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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 Qaeda operatives had become so discouraged that they had stopped planning attacks altogether.
To right the ship, an al Qaeda senior commander, possibly the veteran Mauritian jihadist Younis al-Mauritani, proposed a new external operations plan. The proposal was outlined in Future Works. German authorities discovered the strategy paper and over 100 other al Qaeda documents after they searched the memory card of Maqsood Lodin, an Austrian citizen who trained with al Qaeda in Afghanistan and was tasked to carry out an attack in Germany, where he was arrested in 2011. Future Works—which has never been publicly released but was reported on extensively by the investigative journalist Yassin Musharbash in 2012—suggested that al Qaeda should pursue a two-pronged approach to its campaign against the West.
First, Future Works recommended that al Qaeda, which had until then focused on planning complex operations, send European recruits who had received a minimal amount of training in Afghanistan to carry out small-scale attacks in their home countries. The logic behind this proposal was simple: by intensifying the tempo of its attacks and supporting crude plots, al Qaeda would be able to evade security services and strike the West repeatedly. The document also encouraged al Qaeda to develop secure communications techniques so that the group could interact with its operatives once they reached Europe. (Another document stored in Lodin’s memory card noted that operatives in Europe should behead their victims and send videos of their executions to al Qaeda’s propaganda wing so that they could be distributed globally.)
One objective of the smaller attacks, according to Future Works, was to foment chaos in Western countries and to force governments to adopt increasingly stringent security measures, which, al Qaeda reasoned, would alienate Muslims living in the West and push them toward al Qaeda. ISIS articulated a similar rationale for its operations in Europe in Dabiq, its now defunct English-language online magazine, arguing in February 2015 that government-directed crackdowns, coming after terrorist attacks, would “eliminate the gray zone” and force Muslims living in the West to choose between ISIS and secular society.
But the crude operations were also intended to enable the second component of al Qaeda’s proposed strategy. As the thinking went, small attacks perpetrated by individuals already known to European intelligence services would consume the authorities' resources, distracting them from disrupting jihadist networks involved in coordinating more sophisticated operations. These large-scale attacks would demonstrate al Qaeda’s capabilities to the world and thus restore the confidence of the group’s rank and file.
Although there is no publicly available evidence that ISIS ever obtained Future Works, the tactics outlined in the document are strikingly similar to ISIS’ strategies in the West. Al Qaeda provided little support for small-scale attacks, at least until around a decade ago, when the Yemeni American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki began urging Westerners to carry out domestic attacks. ISIS, on the other hand, immediately recognized the impact that dozens of crude attacks would have on European society and quickly developed an infrastructure to support these operations.
Indeed, ISIS’ so-called virtual plotter model represents an innovative take on the approach proposed in Future Works. Rather than wait for European recruits to reach training camps in the Middle East or Central Asia, ISIS’ virtual plotters identify jihadists living in Europe and direct them to strike using whatever tools they have at their disposal. In a recently thwarted plot, ISIS members in Turkey sent explosives to a cell in Australia plotting to blow up a plane. This suggests that ISIS planners are seeking to make their virtually directed operations more sophisticated without slowing the pace of attacks.
Meanwhile, ISIS has sought to improve its propaganda to maximize the impact of its low-tech attacks. ISIS has instructed operatives planning attacks to videotape themselves pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group’s leader, and has directed them to upload these videos to the Web in order to make them available to ISIS propagandists. This has allowed ISIS to claim responsibility for attacks perpetrated across the globe and to maintain the perception of momentum in the face of territorial losses.
But perhaps the most revealing and worrying parallel between Future Works and ISIS’ strategy concerns the jihadist group’s use of small-scale attacks as a smoke screen, a distraction from its more complex operations. Beginning in September 2014, ISIS propagandists issued a series of calls for individuals to carry out attacks in the group’s name. At the same time, ISIS operatives based in Syria directed jihadists living in Europe to carry out attacks at home. The proliferation of low-tech attacks in 2014 and early 2015 consumed the resources of European security services, leading many analysts to conclude at the time that ISIS’ strategy was limited to inspiring lone wolves. That is one reason why security services were caught off-guard in 2015, when a budding jihadist network, initially led by the Belgian Moroccan operative Abdelhamid Abaaoud, launched an unprecedented, multicity plot, first in Paris in November and then in Brussels several months later.
As officials try to make sense of the Barcelona massacre, the two-pronged model outlined in Future Works is as relevant as ever. ISIS’ investment in the virtual plotter model has positioned the group to sustain a campaign of low-tech, crude operations for months or years to come. And although many recent attacks claimed by ISIS in Europe, including the Manchester and Berlin attacks, have been perpetrated by lone actors, the Barcelona operation, which involved as many as 12 plotters, demonstrated that the threat posed by larger networks has not dissipated, either. Governments working to prevent ISIS attacks must counter both kinds of plots to keep Europe safe.