In the span of two weeks, Daesh has claimed the lives of nearly 400 unarmed civilians of easily a dozen nationalities on two continents. This series of assaults in Paris, Beirut, and in the sky over the Sinai desert runs counter to recent assessments and conventional wisdom about the organization. The day when two suicide bombers killed almost fifty in Lebanon, and the day before three teams of terrorists killed almost two hundred in Paris, President Barak Obama assured the world that the threat posed by Daesh had been contained. Indeed, even a week ago US and British intelligence agencies were only cautiously accepting the claim of responsibility by Daesh for the downing of Russian charter Metrojet Flight 9268 as “possible.” The core leadership in Syria and Iraq only loosely govern its affiliated “province” in Sinai, and Daesh seemed to be focused on securing and expanding its self-proclaimed “caliphate.”
Although information is still being gathered, thinking about the recent run of terrorist violence brings three things to mind: 1.) Even though the recent attack on a civilian aircraft, and violence on the streets of two capital cities demonstrated sophistication and planning, these were still “soft” targets that were not well defended. 2.) This could prove to be the sort of strategic over-reach that begins the undoing of Daesh, but significant challenges stand in the way. 3.) The enemy has signaled its commitment and ruthlessness in definite, highly symbolic means, which may redefine them.
First, in spite of recent demonstrations of sophistication and planning, the attacks in the sky above the Sinai desert, and on the streets of Beirut and Paris were against targets that not well defended, that had the greatest potential for lethality, and carried symbolic significance. The security at Sharm al-Sheikh airport was notoriously porous, with technical failures and lax screening procedures. Putting this incident into perspective, according to the Global Terrorism Database, the last time a commercial aircraft was destroyed in-flight by a bomb smuggled aboard it was twenty-six years ago by “The Extraditables,” a group led and funded by narcotics trafficker Pablo Escobar. The deadliest mid-air bombing of a commercial airliner occurred in 1985 when Sikh terrorist group Babbar Khalsa destroyed an Air India Boeing 747 killing all 329 passengers and crew. Since that time, the operators and manufacturers of commercial passenger aircraft have developed effective means of screening passengers and cargo and improved aircraft survivability. This isn’t meant to diminish the crime of murdering 224 people; however, this incident needs to be considered in perspective. It was an increasingly rare, but not totally unpredictable, failure of aviation security.
The suicide attacks perpetrated by Daesh in Beirut and Paris similarly took advantage of weaknesses inherent in liberal societies. Restaurants and concert venues are almost invariably undefended; a sports venue offers perhaps minimal security at best. Being relatively far from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, and because of the lethality and coordination of violence, the attacks in Paris shocked people around the world. The violence in Paris dramatically overshadowed the murder of forty-three in Beirut just a day earlier. These incidents demonstrate how accessible this level of violence presently is. In terms of access to weapons, and suicidal people willing to commit violence, killing on a large scale is within the reach of violent extremists in much of the civilized world. Unfortunately, these attacks change nothing with respect to the level of difficulty in detecting and disrupting such plots. This will likely happen again, with similar results.
Secondly, this string off attacks raises an important question: will this fourteen-day assault become the strategic over-reach that spells the end of Daesh just as 9/11 forced core al-Qa’ida into hiding which practically ended their ability to execute their global jihadi pretensions? One can hope, but this present threat is different in two important respects: 1.) Daesh is wealthier, has more soldiers, and is much better equipped than Usama bin Ladin and his followers ever dreamed to being. 2.) Daesh “inspired” or “supported” cells can take advantage of vastly improved communication capacity to recruit and plan, and the simplicity of this kind of violence leaves a very small footprint. When the United States struck al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan in October of 2001, the organization’s leadership were decimated and scattered. Attrition continued to disable the core organization, which, unable to efficiently communicate with the outside world, was incapacitated. Al-Qa’ida became more of an “idea” than it ever was, and its popular support diminished quickly. Presently in Syria and Iraq, Daesh is a highly effective conventional fighting force, with ample resources (that are being used up or destroyed daily, to be sure). Elsewhere, as in the Sinai, Daesh affiliates seem to easily operate independently. That said, Daesh faces a formidable front; an energized alliance of the US, Western Europe, (possibly in the form of a NATO mission), Russia, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey (and others) has decisive potential, even if that alliance is simply the notion of having a common enemy.
Finally, two weeks ago, Daesh was best understood as a well-resourced insurgency, one primarily focused on recasting political realities in the Arab world and beyond; this appears to have changed. Until recently, terror was one tactic Daesh could employ, and it focused its terrifying violence against “apostates” living within their area of operation. For example, Daesh was responsible for killing over 100 Shia celebrating Eid al-Fitr in Baghdad this Summer. However, its strength was in irregular warfare, using conventional weapons against military formations. Thus, analysts tended to define Daesh as an insurgency, rather than purely a terrorist organization, like al-Qa’ida. President Obama was probably correct when he said that Daesh had been contained. They are beginning to lose ground, and there is evidence recruitment is more difficult and defections are on the rise. As the core of Daesh in Syria and Iraq is constricted, they will turn to this kind of cheap, one-off violence conducted by sympathizers far away from Raqqa and Mosul. The violence committed over the past two weeks could redefine Daesh.
Even if we struggle to define them, Daesh is crystal clear about who they are and what they are doing, evident in their claim of responsibility,
“In a blessed battle whose causes of success were enabled by Allah, a group of believers from the soldiers of the Caliphate (may Allah strengthen and support it) set out targeting the capital of prostitution and vice, the lead carrier of the cross in Europe-Paris.”
This one sentence contains a great deal of information, when looking beyond its value as propaganda. According to Daesh, this attack was part of a larger war between good (Daesh) and evil (everyone else), being led by their self-proclaimed “caliphate,” which enjoys divine protection and blessing. This is a committed enemy, who glorifies murdering unarmed civilians, and seeks to repeat their crimes, as they testified elsewhere in the claim of responsibility,
“Allah blessed our brothers and granted them what they desired. They detonated their explosive belts in the masses of the disbelievers after finishing all their ammunition. We ask Allah to accept them amongst the martyrs and to allow us to follow them.”
Although Daesh does not constitute an existential threat to the civilized world, they will occasionally strain free societies and disrupt the peace we enjoy. Confronting and defeating this committed enemy requires intelligence, calm patience, and constant unrelenting pressure.