Don’t Mistake ISIS’s Ramadan Killing Spree for a Grand Strategy

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On May 21, President Donald Trump stood in a vast bejeweled auditorium in Saudi Arabia’s capital and delivered a challenge to the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims: Rid your communities of extremists. “Drive them out,” he intoned. The same day, he joined Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi as the three leaders placed their hands on a glowing white orb in a ceremony to inaugurate a new counter-extremism center.

In the 10 days that followed, the extremists answered with acts of killing across the planet. A suicide bomber detonated explosives at a pop concert in the British city of Manchester, killing 22 people. In Egypt, masked gunmen opened fire on a convoy carrying Coptic Christians to a monastery in the country’s Minya province. In Baghdad, ISIS militants set off a pair of bombs, targeting families queuing up for ice cream and older people collecting their pensions. In the Philippines, the government battled to regain control of the southern city of Marawi, which had been seized by gunmen linked to ISIS.

Then in Afghanistan, a truck bomb killed more than 80 people on Wednesday in a central district of Kabul near the country’s presidential palace. The attack has not yet been claimed by any group, but the Taliban denies responsibility, heightening speculation of the Islamic State’s role.

The global tableau of violence is beginning to look like a repeat of a campaign of attacks carried out by ISIS and affiliated groups in 2016 timed to coincide with Ramadan, a holy month of dawn-to-dusk fasting and prayer. For the overwhelming majority of the world’s practicing Muslims, Ramadan is a month for reflection, for heightened spirituality, for spending time with family. Adherents of the Islamic State have identified the month as a season for killing. “The group has made it into sort of its own sick tradition to make Ramadan an especially bloody month,” says Mokhtar Awad, a research fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.

During Ramadan last year, militants carried out attacks on Istanbul’s main airport, on civilians out after dark in Baghdad, and on people in an embassy district of Dhaka. ISIS also attached its name to the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Before Ramadan in 2016, ISIS spokesperson Abu Mohammed al-Adnani issued a call for attacks in western states. In May 2017, the group’s Nashir news service issued a similar call, and urging “righteous believers” to action in a message distributed over the smartphone app Telegram.

Experts say it is unlikely that ISIS’ central organization based in Syria and Iraq planned the current wave of attacks, but rather that affiliates and individuals in several countries chose to mount attacks during Ramadan and in the days leading up to it. “It’s more a case of individual groups separately commemorating the month with a view to make it look like it was centrally-planned Ramadan offensive,” says Charlie Winter, a senior fellow with the International Center for the Study of Radicalization in London.

The wave of attacks exposes some of the naive assumptions of the Saudi summit. The world’s governments are fighting not one monolithic extremist threat—as Trump’s speech suggested—but a loose network of groups embedded in local insurgencies around the world. Even as a U.S.-backed military coalition moves to roust the Islamic State from its central base of operations in Iraq and Syria, satellite branches of the organization in the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia reassert the group’s persistence. And lone attackers, many radicalized from afar, continue to do the group’s bloody work in Europe.

The sheer number of different ISIS franchises and affiliates throughout the world present a dizzyingly complex challenge to counterterrorism efforts. The organization thrives where state institutions collapse, such as in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen, and seeks to recruit and inspire individuals—whether Muslim or non-Muslim—across the world. But it has also been successful insinuating itself into homegrown insurgencies — as in Egypt, where the group has launched a series of attacks on Coptic Christians, bombing a cathedral in December and a pair of churches on Palm Sunday.

Egypt’s local ISIS affiliate began as an insurgent group based in the Sinai Peninsula, continuing a years-long struggle against the Egyptian state which neglected the local population of a province far from the capital. In years past, the organization carried out attacks that usually targeted security forces and symbols of government power.

But in recent months, the organization has turned to brutal attacks on Egypt’s Christian minority in a campaign reminiscent of the sectarian warfare waged by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. According to Awad, the turn to indiscriminate sectarian killing suggests an increasingly tight adherence to ISIS’ core brand. “What we’re seeing today is them making this abundantly clear: ISIS is in different countries and has reached different countries not because a group of Iraqis and Syrians made that happen, but because there was a galvanizing brand that indigenous jihadis subscribe to,” says Awad.

ISIS is behaving less like a single strategic organization, in other words, and more like a franchisor — selling its brand to radicalized individuals and small jihadi groups across the world to extend its influence. The ambition, says analyst Michael S. Smith II, the co-founder of a consultancy that has advised U.S. government officials, is to draw in a range of rival militant groups under a single banner. “This is an important feature of their larger strategic calculus when it comes to that effort to eclipse the specter of al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, and other groups that refuse to merge with Islamic State,” he says.

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