The evolution of ISIS tactics in Europe: Are we witnessing a shift?

Instead of high-level targets, ISIS has now opted for the diffusion of fear in European countries to foment Islamophobia

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France and Germany were stricken by a succession of terrorist attacks last month, at an unprecedented rate since the start of operations by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Europe.

On July 14, France’s National Day, a truck driver claimed the lives of 85 innocent men, women and children. The following week, a Syrian refugee and an Afghan asylum-seeker staged two separate terrorist attacks in Germany. The month ended with the horrific assassination of a priest while he celebrated mass in a small town in French Normandy.

What is most interesting to analyze is the evolution in the choice of targets and perpetrators. Last year, ISIS’s strategy was to directly organize and claim responsibility for terrorist acts against specific targets: the Charlie Hebdo office or the Bataclan concert hall, where a mostly young Caucasian population was enjoying a punk concert. All major attacks were in Paris, which gave the perception to most French citizens that they were still relatively safe in their other cities.

If the most recent targets in France remain highly symbolic (a church, and the National Day celebration of French republican values of “freedom, equality and solidarity”), several modifications have to be noted.

First, the attacks are no longer in Paris. They took place in a large provincial town and in a small city, appearing random at first. The objective is no longer to show that ISIS can strike in the most protected places in France - such as the entrance of the Stade de France during an international game - but that it can strike anywhere, anytime, with no specific reason, thus reinforcing the diffusion of fear nationwide.

Another key difference can be found in the terrorists themselves. While structured terrorist cells carefully planned and implemented the Jan. 2015 attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Nov. 2015 attacks in the streets of Paris, seemingly isolated terrorists with no direct operational links to ISIS carried out the stabbings in Germany and the recent killings in Nice and Normandy. This seems to confirm the success of some of the recent security and intelligence policies put in place by European governments to limit ISIS’s capacity to spread its tentacles to Europe.

The perpetrators of the recent terrorist attacks were widely regarded as brainwashed men who had, in one case, been treated for psychiatric disorders, as opposed to the perpetrators of last year’s acts who had undergone training over several years in the Levant. For example, the killer of the French priest had spent part of his childhood in a mental institution.

The use of refugees as a source of potential recruits or camouflage is very important. Fomenting antagonism in Europe against refugees is essential to ISIS’s strategy. The terrorist group has everything to win from a rise in Islamophobia in the countries it is targeting. Germany and France are its main targets because they are home to the largest Muslim communities in Europe, and the most generous in their policies toward refugees.

What ISIS cannot stand is when Muslim minorities support secular European ideals. This is incompatible with its narrative of a world divided into two camps: Muslims and the unfaithful. By welcoming Syrian refugees, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is undercutting ISIS’s rhetoric and efforts to foment Islamophobia and use it as a driver for recruitment.

ISIS’s objective is to reinforce the perception that Muslims are not welcome in the West and should therefore join its ranks. In that sense, the discourse from the extreme right in Europe and from Donald Trump are a godsend for ISIS, and extremely dangerous for European and American security.

The French priest was thus an ideal target, as he was known for his active cooperation with the local imam for interfaith dialogue and joint projects for local youth. The Catholic parish even donated the land where the mosque was built, in an areligious city led by a communist mayor.

So if ISIS’s operational capacity in Europe has been reduced, it can still resort to weak-minded outcasts. Instead of high-level targets, it has now opted for the diffusion of fear nationwide to foment Islamophobia, in the hope of breaking the European secular order. More than through security reforms or airstrikes in Iraq, victory against ISIS will be achieved in the next elections by reaffirming religious coexistence and republicanism against extreme rightwing populism.

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