Leaderless Jihad

The bombing of a London District line at the Parsons Green station, falls within a long series of terror attacks claimed by the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) in the UK. The most recent spat of violence reflects a reversal of ISIS, from ambitioned state building, to a leaderless Jihad.

In 2008 , Marc Sagemen predicted that in the post-September 11 world, al-Qaeda would no longer be a central organizing force that aids or condones terrorist attacks, but a source of inspiration for terrorist across the world.

Sageman’s prediction applies today to ISIS. The organization, which ruled in the summer of 2014 over 30 percent of Iraq and 35 percent of Syria has been decimated by operations by the Iraqi army, the US-led coalition, and more recently by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, including the Russians and the Iranians. In a tweet on September 15, ISIS expert Hisham Hashemi estimated that the organization counted two thousand militants in Hawija in Iraq, one thousand in west Iraq, one thousand in Syrian Raqqa, and nine thousand in the Syrian Euphrates area. More importantly, US-backed Syrian democratic forces captured over 90 percent of its capital, Raqqa, in the last few days. The natural devolution of ISIS was underlined by a significant decentralization of its European campaigns in 2016 as pointed out by a previous entry on this blog. Today, ISIS is further surrendering its terror campaign to inspired individuals or small cells with little or no link with the central organization, the latter morphing into a leaderless jihad.  

The Parsons Green attack was preceded by several others targeting the United Kingdom. In June, three men unleashed terror on the London Bridge, killing at least seven people and wounding dozens, mowing pedestrians, before going on a stabbing rampage. In May, a suicide bomber attacked a concert arena in the city of Manchester, killing 22 people. In March, a driver pummeled pedestrians on Westminster Bridge in London, before trying to break into Parliament.

While, all of these attacks were conveniently claimed by ISIS, the eclectic profile of the attackers foretold another story. Among the June attackers, Khuram Shazad Butt was known to the police and MI5, yet no intelligence pointed to an attack. Others were not known to police. The Westminster attacker was a fifty-two year old Lakid Massod, who had convictions for offences including assault and possession of weapons, and also was investigated some years ago by Britain’s domestic spy agency MI5, but was “not part of the current intelligence picture.” Most of the six suspects arrested in Parsons Green were very young, two were 17, one 18 another 21 and a fifth 25. Two of them were refugees. However, Europol has warned that while some refugees could be vulnerable to ISIS propaganda, no direct link has been found.

ISIS as highly a structured and hierarchical organization appears to now be a thing of the past. With a large number of ISIS leaders killed, captured or forced to flee, the ISIS military campaign in Europe is increasingly reliant on a caliphate of the mind that survives through anashid, videos, articles, and telegram channels as well as other media propaganda tool that aim at bolstering the resolve of disenfranchised youth.

Before his death in 2016, ISIS spokesman, Abu Muhammed Adnani, urged the group’s sympathizers to use whatever means at their disposal to attack Western civilians. “Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him.”

Adnani’s speech was without a doubt inspired by al-Qaeda ideologue, Abu Musab Suri, known for his infamous manifesto, “A Call to a Global Islamic Resistance.”

Suri argued in 2004, “it is no longer possible to operate by the methods of the old model, through the ‘secret—regional—hierarchical’ organizations, especially after the September 11 events. We need to concentrate the research on the method of the open fronts, and the method of individual jihadi operational activity.”

Suri’s ultimate open front could be interpreted as ISIS establishment of the caliphate, yet with the loss of territory, the group appears to have reverted to the ideologue’s ‘individual jihad.’

The latter, explained Suri, made it possible “for a single individual to act, whether he wants to operate, completely alone…or in a very small brigade of a few men and friends who have confidence in each other.”

Suri believed that these independent operatives—whether self-radicalized or assisted by recruiters on the Web—would target Western civilians in an effort to sow chaos and terror and achieve military, security, and Daawa success. Military success was achieved by wreaking fear in the enemies’ heart, while security success was achieved when spontaneous operations performed by individuals placed international intelligence apparatuses in a state of confusion. Dawaa success was measured by the “great influence on awakening the spirit of jihad and resistance within the ummah,” said Suri.

ISIS is tabling on this ummah to survive. Without a doubt, the organization is being decimated and has lost a lof of its appeal in its home turf. According to a piece published by the Washington Institute, a recent poll has shown that more than half of Sunnis, ISIS natural constituency in Iraq and especially those who were living under the organization, believed that Iraq was going in the right direction. More than 70 percent of Sunnis had favorable attitudes toward PM Haidar Abadi and 50 percent of Sunnis in general and 53 percent of those who lived under ISIS control supported a second term for Abadi.

Yet ISIS virtual campaigns, appealing and executed by a very small minority of disaffected people in the west, is an attempt by the organization to remain alive, if not as a caliphate, or structureal insurgency, as a social movement combating a much hated western and secular nation state.

Mona Alami is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Photo: An Islamic State flag hangs on the wall of an abandoned building in Tel Hamis in Hasaka countryside after the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) took control of the area March 1, 2015. Kurdish forces dealt a blow to Islamic State by capturing Tel Hamis, an important town, on Friday in the latest stage of a powerful offensive in northeast Syria, a Kurdish militia spokesman said. The capture of Tel Hamis was announced by the Kurdish YPG militia and confirmed by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the country's civil war. REUTERS/Rodi Said