“The directive that came to us so far is not to target the West and America from al-Sham [Syria and other parts of the Levant]. And we are committed to the directive of Dr Ayman [al-Zawahiri] may God protect him. But if this situation [air strikes] continues, I think that there will be consequences which are not in the favour of America or the West,” said Abu Mohammed al-Golani, the leader of the Nusra Front in May 2015 in an Al Jazeera Interview.
“Maybe al-Qaeda organisation attacks from elsewhere, but not from al-Sham. This is an order we received,” he continues. The words, taken at face value, seem to contradict the new strategy of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group towards the West, highlighted this month by the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris. The attacks came after a gradual escalation in ISIL rhetoric, narrative and tactics against the “far enemy”.
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Before 2015, the geostrategy of ISIL primarily aimed at capturing territory, cleansing it, controlling it, and proto state-building within it according to its vision, and then expanding into surrounding territory by attacking nearby enemies – who ranged from the Nusra Front to Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime, and the Iraqi government.
This started to gradually change from the summer of 2014, especially after the Iranian and United States air strikes began in June and August 2014 respectively.
Based on open sources, ISIL affiliates and sympathisers have allegedly conducted no less than 25 plots and attacks against Western citizens and interests since October 2014.
This compares with only two alleged plots and one attack before that date: An alleged “Mumbai-style” plot in London for which a man was cleared in October 2013, the alleged Riviera plot in France in February 2014, and the Brussels Museum attack in May 2014.
If there is a significant change in ISIL strategy, mainly towards prioritising attacks against the West after the Coalition air strikes, then what does ISIL aim to achieve with such attacks?
Although the last attack was committed by a militant who allegedly trained in ISIL camps, the ISIL connection in most of these cases is a declared support for the organisation and not a directive form a high-level ISIL commander.
In the last two issues of ISIL’s multilingual magazine, Dabiq, the focus was more on attacking the West – a definitely different take compared with the earlier issues. Before that, the focus was on legitimising ISIL’s rule, de-legitimising rivals and enemies (including al-Qaeda and the Taliban), and calling on Muslims to migrate to ISIL-controlled territory.
These issues also bore the headlines “From the Battles of Al-Ahzab to the War of Coalitions” and “Just Terror”. The first headline was comparing the anti-ISIL US-led coalition in 2014-2015 to a tribal coalition formed by pagan Arabs against the Prophet of Islam in 627.
The second headline was justifying Paris terrorist attacks. The only Dabiq issue that equally focused on attacking the West was the fourth one entitled “The Failed Crusade”. It came out, in October 2014, right after the coalition air strikes began: “At this point of the crusade against the Islamic State, it is very important that attacks take place in every country that has entered into the alliance against the Islamic State, especially the United States, United Kingdom, France, Australia, and Germany.”
ISIL, however, makes this a secondary choice in issue 9 of Dabiq: “Either one performs hijrah to the wilayat [provinces] of the Khilafah [Caliphate] or, if he is unable to do so, he must attack the crusaders.”
Overall, aside from the three aforementioned issues, calls to attack the West make a tiny proportion of the contents of Dabiq, compared for example with Inspire magazine issued by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This was especially the case before October 2014.
If there is a significant change in ISIL strategy, towards prioritising attacks against the West after the coalition air strikes, then what does ISIL aim to achieve with such attacks?
The tactics of wreaking havoc in Western cities did not work well for al-Qaeda. After 9/11, the organisation lost its bases in Afghanistan. Its principal host – the Taliban – lost a state it controlled almost entirely.
And most of al-Qaeda’s commanders were killed or captured, including Osama Bin Laden. Still some of al-Qaeda’s affiliates believe that by bringing US troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, they have brought the far enemy nearby and, therefore, are able to inflict significant damage.
They also believe that they have spoiled the US objectives in both countries. This perception of course does not take into consideration any costs incurred.
The ISIL leadership could be aiming for either a similar scenario or for “deterring” the West from attacking the territories it controls. In either case, it has many more resources, capacities and experiences compared with those of al-Qaeda before 2011.
These are not only demonstrated by ISIL’s control of territory stretching from parts of Aleppo in Syria to parts of Salah al-Din province in Iraq, in wich about 10 million people live, but also by the capacity of ISIL to strike in areas where they do not have that control.
AQAP has been trying to bomb Western airlines, most notably the so-called Christmas Day plot in 2009. But all of its attempts were luckily foiled. ISIL, however, was able to bring down a civilian passenger airline at its first attempt on October 31, killing 224 civilians in the Sinai Peninsula.
Such a potential change in terror strategy, coupled with the significant capacity behind it, represents a formidable challenge to Western leaders, who will have to make strategic plans for a scenario in which ISIL adopts al-Qaeda’s pre-2011 strategy of using its resources to primarily go after the “far enemy”.
Omar Ashour is Senior Lecturer in Security Studies at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter and an Associate Fellow at Chatham House.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.