The ISIS pivot and international campaign is well underway, and once again producing deadly results. With money, equipment and encouragement to sustain its mission, ISIS long ago dispatched experienced fighters from its stronghold in Iraq and Syria, while simultaneously inspiring radicalized, homegrown extremist attacks from within Western countries. Among the many violent methods recommended by the late ISIS spokesman, Abu Mohammed Adnani, was a specific call in September 2014 for acolytes to attack “disbelieving Westerners,” and to “run [them] over with your car.”
On Thursday, Barcelona became the latest site of a vehicle-ramming terrorist attack — one apparently associated with the world’s most threatening terrorist organization. Complex attacks on aircraft, airports, cafes, metro stations and music halls demand robust planning and coordination. But vehicle-ramming attacks present far fewer barriers to success, and they offer minimal opportunities for police and intelligence services to disrupt them.
In a statement released by its media wing, Amaq, ISIS called the Barcelona attackers “soldiers of the Islamic State,” though it is yet unconfirmed whether there was direct support from ISIS leaders, or whether these attackers simply acted on inspiration from ISIS propaganda. But with at least 4,000 Europeans having traveled to join the formerly Iraq-based Al Qaeda affiliate since 2012 — and with countless others back in Europe motivated by ISIS’s call to battle — this attack is very likely to be laid at the feet of the so-called “Islamic State.”
As ISIS reels in the wake of personnel and territorial losses across its self-declared caliphate — at one time covering territory as large as Jordan and straddling Iraq and Syria — it is transforming into a global insurgency with a less identifiable and targetable center of gravity. The terrorist group’s current messaging speaks of retribution and revenge for battlefield losses. And well-before key defeats in Mosul, Dabiq, Fallujah and other cities previously swallowed by ISIS, the group sent forward skilled fighters and resources to expand its international campaign.
Set to bolster these forces are hundreds and perhaps thousands of the 40,000 foreign fighters that converged in Syria, Iraq, and Libya from 120 source countries, including several in Europe. And joining the ranks are an unknown number of local individuals (with no battlefield experience but a surfeit of anger and motivation) seeking a role in ISIS’s global assault.
We have already witnessed the impact of this battlefield transition. Since May 23, some 500 militants — among them 80 foreign fighters from Yemen, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and India — have battled the Philippine military in Marawi, Mindanao, in support of the brutal, indigenous Abu Sayyaf Group and the Maute Group. This incident, displacing 40,000 civilians thus far, will not be a one-off. More fighters, both inspired homegrown extremists and those trained and sharpened by battle abroad, will continue to perpetrate a range of attacks from vehicle-borne assaults to more complex attacks on multiple targets. Many cities ill-prepared for highly-skilled and motivated terrorists will fall victim to these plans.
The challenge before us is multidimensional, costly and, frankly, bewildering and unlikely to be successful in the short term, given that there is not yet a serious effort to pursue non-military approaches to counterterrorism. These approaches include greater resourcing for countering violent extremism across communities at risk, improved counter-terrorism practices and support to law enforcement and intelligence services, more effective counter-messaging, better coordination and information sharing within and across countries both targeted and transited by terrorist groups, and improved constriction of terrorist funding.
Finally, nations and communities must commit attention and resources to improving socio-economic development, education and governance, while reducing sectarianism, corruption, and treating the demographic and environmental stresses that make membership in, support to, or unsought rule by terrorist groups a long-term feature of the world stage. A failure to do so will — with certainty — lead to more attacks like the one today in Spain.
Thomas M. Sanderson is a senior fellow and director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has conducted field research in 70 countries, testified before Congress, and has served as a consultant for the U.S. government and private sector on terrorism, geopolitics and global threats.
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