As a U.S.-led coalition claws away territory from Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the extremist group is shifting its emphasis away from building a caliphate to spreading terror around the world, according to terrorism experts.
Its tactics, on display in four attacks over the last week that claimed 228 lives, come from the playbook of Al Qaeda, an ally until an acrimonious split in 2013.
The attacks follow losses of territory in Iraq, including the city of Fallujah last week, and in Syria, where Islamic State militants are now being forced out of the northeast town of Manbij. The losses have compromised their ability to function as a state, experts said.
“What they are saying is, ‘The more you hit us, the more we will become Al Qaeda,’” said Mathieu Guidere, a professor at the University of Paris who monitors audio, video, texts and social networks of major terrorist organizations as part of a project to track radicalization.
He summarized their message: “You the international community did not want us to become a state, focused on our land. Now we will move on to a clandestine, terrorist mode of organization.”
One difference, he said, is that while Al Qaeda preferred to use Arab fighters who were vetted and trained, Islamic State has deployed volunteers from non-Arab states and to work with other local terrorist groups on the fly.
Another is that its reach is far greater than that of Al Qaeda. The carnage attributed to Islamic State is rising by the day.
In Istanbul last week, at least 45 people were killed and more than 200 injured when three gunmen from Russia and Central Asia equipped with suicide belts attacked the main airport. Although Islamic State did not claim credit — and almost never does in Turkey — the Turkish government said the assault had all the earmarks of the group.
The militants did claim credit in Baghdad, where a van packed with explosives was detonated early Sunday amid a crowd of families gathered at a shopping mall to break the Ramadan fast. At least 157 people were killed, many of them children.
In Saudi Arabia on Monday, assailants set off a bomb in Medina outside the Prophet’s Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam. Though no one claimed immediate responsibility for the attack, which killed four people, or for two other bombings in other parts of the country, Islamic State has long been at odds with the Saudis.
The group has also taken responsibility for a growing number of attacks initiated by sympathizers or groups whose affiliations are unclear.
Islamic State claimed responsibility for an attack Friday in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, in which members of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, a local Islamic militant group, stormed a cafe in the diplomatic zone and took foreigners hostage. Twenty-two people were killed.
Rohan Gunaratna, who heads an institute on terrorism at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the group recently created an external operations wing that operates outside Syria and Iraq, trains and dispatches fighters abroad and offers guidance to supporters around the world. The Bangladeshi extremist group had become part of the network, he said.
Reuven Erlich, a retired Israeli colonel who heads a center on intelligence and terrorism at the Lauder School of Government in Israel, went further, saying that Islamic State directed the Bangladesh attack.
Paul Pillar, an academic who spent nearly three decades with the CIA, said that given the carefully designed infrastructure of the caliphate, it would be surprising if Islamic State did not have a department for foreign terrorism operations. But details on its connection to the Bangladeshi militants remained murky, he said.
It “could be a tenuous relationship” or a case of “the attraction of a known brand-name and being associated with something much bigger” than the local cause, he said.
It corresponds with the holy month of Ramadan and the second anniversary of the declaration of the Islamic State and the caliphate by Abu Bakr Baghdadi on June 29, 2014.
The announcement that he’d reestablished the center of Islamic rule, which had been in Turkey until it was abolished in 1924, became a magnet that drew thousands of Muslim militants to travel to Iraq and Syria to join Islamic State. So did the fact that the self-proclaimed caliphate controlled substantial territory in Syria and Iraq.
In the case of Turkey, it is also possible that the attack is retribution for the country’s rapprochement with Israel, said Magnus Ranstorp, who directs the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defense College. Another possible factor is Turkey’s decision a year ago to open Incirlik Air Base to U.S. warplanes for attacking Islamic State targets in Syria.
Whatever may have motivated the latest spate of attacks, the terrorism experts agreed that while Islamic State may be losing territory, it is likely to adapt to the situation and work to regain it.
“They know how to fight the Americans,” Ranstorp said. “They will blend in. They will use suicide bombings. And they will blend in again.”
Gutman is a special correspondent.