Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1340, (13 - 19 April 2017)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1340, (13 - 19 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

IS expands its terror campaign

Under pressure in its Iraqi and Syrian heartlands, the Islamic State group is planning to step up its terror campaign in other parts of the world, writes Emad Awwad

There is no doubt that the intensification of military operations aimed at putting an end to the so-called Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq and Syria poses multiple questions. Would the world be safer in the event of the group’s eviction from these two countries? What will be the impact of the ongoing military operations in Iraq and Syria on the countries participating in the war against IS?

Facing huge military pressure to oust its combatants from what remains of its self-claimed territory in Iraq and Syria, IS is now expanding its operations outside these countries. Once more it is counting on its skills in communication, its combatants and allies in different countries, and those who are affected by its propaganda throughout the world, in order to allow it to do so.

Looking at recent communications issued by the group, one can distinguish three complementary methods aiming at opening up new areas of confrontation.

The first is the group’s campaign against Muslim clerics who oppose it from a religious point of view. In February, IS launched an organised campaign against prominent Muslim clerics in the Arab world and the West who it accuses of “collaboration” with the Arab regimes it opposes and with the International Coalition that is combating the group.

The campaign, entitled “Fight the Imams of Unbelief”, explicitly targets senior figures such as Saudi chief mufti Abdel-Aziz Al-Sheikh, former Egyptian mufti Ali Gomaa, and the Iraqi and Syrian chief muftis, as well as popular preachers on Arab satellite TV channels such as the Saudi preacher Mohamed Al-Arifi. Prominent Muslim clerics in the West have also not been excluded, and IS has issued two videos attacking them as “clerics of evil” and accusing them of serving “apostate regimes and justifying attacks on Muslims”.           

These communications represent a radical change in IS propaganda. While in the past the group used to criticise such religious personalities, its latest messages have made their killing a priority “even if that requires targeting them in their homes among their families” for they are “the loyal soldiers and servants of the crusader coalition”, the videos say.

If such violent messages reach their targets, it may mean that one should now expect attacks against prominent Sunni clerics carried out by IS agents. In calling for such attacks IS seems to be seeking to deepen the instability in the region and to provoke armed engagement against it on the part of more of the world’s Muslim countries.

The second new development is the sectarian atrocities that the group has started to engage in several Arab countries, among them Egypt. In December 2016, IS claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing at Cairo’s main cathedral and threatened more attacks against Christians in Egypt. Two months later, it was the turn of the group’s “Sinai Province”, previously known as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis which pledged allegiance to IS in 2014, to take the lead. In February, fighters affiliated to this group released a video vowing to increase attacks against Copts and inciting fear in the Coptic community.

Hundreds of Copts fled their homes in Sinai after seven Copts were killed over a period of 21 days in deadly shooting and arson attacks. An estimated 150 families, or more than 400 people, began arriving at the Suez Canal city of Ismailia near to Arish seeking refuge. This string of attacks in northern Sinai against Coptic Christians is an indication of IS attempts to undermine the Egyptian government and to push the country into a heightened state of alert.

The third development has taken place at the international level in the shape of IS defiance of the US-led international coalition. It seems that the group’s priority is to remain present as a threat, and it has been trying to sow destabilisation in Europe in the hope of triggering domestic conflict. Could radical elements already present in Western countries, some of them acting as “lone wolves”, trigger such conflict in Europe? The Stockholm terrorist attack on 7 April was the latest in a long series of such attacks and came after trucks were used in IS-inspired terror attacks in Nice and Berlin last year and almost 10 days after the attack in London.

Russia has not been excluded from this scenario, as the metro attack in Saint Petersburg at a time when the Russian president was present in the city was also full of ominous significance.

On 5 April, IS sympathisers released an audio recording over 30 minutes long of the group’s official spokesperson, Abi Al-Hassan Al-Muhajir, condemning forces attempting to oust the group from what remain of its territory in Iraq and Syria. He took particular aim at the US, which leads the international coalition fighting the group, and the message contained the first remarks by the group referring to US President Donald Trump since he took office in January. It came almost two months after Trump’s signature of an executive order giving US defence chiefs 30 days to come up with a plan to smash IS and one day after his clear support for Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in his fight against the terrorist group.

The IS recording said that the “US is being run by an idiot,” in a reference to President Trump, and Al-Muhajir also praised the recent terrorist attacks in Europe and called on IS followers to carry out further attacks in the US, Russia and the EU in order to relieve the pressure on the group in Iraq and Syria. The address was preceded by a “kill list” of 8,786 Americans the group has targeted.

In the light of this, one can conclude that IS intends to continue its campaign at different levels. The loss of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, its last major stronghold in Iraq, does not mean that the group will disappear and that victory over it has been achieved. On the contrary, it may mark the beginning of a new phase during which the group will go underground and consequently be more difficult to combat.

During the 34th Conference of the Ministers of the Interior of Arab States held in Tunis last week, it was stressed that combating terrorism and extremist ideas required a comprehensive plan that would target all aspects of the phenomenon. This is now even more important given IS plans to expand its activities outside its Iraqi and Syrian heartlands.

The writer is a former diplomat specialising in Middle Eastern affairs. He has taught at universities in Egypt and abroad and has published widely in Europe and the Arab world.

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