Abstract: Recent terrorist attacks suggest that the Islamic State has both the intent and capacity to strike its enemies outside Iraq and Syria. It may have been developing this capability for more than a year. But while the Islamic State may encourage acts of terrorism and even facilitate them, it is still primarily focused on state building. Nonetheless, with limited opportunity to increase the territory it controls, and being forced to retreat in some areas, the Islamic State’s leaders may see advantage in increasing their encouragement of overseas terrorism, even to the point of directing attacks, in order to demonstrate that the group continues to “endure and expand,” as its motto holds.
The terrorist assault on Paris on November 13, together with the coordinated suicide attacks in Beirut the previous day and the mid-air explosion that brought down a Russian airliner over the Sinai on October 31 suggest that the Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for these atrocities, has gone global. The string of recent international attacks raises new questions about the Islamic State’s capabilities and intentions as it faces increasing difficulties in the Levant. It also raises questions about the impact of such attacks on its supporters, such as the husband-and-wife team that killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California, on December 2.
By its very nature, the Islamic State is a global organization, or at least one that does not define itself by geographical boundaries. It claims to represent a faith rather than a people or a territory and to reject political divides, as it so clearly demonstrated when it bulldozed the berm that separated Syria and Iraq in June 2014. It demands the support of all Muslims, wherever they are. And in addition to appealing to their sense of victimhood and other key motivators, it draws on well-established, end-of-times prophecies to present an illusion of historical inevitability.
At the same time, however, the Islamic State must operate in the real world. It faces many enemies and it has begun to knock up against the natural limits of its expansion among Sunni Arabs and within the political, ethnic, and sectarian divides of the Levant. These are the areas where a Sunni Arab majority gives way to a Kurdish or non-Sunni Arab majority, or where a competing Sunni Arab group is too strong. Such boundaries present what appear to be firm obstacles to the Islamic State’s territorial ambition.
Dependent on Victories
Even though it represents an idea, the Islamic State depends on military victories for its survival. Unless it can demonstrate that it is true to its motto of enduring and expanding,[a] it will begin to look like just another failed enterprise, albeit a dramatic one, however much its propaganda urges otherwise. And if its expansion and endurance are constrained in the Levant, it must look elsewhere to keep alive the myth of its unstoppable progress. The desire for vengeance also influences the Islamic State’s strategy because the intervention of external powers causes its territory to contract, challenging its narrative of preordained success. Rather than merely lash out at its enemies, however, the Islamic State seeks to present itself as both powerful and deliberate.
In this respect, the Islamic State has two options: persuade other groups around the world to join its ranks on the basis of vaguely shared objectives or demonstrate its reach in other ways. The Islamic State’s efforts to expand have seen the accretion of new provinces in West and North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, but it has done little to increase its power. The Islamic State Wilayat of West Africa, for example, remains indistinguishable from its predecessor group Boko Haram; Wilayat Khorasan is more an expression of local Taliban rivalries than it is of an Islamic State expansion into South Asia. Only in Libya is there any suggestion of administrative cohesion and strategic cooperation between the province and the capital, and even here, local conditions make the expansion of doubtful endurance.
Demonstrating strength farther afield, in enemy territory, is an easier task than extending the boundaries of the Islamic State and risking their contraction. It may not be a tactic that defeats the enemy, but it is certainly one that helps persuade potential and actual supporters that the Islamic State is enduring. Overseas terrorism is an irresistible option for an organization that regards the whole world as a target and has no qualms about using extreme tactics.
Before the Paris attacks, there had been warnings from Western officials that the Islamic State had already tried to commit acts of terrorism against overseas targets, and continued to plot. But despite individual acts that may have been inspired by the Islamic State, none had been demonstrably organized and directed by the group’s leadership. Based on the information so far available, Paris would seem to have been more likely to have been directed than inspired, but in either case, it fits a pattern of activity that goes back to the Islamic State’s earliest days.
The Islamic State now hovers between being a terrorist organization that runs a state and being a state that sponsors terrorism. For its founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, this would be progress. Although his immediate aims were local, he had both regional and global ambitions. He wanted to build out from a base in Iraq to declare an Islamic state or emirate that would encompass the Levant, and by doing so accelerate progress toward the global apocalypse.
Zarqawi was a firm believer in Islamic eschatology, and it is his saying that adorns the masthead of the Islamic State’s English-language magazine Dabiq:
The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify—by Allah’s permission—until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.[b]
In holding this belief, Zarqawi tapped into widely held views among Muslims. A 2012 Pew survey showed that 55 percent of Iraqi Sunnis believed that they would witness in their lifetimes the return of the Mahdi, an event held to be a precursor to the end of times. In Tunisia, which has provided the Islamic State with more fighters than any other country outside Iraq and Syria,[c] this belief was shared by 67 percent of the population. Although the Shia tend to believe in apocalyptic prophecy more than do Sunnis, the idea of being in on the end the world, especially on the winning side, appears to be a powerful motivator for Islamic State supporters. Like al-Qa`ida before it, the Islamic State promotes the belief that the sooner Western (infidel) forces can be brought to engage the armies of the faithful in the battles that will lead to the second coming, the sooner the prophecies will be fulfilled. Overseas terrorist attacks can obviously accelerate this process.
Zarqawi’s approach was neatly illustrated, though with tragic consequences, in his first three major attacks in August 2003 on the United Nations offices in Baghdad, the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, and the Shia Imam Ali mosque in Najaf. They set the tone of violent sectarianism, emphatic rejection of the current world order, and vengeful confrontation with existing Arab regimes that also characterize the latest iteration of Zarqawi’s organization. They also set the tone for the use of terrorism as a tactic of war. But while Zarqawi was a man in a hurry and wanted as much mayhem as possible to intensify the battle and ensure the continued presence of foreign forces, circumstances have changed since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from combat operations in Iraq in August 2010.
Focus on State Building
While the Islamic State’s leaders promote the idea of the apocalypse, and would therefore welcome the return of U.S. soldiers back on the ground in large numbers, it accepts that the timing of the end of the world is uncertain. Accordingly, it must prepare for the event whenever it does occur. In addition, the Caliph has a responsibility to look after his people in the meantime. This explains why, judged both by its actions and its words, the Islamic State has been less interested in committing acts of global terrorism than it has been in building its state. A great deal of its propaganda has emphasized its administrative successes, backed by an efficient and effective military, rather than merely its gruesome brutality. It argues that it is the duty of all Muslims to migrate to the Caliphate to support these efforts at state building, and it is likely that this remains a prime objective, particularly as anecdotal evidence suggests that the Islamic State remains short of skilled workers.
But the tendency to resort to terrorism is deeply rooted in the Islamic State. The group’s ideology regards Islam not as a religion of peace, but of conquest, and jihad is about external violence rather than internal struggle. After its lightning advance across Iraq and the declaration of the caliphate in June 2014, the Islamic State met its first major setback with the loss of the Mosul Dam that August. This marked the first military intervention by outsiders as U.S. aircraft supported the advance of Kurdish peshmerga and proved decisive in their victory. It was just a month later that Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the Islamic State’s spokesperson and a man close to the leadership, delivered an impassioned diatribe against the United States and its partners, calling on supporters to attack them wherever they could, “especially the spiteful and filthy French,” in whatever way possible, and without further delay. The United States had got in the way of al-Baghdadi’s state-building project, and so deserved immediate retribution. But state-building remained his first priority.
The decision to punish the West more directly appears to have been made at about the time that the Islamic State began to look into directing terrorist attacks overseas, as well as inspiring them. It set up an overseas operations unit, probably under al-Adnani’s supervision. This would echo Anwar al-Awlaki’s joint role as both a mouthpiece for al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula and a planner and inspirer of overseas attacks. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the coordinator of the Paris attack cell, appears to have been an early member of this unit. He was already involved in overseas attack planning by January 2015, when the Belgian police disrupted a cell in Verviers. Judging by the amount of weapons and explosives the police found, the cell must have been preparing for some time, and the ferocity of a shoot-out in the main location that the police raided suggested a degree of training.
Two other failed attacks that have been linked to Abaaoud, one on a church in France in April 2015 and one on a train traveling from Belgium to France in August, involved operatives that had clearly received very little training.[d] These episodes raise the question of whether Abaaoud and others were trolling for possible accomplices or whether they were deliberately organizing a global terrorist capability on behalf of the Islamic State’s leadership. Abaaoud, for all his involvement in the Paris attacks, does not seem to have been an obvious candidate for a major role. His value appears to have been in finding and motivating the attackers rather than in designing a global terrorist strategy. At the former, he seems to have been worryingly adept, having recruited at least 15 people in the Verviers plot, and around 20 in connection with the Paris attacks, on top of the two earlier failed attacks.
Other events with an Islamic State link, for example Mehdi Nemmouche’s murder of four people outside the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014, do not conclusively demonstrate direction by the Islamic State. Nemmouche had earlier been in Syria where, according to a former hostage, he was a prison guard. Nemmouche was found with an Islamic State-style flag, but his terrorist instincts may well have prompted his joining the Islamic State rather than the other way round. Other lethal attacks, such as that in Copenhagen in February 2015, show still less direct connection, as does the shooting in San Bernardino, California, on December 2, 2015, despite the perpetrators in both attacks declaring allegiance to the Islamic State on their Facebook pages.
Abaaoud is not the only Islamic State resident who has promoted terrorist attacks abroad. An Australian, Mohammad Ali Baryalei, killed in territory held by the Islamic State in October 2014, and two Britons, Reyaad Khan and Junaid Hussein, both killed by airstrikes in August 2015, were all reported to have been encouraging terrorist attacks in their home countries. It is likely that there are others. But as far as is known, these initiatives were haphazard and lacked detailed operational planning and adequate security measures. They may have nudged the needle from inspired to encouraged, but their efforts still fell short of being directed by the Islamic State.
An invaluable study by Thomas Hegghammer and Petter Nesser of violent Islamist attacks in Western countries between January 2011 and June 2015 reveals that there was a marked increase in the number of attacks following al-Adnani’s call for action. The authors identified 30 plots with an Islamic State connection, 26 of them in the 12 months between July 2014 and June 2015, but only one of which, the Verviers plot, had clear links to the Islamic State during the planning stage. The Paris attacks also seem to have had clear links, while the San Bernardino attackers do not.
It may not matter much whether attacks are inspired or directed by the Islamic State if they result in the death and injuries seen in Paris or San Bernardino, but one factor makes this particularly important when trying to predict terrorist trends in the future. Most of the attackers in Paris had spent time in Syria, and some, like Abaaoud, had traveled to and from the region more than once. According to a recent tally, there are now at least 6,000 residents or citizens of Western countries who have at some point gone to Iraq or Syria to join the fighting, and in some countries half have already returned. This places an inordinate strain on law enforcement and security agencies that need to make some assessment of the threat they pose.
Furthermore, the future intentions of returnees will be unpredictable and hard to assess. They may well be susceptible to approaches for help from ex-comrades who have traveled from Islamic State territory to plan an overseas terrorist attack. Some may even be sent back to await such contact or remotely delivered orders before taking action. In fact, there are many possibilities along the spectrum between inspired and directed attacks.
The Islamic State, through its propaganda and in the tweeting of its followers, has often boasted of its plans to attack high-profile targets overseas such as Istanbul, London, Paris, Rome, Washington, D.C., and, most recently, New York City. It has threatened many other countries with the murder of their citizens, whether or not they are members of the U.S.-led coalition ranged against it, for example, China, Japan, and Norway. The Islamic State is as indiscriminate in its choice of enemies as it is in accepting their citizens as new recruits.
Although propaganda videos have shown foreign recruits burning their passports, and there is little evidence to suggest that anyone has joined the Islamic State to train as domestic terrorists rather than to seek a new life, or death, in Syria, these fresh enlistees represent an unmistakable and irresistible resource for an organization interested in global terrorism. In any case, not all recruits are able to fight on the battlefield, and those that are unskilled and have poor Arabic are sometimes more hindrance than help. Some recruits, faced with the squalor and discomfort of life in the Islamic State, may see more glory in copying the Paris attackers than dying in meaningless battles such as the failed attempt to capture Kobani, or in attacks on rival rebel groups.
According to the study quoted here, eight returning foreign fighters were involved in six of the 30 plots recorded as having a connection with the Islamic State. The Paris attack has added to that number, but as the study points out, this is an exceptionally small number compared to the total of Western foreign fighters who have gone to Syria, and it is still too early to predict how the percentage may grow. One thing is certain, however. The Islamic State will continue to evolve, and its leaders will not hesitate to promote global terrorism if they see advantage in doing so. Indeed, they may have made that decision already.
Richard Barrett is a former British diplomat and intelligence officer who from March 2004 to December 2012 led the al-Qa`ida and Taliban Monitoring Team at the United Nations. Since 2013, he has been a senior vice president with The Soufan Group, a security consultancy in New York. He is also an advisor to several non-governmental organizations that deal with violent extremism. You can follow him @rmdbarrett
[a] Islamic State supporters customarily shout baqiya wa tatamaddad (enduring and expanding) when the Islamic State is mentioned.
[b] A village in northern Syria supposedly identified by the Prophet Mohammed as the scene of a future battle between the forces of good and evil.
[c] Estimated informally at around 6,000 by the Tunisian authorities in September 2014.
[d] The church attacker shot himself in the leg; the train attacker was overpowered while trying to reload his weapon.
 Thomas Joscelyn, “Islamic State video congratulates Sinai ‘province’ for downing Russian airliner,” Threat Matrix, Long War Journal, November 6, 2015.
 Yasmeen Abutaleb and Rory Carroll, “Islamic State claims California mass killers as followers,” Reuters, December 6, 2015. The Californian couple were described in an Islamic State broadcast on December 5 as “followers” in Arabic (on al-Amaq), but “soldiers” in the English version (on al-Bayan).
 “Paris Through the Eyes of An IS Supporter,” Posted on www.religionfactor.net, November 24, 2015.
 For example, Andrew Parker, “MI5 today and our challenges tomorrow,” MI5, September 15, 2015.
 See for example, Will McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State (New York, St Martin’s Press, 2015), p. 97.
 Pew Research Center, “The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity,” Chapter 3: Articles of Faith, August 9, 2012.
 “The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity,” Chapter 3: Articles of Faith.
 See, for example, Paul Cruickshank, and Tim Lister, “Foreign Legion in Iraq and Syria may bring jihad to West,” CNN, June 17, 2014, which cites Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s threat to the United States from January, 19, 2014 “Very soon you will be in direct confrontation—you will be forced to do so Allah permitting.”
 Charlie Winter, The Virtual ‘Caliphate’: Understanding the Islamic State’s Propaganda Strategy (Quilliam, 2015).
 Ben Hubbard, “ISIS Promise of Statehood Falling Far Short, Ex-Residents Say,” New York Times, December 1, 2015.
 McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse, p. 97.
 Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, “Indeed Your Lord Is Ever Watchful”, Islamic State, September 22, 2014.
 Michael Weiss, “The confessions of an ISIS spy,” The Daily Beast November 15–18, 2015.
 Rukmini Callimachi, Karin Bennhold, and Laure Fourquet, “How the Paris Attackers Honed Their Assault Through Trial and Error,” New York Times, November 30, 2015.
 Callimachi, Bennhold, and Fourquet, “How the Paris Attackers Honed Their Assault Through Trial and Error”; “Europe’s Jihadists: What the Paris Attacks Tell Us about IS Strategy,” Der Spiegel Online, November 27, 2015.
 Robert Mendick, Duncan Gardham, and David Chazan, “Brussels museum shooting suspect ‘was Syria hostage torturer,’” Telegraph, September 6, 2015.
 Chris Johnston, “One dead and three injured in Copenhagen ‘terrorist attack,’” Guardian, February 14, 2015.
 Michael S. Schmidt, “San Bernardino Gunwoman Pledged Allegiance to ISIS, Officials Say,” New York Times, December 5, 2015.
 Rachel Olding, “Australian Islamic State kingpin Mohammad Ali Baryalei dead: reports,” Sydney Morning Herald, October 29, 2014.
 “Cardiff jihadist Reyaad Khan, 21, killed by RAF drone,” BBC, September 7, 2015.
 Spencer Ackerman, Ewen MacAskill, and Alice Ross, “Junaid Hussain: British hacker for Isis believed killed in US air strike,” Guardian, August 27, 2014.
 Thomas Hegghammer and Petter Nesser, “Assessing the Islamic State’s Commitment to Attacking the West,” Perspectives on Terrorism (9:4 2015).
 “Foreign Fighters, an updated assessment of the flow of foreign fighters into Syria and Iraq,” The Soufan Group, December 2015.
 Clint Watts, “What Paris Taught Us About The Islamic State,” War On The Rocks, November 16, 2015.
 Andrew Buncombe, Justin Carissimo, “Isis threatens New York with ‘new video’ featuring Times Square,” Independent, November 19, 2015.
 The 12th issue of Dabiq revealed the deaths of a Chinese and a Norwegian prisoner. Two Japanese prisoners were earlier shown beheaded.
 Hegghammer and Nesser.