The massacre of innocent civilians in Barcelona last week has once again forced Europe to grapple with the threat posed by the Islamic State, or ISIS. In the last year alone, the terrorist group has claimed responsibility for attacks on concertgoers in Manchester, pedestrians on London Bridge, and shoppers at a Christmas market in Berlin, as well as for several smaller-scale operations in France. The diversity of these attacks makes it difficult to discern the logic behind the jihadist group’s strikes in Europe. Beyond a general desire to intimidate and divide European countries, is there a strategy that guides ISIS’ external operations?
One insight into this question comes from an unlikely source: a set of documents produced almost a decade ago by al Qaeda, ISIS’ enemy and rival. Written in or around 2009, at a time when al Qaeda was struggling to strike the West, one of the documents, titled Future Works, proposed a new operational model under which al Qaeda would increase the pace of its attacks through a campaign of small-scale, unsophisticated plots. The attacks, Future Works suggested, would allow al Qaeda to apply constant pressure on the West while shifting the attention of security services away from the complex, spectacular operations that the terrorist group was planning simultaneously.
Al Qaeda never fully adopted this approach, either because it lacked the capacity to do so or because it decided against it. But ISIS seems to have perfected this strategy, supporting crude attacks at the same time that it has continued to plan major operations, with devastating consequences for Europe.
A NEW MODEL
In 2009, al Qaeda’s external operations division was in a rut. The group had not carried out a major attack in the West since the July 7, 2005, bombings in London, and over the years that followed, European governments had disrupted several high-profile al Qaeda plots, including a 2006 scheme to blow up as many as ten planes as they were flying from Europe to the United States. Some al
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