Does ISIS Direct Attacks or Inspire Them?—And Why That Matters

Two analyses come to radically different conclusions about how the Islamic State seeks to cause violence in Europe and the United States.


Do the Paris attacks mean that the Islamic State (ISIS) has managed to slip endless numbers of foreign agents and terrorists in Western countries unable or unwilling to harden their borders? Or is the jihadist group actually focusing on would-be terrorists who by and large live in their home countries and perhaps never roam far from home?

Either (or both) scenario is plausible with regard to the Paris attacks. According to USA Today, six of the eight men involved in the attacks have been apprehended or killed, and they are a mix of French and Syrian nationals.

And two recent analyses of how ISIS operates suggest that home-grown terror is more likely than it coming from foreign agents.

Writing at The Guardian, anthropologist Scott Atran (who teaches in France, England, and the U.S.), writes that ISIS is not simply a group of madmen seizing whatever opportunities allow them to cause mayhem and murder. Rather, he notes there is a specific manifesto, The Management of Savagery (published online in 2004), that guides the group's thoughts and actions as it seeks to create a new caliphate based on a seemingly medieval form of Islam.. There are also highly considered recruitment strategies and even a specific vision for social change and a utopian endpoint that isn't only about rolling back modernity:

Simply treating Isis as a form of "terrorism" or "violent extremism" masks the menace. Merely dismissing it as "nihilistic" reflects a wilful and dangerous avoidance of trying to comprehend, and deal with, its profoundly alluring moral mission to change and save the world. And the constant refrain that Isis seeks to turn back history to the Middle Ages is no more compelling than a claim that the Tea Party movement wants everything the way it was in 1776. The truth is more complicated. As Abu Mousa, Isis's press officer in Raqqa, put it: "We are not sending people back to the time of the carrier pigeon. On the contrary, we will benefit from development. But in a way that doesn't contradict the religion."

Atran argues that the West opens itself up to ISIS in two different ways. First, slack economies and ongoing anxieties over the shrinking middle class soften the groud for recruiting new, disaffected youth from Muslim backgrounds. It's not about jobs per se or even assimilation, according to Atran, but a more generalized sense that there is no bright future on the horizon and that if they were, they were be excluded from it. Second, the xenophobia and resentment against Islam adds a sense of allure and projected identity with groups such as ISIS.

What inspires the most uncompromisingly lethal actors in the world today is not so much the Qur'an or religious teachings. It's a thrilling cause that promises glory and esteem. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: fraternal, fast-breaking, glorious, cool – and persuasive.

A July 2014 ICM poll suggested that more than one in four French youth between the ages of 18 and 24 have a favourable or very favourable opinion of Isis, although only 7-8% of France is Muslim. It's communal. More than three of every four who join Isis from abroad do so with friends and family. Most are young, in transitional stages in life: immigrants, students, between jobs and mates, having just left their native family. They join a "band of brothers (and sisters)" ready to sacrifice for significance.

Read the whole thing here.

Over at the website for the Terrorism Research Initiative, Thomas Hegghammer and Petter Nasser, look at the Islamic State statements, videos, speeches, and other materials about attacks and attempted attacks that took place between 2011 and mid-2015 in Europe and North America. After examining the data, they conclude that

IS [Islamic State] appears to have had a decentralized attack strategy based on encouraging sympathiser attacks while not mounting centrally directed operations of their own. There have also been more plots involving only IS sympathisers than plots involving returned foreign fighters.

How does that break down in terms of numbers?

For this four and a half-year period, we identified a total of 69 plots; 37 in Europe, 25 in North America, and seven in Australia. Of these, 19 (28 %) came to execution; 12 in Europe, five in North America and two in Australia. The total number of plotters involved was about 120 (over 80 for Europe, over 30 in North America and nine in Australia).

We found reports of an IS connection in 30 of the 69 plots. Most of the IS-connected plots occurred in the last 12 months (from July 2014 through June 2015); of a total of 33 plots in this period, 26 (79 %) had an IS connection. As we shall see below, however, the connection in most cases consists of declared support for IS, not meetings or communications with IS cadres. In any case, these numbers suggest that Islamic State has surpassed al-Qaida as the main provider of inspiration for plots in the West.

Hegghammer and Nasser find that the number of Europeans who went to fight or train in the Middle East (especially Syria) and then come back to commit terror in their homelands is vanishingly small. It's on the order of "11 plotting returnees from an outgoing contingent of around 4,000."

They conclude that the most likely sort of ISIS-related plot in the West is properly understood as inspired by ISIS rather than directed or even coordinated by the group.

The authors note in passing that in terms of committing acts against the West, ISIS has outstripped Al Qaeda, but that the sort of actions are very different. Al Qaeda was more of a top-down organization, where ISIS has to date operated very differently in the West:

IS sympathiser plots represent a formidable challenge to Western security agencies. So far, there have been over twice as many IS sympathiser plots (22) as plots involving foreign fighters who returned from Syria (9). IS sympathiser plots admittedly tend to be small in scale, but they have an execution rate of almost 50% (10 of 22) compared to around 20% for other plots in the same period. The implication for counterterrorism professionals is clear: worry not only about the foreign fighters, but also about IS sympathisers who never made it to Syria.

Read the full paper here.

What are the implications for the United States, which is now hotly debating whether to let any (or more) Syrian refugees into the country (despite no single recorded act of terrorism by a refugee)?

The first and perhaps most important is that refugees shouldn't be the first place to look for likely terrorists. The people most likely to plan and attempt attacks are already here and, if the billions of dollars we spend every year on intelligence and law enforcement are even a bit well-spent, we probably have some idea of who they are already.