The self-proclaimed Islamic State has claimed attacks in France, Germany, and beyond this summer. At the same time, the group is losing territory in Iraq and Syria to local forces backed by a U.S.-led coalition. But battlefield success won’t eliminate the threat, says New York Times journalist Rukmini Callimachi, who has closely tracked the Islamic State. After the Islamic State loses its territorial holdings, “the group will go back to what al-Qaeda is today: an ideological group that is still plotting against the West,” she says. “That can continue forever.”
A spate of attacks in Europe and the United States have featured last-minute professions of allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Some analysts are pushing back against the frequent characterization of these attackers as "lone wolves." How should we understand this phenomenon?
The term “lone wolf” implies that the person is acting alone. Counterterrorism officials say that the only real lone wolf in the history of American and European terrorism was probably the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. He came up with all of those ideas. He had no accomplices. He was not in touch with anybody.
ISIS is a very different kind of terrorism. At a minimum, the people carrying out these acts have been imbibing the group’s ideology and propaganda. They get that propaganda pushed out through secret Telegram [messaging app] channels. To get on those channels, you have to be part of the network. It’s hard to believe that somebody could find them accidentally.
In the first days after an attack, when coverage is most intense, officials typically haven’t been able to pursue all the leads yet. They haven’t been able to assess the phone numbers in the person’s cell phone or download his laptop’s database. So in their initial declarations, an official will say that they see no greater links to the Islamic State.
“[ISIS] leaders are preparing subjects of the caliphate, and their virtual subjects, for the possible loss of the territory.”
When officials announce what they’ve found months later, we don’t tend to go back and correct the record, at least not in a page-one fashion, A good example of that is the Thalys train shooter [in France in August 2015]. Luckily for the passengers, his weapon jammed, and he was then tackled by U.S. servicemen who were on vacation. He was described as a lone wolf. It wasn’t until after the November 13 attacks [in Paris] that French officials declared that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who was the on-the-ground commander of attacks on behalf of the Islamic State, had been in direct contact with the Thalys shooter, [identified as Ayoub El-Khazzani]. He was just the opposite of a lone wolf; he was in touch with one of the highest-ranking members of ISIS’s external operations branch.
With the hindsight of time, more and more of these attacks—especially ones that feature the release of a pledge of allegiance to Baghdadi, and, [in some cases,] video sent to the Islamic State before the act of terror—will appear different than they were described in their initial hours.
The Islamic State has called for its followers to attack countries that participate in the U.S.-led coalition carrying out military operations against it. These attacks, however, only seem to reaffirm these countries' commitments to the campaign. What is the group’s real objective in calling for these attacks?
There is a contradiction I don’t quite know how to parse: On the one hand, I think that they are egging on the West and want us to intervene. They believe in this end-of-times prophecy that when the Romans set foot in Dabiq, which is in Syria and under their control now, it will essentially lead to the apocalypse and a rejiggering of world powers so that the Islamic caliphate is ascendant. But, on the other hand, in practically every statement, they say that these attacks are in retaliation for our air strikes. They want to give Westerners, and, really, everybody outside of their entity the sense that they are everywhere, that they could strike at any moment, and that we’re not safe.
How do you account for the movement transcending all sorts of geographic and cultural borders?
The propaganda is beyond sophisticated; it’s so of the moment. They use the latest techniques and ideas in their visual vocabulary. Members of the group think that that’s what living in the caliphate must be like. They don’t understand that for every one of these beheading videos and videos showing convoys of cars, they probably did fifty takes before they got the imagery right.
“The propaganda is beyond sophisticated; it’s so of the moment.”
People can understand that propaganda tries to show something in a much better light, just as we understand that a Hollywood movie does not represent reality. But people latch on because they seem to have something missing in their life. You speak to gang members, for example, who talk about how entering the military allowed them to straighten themselves out. I’ve spoken to more jihadists than I can count who talk like that. They’ve done time for burglary or whatever and then they find this ideology, and suddenly right and wrong is black and white. Everything is what Allah and the Prophet say; there’s no middle ground. They can turn to ideological leaders for pretty much every decision they would make in their daily life. There’s relief in that.
But what’s lacking in that explanation is that you also have people on the other end of the spectrum. The Washington Post recently profiled a young man who joined the Islamic State who had gone to Columbia [University]. The BBC and AFP just reported about how the most recent suicide bomber for al-Shabab—al-Qaeda’s East African wing—was a former member of the Somali parliament. The Bangladeshi attackers in the café siege last month came from affluent families and had gone to elite boarding schools. This ideology has perplexed analysts, who can’t seem to figure out the profile.
ISIS no longer has the aura of unstoppable momentum it had when it swept up Iraqi territory in 2014. Are its territorial losses in the Middle East taking a toll?
“When they’re pushed back, they go back to what they’ve always been, an idea that continues to enrapture a not insignificant number of young people who are willing to give up their lives in the name of the cause.”
It has an effect on morale. Their leaders are preparing subjects of the caliphate, and their virtual subjects, for the possible loss of the territory. Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, the ISIS spokesman, in his last statement before the start of Ramadan, alludes to the idea of the caliphate as being "something in our hearts." He seems to be suggesting that the territorial caliphate might end.
Right now, the policy objective [of the U.S.-led coalition] is to take back territory—Raqqa, Mosul, Libya. But that isn’t a panacea. Once we get to that point, the group will go back to what al-Qaeda is today: an ideological group that is still plotting against the West, but does not necessarily hold any great piece of land. They’ve held land in different places, and when they’re pushed back, they go back to what they’ve always been, an idea that continues to enrapture a not insignificant number of young people who are willing to give up their lives in the name of the cause. That can continue forever.
Some analysts say this spate of attacks in Europe and beyond is in response to the battlefield setbacks the Islamic State is facing in Iraq and Syria.
The explanation that’s in vogue right now is that because they’re being squeezed in Iraq and Syria, they’re lashing out. The data just doesn’t add up. Fighters sent directly from the core, trained in explosives and firearms, began to return to Europe in the first months of 2014, before [coalition] air strikes started, and before the group had even declared a caliphate.
What’s happened is that between 2014 and 2016 they’ve gotten a lot better at what they’re doing. They became much more rigorous about their operational security, to the point where authorities have been able so far to identify where only two of the November 13 attackers [in Paris] came from. We know that the two Stade de France bombers entered [the EU] on October 3, on Leros Island in Greece, but we still can’t figure out how Abaaoud or the Bataclan [concert hall] attackers slipped back in.
Do attacks like these represent a new normal?
In Europe, the best analysts that I speak to are saying as much. Jean-Charles Brisard, [a counterterrorism consultant] who works in Paris, said that it’s really an Israel-type situation. The population, at a certain point, has to realize that these high-intensity but irregular events are going to keep happening. If you compare them to car accidents or other more common occurrences, the numbers of casualties pale. But events like November 13 are incredibly frightening for a city that is used to a high level of security.
Meanwhile, there’s pressure on Western governments to rebut Islamic State propaganda. Do you see such efforts as having the potential to deter would-be jihadis?
Counternarratives coming from government voices are quickly batted down by ISIS and groups like it as propaganda from an infidel government. What I think is much more powerful is the use of former members of the group.
There’s an example in Canada, Mubin Shaikh, who traveled as far as the Af-Pak region years ago to meet the Taliban. He pulled himself out, and he now works with the Canadian Mounted Police. I’ve seen him debate these people on Twitter. He can say to them, “I used to believe what you’re saying, and let me tell you why you’re wrong.” He’ll come at them with scripture—with different readings of the Hadith and the Quran that just throw these people. That’s much more convincing than something like the State Department, [through its strategic communications efforts,] saying, “this is not Islam.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.