Daesh in Europe: From Caliphate to Transnational Terror Threat

August 2, 2016
Daesh in Europe: From Caliphate to Transnational Terror Threat
Scott Englund
Scott Englund Non-Resident Fellow, Counter-terrorism

TRENDS, in cooperation with ICSR, King’s College, London recently organized a conference titled “ISIS in Europe”, held in London on 28-29 July, 2016.

An elderly priest moves through the rites of the Catholic mass as it has been done in his Normandy church for over four hundred years.  A small flock of faithful attend the Tuesday morning service.  Without warning, two young men enter the sanctuary and force the eighty-six year old priest to his knees and slit his throat.  The attackers are killed by French police as they leave the church.  Within hours, Daesh (aka Islamic State, or ISIS/ISIL) counts the murderers among their own “soldiers” and praised them for the brutal attack on an unarmed octogenarian priest in a sanctified space.  This attack is the latest in a string of attacks in Europe carried out in the name of the so-called Islamic State.

In Nice, a Tunisian-born French citizen drove a truck through a crowd gathered for French Bastille Day celebrations, killing over eighty and injuring 300 more; Daesh takes credit for the violence not long after.  A Syrian asylum seeker detonated an explosive outside a music festival in Ansbach, Germany, killing only himself, but injuring at least twelve; the carnage would have been much greater, but he was not allowed to enter the music festival venue itself.  A video is found in his home later in which he pledges allegiance to Daesh and states that the attack was an “act of revenge against Germans because they were standing in the way of Islam.”  Also in Germany, a seventeen year old Afghan refugee used an axe to wound passengers on a commuter train; in a video released by Daesh he allegedly refers to himself as a soldier for Daesh, and that he is acting in revenge against “infidels” for the death of a friend in Afghanistan.

This string of violence raises a few questions about the nature of the threat faced in Europe and the Middle East.  First, apart from the apparent connection to Daesh, these attacks evince almost no discernable pattern.  Secondly, although recent attacks seem to be absent a clear political objective, violence is used by Daesh to force bystanders into action, and violence-for-violence-sake can have its own instrumental value.  Finally, these attacks are evidence that in spite of battlefield losses in their self-proclaimed “caliphate,” Daesh will remain a threat; how Europe responds to these threats will require a careful balance that simultaneously preserves security for Europeans and undermines Daesh’s justification for their jihad.

Pattern of No Pattern

Explosives, a rented 19-ton refrigerated truck, an axe, a knife, firearms: all have been turned into weapons wielded in the name of Daesh.  Similarly defying a given profile, the attackers have been natural born citizens of the country in which they have conducted their attacks, long-term migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers; they were teenagers, in their late twenties, and mid-thirties.  Some were married, others single, others divorced.  Some were known to be observant Muslims, conservative and pious, others appear to have instantly radicalized, having been known to drink alcohol, eat pork, and live a sexually active life outside marriage.   This disturbing pattern of no pattern makes detecting and disrupting terrorist attacks practically impossible.  When an attack is centrally planned and logistically supported, it has the potential for being more complex and more lethal, but also easier to detect.  However, as was seen in the Nice truck attack, lethality can be achieved through a variety of means, with little planning.

At least two men have been arrested for allegedly providing logistical or other kinds of support to the Nice truck attacker.  The two nineteen year olds who murdered the French priest in Normandy were apparently under police supervision, one of them having been twice intercepted trying to travel to Syria, and was known to have been “associated with” a French jihadi who has appeared in Daesh beheading videos.  Even with these potential leads, when a security official is looking for a bombing, it is unlikely that a plan to run down pedestrians with a truck will be detected; when crowds are now the focus of protection, a priest is murdered during mass.  If places of worship are guarded, then schools or shopping malls could be attacked.  If this apparent “nimbleness” was actually planned, and target priorities were changed in response to changes in security posture after a successful attack, then it may be easier to detect.  Instead, rather than being planned by a terror mastermind, attacks are successful simply because a target is vulnerable.  The conclusion is that this insidious (and cowardly) form of asymmetric warfare targets the most vulnerable, and most helpless of a society.

Discord by Design

Terrorist violence, whether symbolic or instrumental, is purposive and is intended to illicit a response from the audience to the violence.[1]  Sewing discord, disrupting political discourse, interfering with social and economic exchange, eliciting a hasty over-reaction are all desirable outcomes for Daesh.  When politicians call for the electronic tagging of Muslims on the United States Terrorism Watchlist, or when Europeans respond to acts of terrorism with violence against Muslims, organizations like Daesh can successfully push into the fight those who were formerly just spectators to violence.  According to the Management of Savagery, written in 2004 by Abu Naji Bakr, which has served as a guide for Daesh leadership, violence is useful in forcing non-participants to action:

“Dragging the masses into the battle requires more actions which will inflame opposition and which will make the people enter into the battle, willing or unwilling, such that each individual will go to the side which he supports. We must make this battle very violent, such that death is a heartbeat away.”

Thus, even an act of violence that appears to be purely symbolic, the savage murder of a priest, for example, can be instrumental if it drives the protagonists further into war and drags bystanders (on both sides) into the fight.

For Daesh, violence for violence sake also has its own value.  Elsewhere in the Management of Savagery, Bakr writes:

“Some may be surprised when we say that the religious practice of jihad despite the blood, corpses, and limbs which encompass it and the killing and fighting which its practice entails is among the most blessed acts of worship for the servants… Jihad is the most merciful of the methods for all created things and the most sparing of the spilling of blood.”

Savage violence—even absent a clear political purpose—is a spiritually cleansing act of worship, and is in fact merciful, because it will hasten the apocalypse.  Seen in this light, even extreme violence, which is seemingly senseless, has its own vulgar, perverted logic.  It may even help explain why the recently radicalized can pursue violence with such brutality; violence (and martyrdom) becomes a form of penance.

From Caliphate to Transnational Terror Threat

Even without a “caliphate” and after Daesh takes its assigned place in the dustbin of history, the attraction of an apocalyptic final battle will continue to inspire fanatics of the future.  Will McCants in his recent book concludes:

“Large-scale violence heightens the appeal of apocalyptic narratives…the Islamic State [Daesh, ISIS/ISIL] has demonstrated that a modern caliphate is possible, that doomsday pronouncements and extreme violence attract bloodthirsty recruits, and that cutting out the hearts and minds of a population can subdue them faster than trying to win them over.  This may not be Bin Laden’s jihad, but it’s a formula future jihadists will find hard to resist.”[2]

As its self-proclaimed “caliphate” shrinks and becomes a historical footnote, Daesh has turned to more “traditional” modes of terrorist violence.  Whether planning and providing logistical support for attacks in Europe and Turkey, conducting massive bombings in public places in Iraq and Syria, or inspiring remote individuals to take up their cause, Daesh has and will continue to pose a threat as a transnational terrorist organization, much like its ideological progenitor, al-Qaeda.

Though Europeans justifiably recoil from the violence visited upon them during the past three years, Daesh is an even greater threat to their fellow Arabs and Muslims living in Iraq and Syria.  In July 2016, days before the Eid holiday marking the end of Ramadan, nearly 300 Baghdadis were murdered in a massive explosion in a shopping district.  Just two months prior, over ninety were killed in three suicide bombings in Baghdad.  During the Eid festivities in 2015, 120 were killed in a small Shia town north of Baghdad.  In Syria, Daesh bombs killed over fifty in the town of Qamishli on July 27, 2016.

In Europe, the potential ramifications from continued terrorist violence is acute.  The head of France’s General Directorate for Internal Security told a parliamentary committee, “We’re [France is] on the verge of a civil war.  I think this confrontation [between the extreme right and the European Muslim community] is going to happen.  One or two more attacks and it will take place.  It is up to us to anticipate and stop all those groups who would trigger clashes.”  He noted that similar conditions exist elsewhere in Europe, and that his greatest fear was the execution of extra-judicial justice against Muslim immigrants, if terror attacks continue, which he seemed to concede will.  This is, of course, precisely what Daesh wants.  To survive as an extremist organization dedicated to ushering in the end of the world in a violent cataclysm, Daesh requires clear “enemies of Islam.”  There can be no grey-area, no compromise position, as stated in the seventh issue of Daesh’s English language on-line magazine Dabiq,

“The grayzone is critically endangered, rather on the brink of extinction. Its endangerment began with the blessed operations of September 11th, as these operations manifested two camps before the world for mankind to choose between, a camp of Islam—without the body of Khilāfah[[3]] to represent it at the time—and a camp of kufr[[4]]—the crusader coalition.”

Division and discord in Europe, with open conflict between white Europeans, Muslim migrants, and government security forces will provide evidence enough for Daesh and its ilk to justify its global jihad.  To the would-be jihadist at home in Europe, Daesh’s instructions are clear: pack your bags, and report to the caliphate, or stay home and sharpen your knives.


A fine balance must therefore be achieved: taking sensible, effective steps to secure European populations from terrorist violence while undermining (or at least not contributing to) jihadi political justifications for violence.  Even apparently symbolic violence can be instrumental if European responses to it contribute to jihadist narratives.[5]  The variety of methods employed by such a diverse group of perpetrators with widely divergent backgrounds will make detection and disruption of terror plots extremely difficult.  Cheap political tricks like enforcing a ban on all Muslim immigration, or imposing a religious test for immigrants are contra-indicated.  While indeed some recent attacks in Europe have been committed by migrants, more have been committed by either natural-born citizens or naturalized citizens of the locale in which they carried out their violence.  Redoubled border security, therefore, will do nothing to protect against so-called “home-grown” terrorism.  Likewise, costly undertakings such as invasion and occupation of middle-eastern countries with the intent of swiftly and decisively destroying Daesh is not going to improve security in Europe.  Even after its inevitable destruction, the ideological struggle that Daesh inspired, and the methods employed in it, will continue to pose a clear and present threat for many years to come.  While it is impossible to learn to live with something that threatens one’s life, Europe has faced even greater threats, lived through grave devastation, and yet achieved victory in the face of terrible loss.

[1] Alex P. Schmid & Albert J. Jongman.  (1988).  Political Terrorism, A new guide to actors, authors, concepts, data bases, theories and literature.  Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Company, p. 5; Walzer, Michael.  (1977).  Just and Unjust Wars, A moral argument with historical illustrations.  New York: Basic Books, The Perseus Book Group.

[2] McCants, William.  (2015).  The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, pp. 158-159.

[3] Presumably their own self-styled “caliphate.”

[4] Translated from Arabic as “disbelief” or “denial”

[5] See Halverson, J., Corman, S., Goodall, H. L., (2011).  Master Narratives of Islamic Extremism, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.