ISIS turns to lone wolves for Christmas attacks as caliphate crumbles

ISIS turns to lone wolves for Christmas attacks as caliphate crumbles
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The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has recently issued a series of threats against Christians corresponding to the upcoming Christmas holiday season.

The group published a propaganda poster calling upon its followers to attack the Vatican on Christmas. The poster reads “Christmas Blood” and features a jihadist driving a car towards St. Peter’s Basilica. Last week ISIS issued an additional threat to attack Christmas markets in Europe, with some of their disturbing imagery depicting Santa Claus with his hands bound and a jihadist standing behind him. 

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The recent succession of terror threats has led the Department of State to issue a travel warning for American citizens traveling to Europe during the upcoming holiday season. However, this is certainly not the first time that ISIS has threatened the Vatican or European sites. For the past several years ISIS has threatened to take their fight to Rome, and even publishes an online magazine Rumiyah (Rome) which is based on the hadith or statement attributed to Muhammad that Muslims would conquer Rome.

 

ISIS has a long track record of striking during the Christmas holidays. Indeed, last year Anis Amri, a Tunisian asylum seeker with an established criminal record, drove a truck into a crowded Berlin Christmas market killing 12 bystanders. But authorities have also disrupted several attempted plots. Last year counterterrorism agencies halted two separate plans to bomb Christmas events in both Britain and Belgium.

Even last week German authorities arrested six Syrian men suspected of planning a terror attack on a Christmas market. Although details of the arrest have yet to be released, German officials have already bolstered security surrounding Christmas markets this season. 

The United States is certainly not immune from the Islamic State’s goal of orchestrating holiday attacks. Last year the group released a hit list of thousands of prospective churches it urged its followers to attack in order to “turn the Christian New Year into a bloody horror movie.”

Holidays are an especially attractive time for terrorists to strike. First off, the multitude of crowded markets and religious gatherings increases the likelihood that an attack will yield a high casualty rate. Christmas festivities often draw large crowds that constitute a soft civilian target. Both the CIA and experts at RAND have long recognized that terrorist groups attempt to coordinate their attacks with holidays and key anniversary dates. It is therefore not surprising that Tom Ridge, the first U.S. secretary of Homeland Security, once emphasized the importance of bolstering counterterror measures during the Christmas holidays.

Islamist terrorists also seek to strike during the Christmas holiday because they recognize the emotional and symbolic impact that a terrorist attack would have on a public’s psyche. Indeed, in the aftermath of the failed Christmas day airline bombing in 2009 the Yemen-based al Qaeda cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, justified the attack on the American people by recognizing that Christmas is “the holiest and most sacred days to you.”

Attacks that occur during the holiday season also tend to generate a great deal of media attention. Obtaining publicity is a critical goal of terrorists who seek to highlight their political grievances and objectives. But perhaps more importantly in the case of ISIS, media attention bestows a degree of legitimacy upon terrorists. 

Media coverage of an attack and the subsequent reactions of government officials signal the importance of a terrorist group and its ability to influence the policy decisions of powerful nations. In fact, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once remarked that publicity is the oxygen of terrorist organizations.

On the other hand, the proliferation of graphic propaganda posters may be interpreted as a sign of weakness. ISIS is on the defensive in both Iraq and Syria where they have lost significant territory to counterterrorism forces. Its so-called “caliphate” is crumbling. Moreover, experts have suggested that ISIS is quickly losing access to critical financial resources and U.S. officials claim that nearly 75 percent of its fighters have been killed in recent campaigns. 

A reliance on inspiring lone-wolf operatives can therefore be interpreted as a signal that a terrorist group is weakening and unable to conduct large-scale attacks on its own. The State Department’s acting coordinator for counterterrorism seems to agree, suggesting that the Islamic State’s urgent appeal for lone-wolf adherents to rise up and strike their home countries is an “acknowledgment of the more difficult environment.”

The Islamic State’s recent calls for followers to strike this holiday season may therefore be regarded as a sign of desperation and signal its inability to conduct more sophisticated operations itself. Indeed, John Miller, the NYPD's deputy commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism, has described the Islamic State’s recent threats as being more akin to “psychological warfare.” 

This is not to suggest, however, that ISIS does not constitute a viable threat. Indeed, law enforcement and counterterrorism agencies need to be on high alert this holiday season for a potential attack. Lone-wolf attacks can be notoriously difficult for intelligence agencies to anticipate since some radicalized individuals rarely have direct contact with a terrorist group’s command structure.

In fact, some security officials concede that they have no way of stopping radicalized individuals who may heed the Islamic State’s call to take action. The recent succession of Christmas threats through propaganda posters also suggests that ISIS has managed to retain a robust social media campaign despite significant organizational losses. Above all, it should be stressed that ISIS continues to maintain a significant footprint in territory outside of Iraq and Syria.

Overall, the recent spate of threats to attack during the upcoming holiday are significant and should be taken seriously by law enforcement agencies. It is essential that security experts remain vigilant during the upcoming Christmas holiday and closely scrutinize their list of radicalized individuals who are most likely to heed the Islamic State’s call for violence. Indeed, one of the most tragic lessons learned from last year’s attack on the Berlin Christmas market was that the attack could have been prevented. Similar mistakes must not be repeated this year. 

Jeffrey Treistman, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of national security at the University of New Haven. Treistman previously worked for the U.S. Department of State as a policy advisory in Baghdad, Iraq and was a consultant for the Department of Defense’s African Command.