The Islamic State (also known as ISIS) has taken a beating on the battlefield throughout 2016. U.S. officials estimate that the group has lost half of its territory in Iraq and roughly 20 percent in Syria, including key supply routes from Turkey that had been vital to the group’s inflow of foreign fighters. Although ISIS’ territorial holdings continue to dwindle, the threat it poses does not. ISIS has proven itself to be an endlessly adaptive organization, utilizing creative measures to shape-shift in its response to external pressures. As the group’s territory shrinks and its leadership is picked off by U.S.-led airstrikes, ISIS will rely increasingly upon its “virtual planners”—members who operate in the dark spaces of the Internet—to inspire and coordinate attacks abroad.
Since at least early 2015, ISIS has been planning high-profile operations against the West, with Europe standing directly in the crosshairs. As has become clearer over time, ISIS’ strategy for external operations in Europe is not haphazard—its methods are deliberate and carefully organized under the direction of one of its wings, the Amn al-Kharji. Although it is fairly opaque, bit by bit, analysts have been able to piece together this wing’s hierarchical chain of command. According to ISIS defector Abu Khaled, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani—ISIS’ now deceased spokesman—served as the official head of the Amn al-Kharji. A French national, Abu Suleyman al-Firansi, of which little more than his nom de guerre is known is the director of external operations. A key group of theater commanders sit below al-Firansi, and are in charge of operations spanning Europe to Southeast Asia. Theater commanders seem to be assigned to an area of responsibility according to their language abilities and nationalities—similar to the way in which ISIS groups other members—enabling them to draw on extensive knowledge of the area when organizing plots. They are responsible for directing some of ISIS’ bloodiest operations, including the November 2015 attacks in Paris.
A lesser-known cadre inside the virtual planners, who are responsible for inspiring and directing many of the plots that have mistakenly been labeled as “lone wolf” attacks. Many observers have assumed that operations carried out by one or two attackers have simply been inspired by ISIS’ call for independent strikes across the world, a request first made by Adnani in September 2014. Such an assumption is highly problematic; it underestimates ISIS’ broader external strategy and dismisses the sophisticated structure through which its operations are organized. (There is no indication, however, that Ahmad Khan Rahami, who may have conducted the most recent attack in New York City, is linked to ISIS and it is not yet clear whether he is connected to a larger cell.)
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