The terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015 were the most sophisticated assaults ISIS has ever pulled off beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria, involving three teams carrying out simultaneous suicide, ambush, and hostage attacks.
But the attacks’ severity shouldn’t distract from just how little of a deviation it really represents from the group’s past behaviour.
ISIS has never been exclusively focused on building its so-called caliphate, an Islamic state presided over by a religious leader.
It was also focused on waging external attacks long before the events in Paris last week.
As of mid-2015, ISIS had left a trail of attacks in an area spanning thousands of miles:
ISIS hasn’t had a “change in strategy.” It’s been consistent in both its actions and its messaging, which has explicitly emphasised attacks on western targets since at least September of 2014.
“Their strategy hasn’t shifted,” Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, told Business Insider. “Instead it’s their capabilities that have shifted … They’re focused on attacking, everywhere.”
The group has pulled off numerous external attacks in recent months. ISIS bombed a mosque in Kuwait on June 26, killing 27 people. ISIS claimed responsibility for suicide bombings at three Saudi mosques between May and August of 2015, including an attack on a mosque belonging to a rapid response security team that killed 13 people.
ISIS-affiliated militants captured parts of Sirte, Libya in March of 2015, and briefly occupied areas of Sheikh Zuweid in the Egyptian Sinai on July 1, 2015, sparking a firefight that left hundreds of militants and dozens of Egyptian soldiers dead. ISIS claimed responsibility for mosque bombings in Yemen that killed 29 people during observance of the Eid holiday in September, while its Afghanistan affiliate beheaded seven civilians in the space of a week earlier this month.
It’s known that ISIS was training some of its fighters for attacks in Europe even before the organisation’s split from Al Qaeda in February of 2014. In January of 2015, BuzzFeed interviewed an ISIS facilitator in Turkey who spoke openly about the group’s use of the country to transport militants focused on carrying out attacks on European soil.
ISIS-linked bombers killed over 100 at a peace rally in Ankara, the Turkish capital, on October 10. The attacker who killed four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, Belgium on May 24, 2014 had fought with ISIS in Syria. And ISIS elements were likely involved in the January 2015 Paris attacks as well.
ISIS isn’t evolving into a group with grim external ambitions. Those ambitions have always been there.The Paris attacks aren’t concerning because they suggest a shift in strategy. They’re worrying because they show just how much ISIS attack capabilities have evolved.
Those capabilities could be a lingering problem with the potential to outlast ISIS seizure of territory, if earlier precedent is any indication.
Groups with a commitment to external attacks can maintain their capabilities even after suffering major setbacks. The Somali jihadist group al Shabaab launched its two deadliest outside attacks, in Nairobi, Kenya in September of 2013, and in Garissa, Kenya in April of 2015, years after the group had lost control over Somali’s capital and coastal regions.
ISIS had a developed external attack strategy and capabilities long before the carnage in Paris — and they could persist long after the group’s Syrian and Iraqi safe haven is reduced.
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