Preventing the Next Attack

How Europe Can Separate ISIS' Signal from Its Noise

Belgian soldiers patrol in central Brussels as police searched the area during a continued high level of security following the recent deadly Paris attacks, Belgium, November 23, 2015.  Benoit Tessier / Reuters

To judge from the commentary about the Metrojet plane crash in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS) has significantly changed its strategy in the last few weeks. Until the most recent wave of attacks, conventional wisdom went, ISIS focused almost exclusively on establishing a caliphate and expanding the boundaries of its state in Syria, Iraq, and the surrounding region. Unlike al Qaeda, which had long focused on striking the far enemy (the United States and Europe, including Russia), ISIS confined its operations outside of its immediate region to inspiring attacks by ISIS sympathizers and adherents living in the West. The Sinai and Paris terrorist attacks thus signified a new direction.

The only problem is that the strikes do not mark a strategic shift for ISIS. Rather, they represent the culmination of the group’s long-standing ambitions to carry out mass-casualty, high-profile attacks against the far enemy. For over a year, ISIS propaganda has expressed that very intention. And the group has tried to make good on its threats. Since the beginning of 2015, ISIS operatives in Syria and Iraq have been involved in the planning of several high-profile plots against Western targets. If not for luck and good investigative work on the part of Western intelligence agencies, ISIS would have succeeded in striking the West months ago.


ISIS threats against Western targets are sometimes veiled and ambiguous, but a close reading of the group’s propaganda reveals its intentions. In January 2015, ISIS spokesperson Abu Mohammed al-Adnani released a statement in which he praised ISIS sympathizers for carrying out plots in Australia, Belgium, Canada, and France and called for Muslims to use any weapon available to inflict damage upon the “crusaders.” After encouraging such lone wolf attacks in the West, Adnani issued a more ominous threat: “What lies ahead will be worse—with Allah’s permission—and more bitter, for you haven’t seen anything from us just

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