous.

If any further proof of ISIS’s global terrorist aspirations is needed, the group provided it in the eighth issue of Dabiq, released in March 2015. In an article bearing the byline of John Cantlie, a British hostage and a gruesomely conscripted ISIS propagandist, a provocative question was posed: “How many more Westerners will die? The way things are going at the moment, the answer is many. France, Belgium, Denmark, Australia, and Canada, have all been the targets of mujahidin attacks over the last three months alone, and as more Islamic fighters … pledge allegiance to the Islamic State, such attacks will surely only become more numerous and better-executed.”

Though ISIS has frequently threatened to attack the West, many analysts have long argued that the group’s rhetoric did not match its actual ambitions. Some experts reasoned that the organization’s central leadership was concentrating on fighting local regimes and non-state Shiite forces, and was thus unwilling to invest serious resources in plotting complex attacks against the West. According to this view, ISIS instead relied heavily on its social media capabilities to inspire sympathizers to carry out opportunistic attacks in the West. If its Western strategy were based primarily on lone wolf attacks, ISIS’s threat to the homeland would be manageable—and, most likely, minimal. As noted by Juliette Kayyem, former Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security: “We can withstand random guys with low-level attacks and minimal consequences.”

But ISIS also possessed grander and deadlier ambitions. The group’s efforts to inspire lone wolf attacks did not preclude it from pursuing a parallel track of planning large-scale operations. Indeed, the preoccupation that previously existed with the lone wolf phenomenon caused analysts to underestimate the threat of an ISIS-directed terrorist attack against the West.

ISIS’s external operations capabilities have significantly evolved since the group declared its caliphate in June 2014. In the early months of the caliphate, the group’s external operations were relatively limited, and lone wolves were indeed the primary means through which ISIS could strike the West. But by early 2015, ISIS had scaled up its external operations capabilities, thanks in large part to the involvement of several key European ISIS fighters, including the British nationals Reyaad Khan and Junaid Hussain (the latter of whom was linked to several plots in the United Kingdom and United States, including the May 2015 shooting at a Garland, Texas venue hosting a “Draw Muhammad” contest).  Another key player was Salim Benghalem, a French jihadist described as the commander of ISIS’s French foreign fighter network, whom Western intelligence agencies have implicated in the recent Paris attacks.

The group soon began plotting high-profile attacks on Europe. The first concrete sign of ISIS’s European ambitions came just days after the notorious January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack, when Belgian police killed two militants and arrested another in a raid in the town of Verviers.  Investigations revealed that all three men had fought with ISIS in Syria, and were using a house in the town to store weapons and build explosives.  Belgian officials warned that the cell was preparing for a major attack in their country.  They also learned that the Verviers cell was in contact with Belgian ISIS member Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who is believed to have served as the key intermediary between ISIS’s senior leadership and the Verviers cell, and also played a central role in the Paris attacks.

In an interview published in Dabiq in February 2015, Abaaoud revealed that he and two other Belgian ISIS members had traveled from Syria to Belgium to “terrorize the crusaders waging war against the Muslims.”  Abaaoud explained that his foreign fighter cell had managed to “obtain weapons and set up a safe house while [they] planned operations against the crusaders.” Though the Verviers plot was a clear indication of ISIS’s ambitions to strike the West, it went largely unnoticed amid the tumult that followed the Charlie Hebdo attack.

In the months between the Verviers plot and the Russian plane crash, several more plots demonstrated the geographic reach—though not necessarily the competence—of ISIS’s external operations. In April 2015, several teenagers were arrested in Melbourne, Australia in police described as a “major counterterrorism operation.”  Australian authorities later revealed that the Melbourne cell had planned a gruesome attack on Anzac Day (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps Day), in which the plotters would run over a police officer, behead him, and use his weapon to carry out a shooting spree in Melbourne.  Investigators concluded that the plot’s ringleaders had been in contact with Australian ISIS member Neil Prakash, who had attended Melbourne’s al-Furqan center (a mosque that the Melbourne operatives had also frequented) before he left for Syria.  Prakash reportedly maintained relationships with al-Furqan attendees after he arrived in Syria, directing them to carry out domestic attacks.

Prakash was not the only ISIS foreign fighter with aspirations to strike his homeland. As previously mentioned, Junaid Hussain, a British citizen, was involved in several plots against the United Kingdom. Hussain, who was killed by a U.S. air strike in August 2015, was also involved in organizing what could have been a major attack in the United States. In the weeks prior to the Fourth of July holiday, the FBI publicly voiced concerns about an increase in chatter related to an ISIS attack. At least ten U.S. citizens were arrested in the lead-up to the July 4 weekend, and intelligence officials later revealed that strikes had been planned across the country, with ISIS recruiters based in Syria identifying potential operatives in the United States, and encouraging them to strike around the holiday weekend.

After months of failed and foiled plots against Western targets, a confluence of factors enabled ISIS to succeed in Paris. Luck was certainly involved, as is the case for any successful terrorist attack. However, luck typically favors terrorists, especially if they make consistent efforts. More important than luck, however, was the ability of ISIS operatives to learn from their mistakes and to exploit holes in European security and intelligence capabilities. The Paris attacks provided definitive proof that European intelligence agencies are overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge posed by foreign fighters and domestic radicals. At least five of the operatives involved in the Paris attack had traveled to Syria to fight for ISIS. Abaaoud, the plot’s ringleader, managed to move back and forth between Europe and Syria even after he was implicated in the Verviers plot, and was thus a highly wanted man.

When viewed against the backdrop of nearly a year’s worth of ISIS-directed plots against Western targets, the Paris and Sinai attacks seem less like a shift and more an indication of strategic continuity. These two attacks mark a shift not in intention but in outcome. However, if ISIS continues to lose ground in Syria and Iraq—as it has done lately—it may undertake a strategic shift of another variety, investing more resources in terrorist attacks to maintain its image of victory and momentum.

ISIS has several goals in attacking the West. There is no question its competition with al-Qaeda for supremacy over the global jihadist movement has factored into ISIS’s strategic calculus. By carrying out high-profile attacks against Western targets, ISIS can increase its appeal to jihadist foot soldiers and impatient affiliates who may be tiring of al-Qaeda’s strategic patience and pragmatism. In the days following the Paris attacks, ISIS released at least two videos directed at supporters of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, both of which highlighted ISIS’s attacks as a reason that AQAP members should join its ranks. In considering U.S. policy toward Syria, it is important to understand not only ISIS’s posture but also al-Qaeda’s, as both are key players in that theater.