ISIL’s evolving strategy should raise security concerns

ISIL’s coordinated attacks in Syria and Yemen augur badly for the near future.

People check the site of a suicide bombing in the southern port city of Aden, Yemen [Reuters]
People check the site of a suicide bombing in the southern port city of Aden, Yemen [Reuters]

A series of coordinated attacks in three cities in Syria and Yemen on Monday by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) provides important new insights into the group’s current capabilities and strategy, suggesting that the months ahead will be increasingly violent in the Middle East and perhaps further afield.

At least five distinct aspects of the Monday attacks should raise eyebrows and security concerns in many countries: their locations, simultaneity, logistical prowess, multi-country coordination and ISIL’s evolving strategy in its wider political-military context.

ISIL bomb attacks kill 45 army recruits in Yemen

The most noteworthy aspect of the attacks was the combination of multiple, large-scale bombings in the political hearts of the Syrian and Yemeni governments, which both appear more vulnerable than assumed.

The Syria attacks of seven simultaneous suicide and car bomb attacks in the cities of Tartus and Jableh killed between 80 and 120 people, according to government and opposition reports.

This happened in the Latakia governorate in the Alawite-majority heartland of the Assad regime that rules Syria, and, to add insult to injury, the two attacks also occurred near Russian sea and air bases. 

Sophisticated logistical operations

The ability of ISIL to carry out such sophisticated logistical operations in what should be a high-security area reaffirms its substantial attack capabilities and exposes gaps in the Assad regime’s Russian- and Iranian-bolstered security systems.

READ MORE: ISIL targets tourism

The same factors apply in the two attacks that killed 45 army recruits and civilians in Aden, the temporary capital of Yemen that hosts the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

ISIL obviously has supporters, small bases, and fighters in the Latakia region, but does not yet control sufficient land to claim any kind of sovereign authority.

The fact that ISIL can attack a military recruiting centre near a general’s home in the capital of Yemen does not bode well for the country’s immediate future, especially after other attacks on high-profile targets in Aden in recent months.

Hadi’s government only holds sway in parts of the country, and is negotiating in Kuwait with Houthi rebels linked to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to return to the capital Sanaa and resume the quest for a power-sharing system via a national constitutional conference.

The expansion of ISIL and al-Qaeda support, capabilities and territorial control in southern parts of Yemen has been an unintended dimension of the 14-month-long war that has raged there.

The dramatic ISIL attacks occur at a time when it has been losing control of parts of its territory in Syria and Iraq to Syrian, Iraqi, Kurdish, Iranian, and international military forces.

Major new offensives also are being launched to drive ISIL out of Fallujah in Iraq, and Raqqa in Syria, which has been ISIL’s informal capital for nearly two years.

Its foothold in Sirte, in Libya, which has expanded to more than 6,000 fighters in the past six months, is simultaneously being challenged by a combination of Libyan forces assisted by international air power and special forces on the ground.

The attacks follow several devastating bombings that have killed more than 100 people in Baghdad in the past week. These recent military actions seem aimed at showing that ISIL can attack multiple targets and countries almost at will, and can expand – given its announcement on Monday of the new Wilayat al-Sahil (the coastal province).

An officer standing next to damaged cars at the site of car bombing in a bus station in the Jableh city, Latakia province, Syria [EPA]

Heretical apostates

ISIL obviously has supporters, small bases, and fighters in the Latakia region, but does not yet control sufficient land to claim any kind of sovereign authority.

But perhaps that is secondary to the main point of showing that it continues to fight and kill those it deems heretical apostates and enemies of its version of Sunni Islam, especially Shia and related groups such as the Alawite.

One lesson from this week’s events, following the pattern of its attacks in the past six months in Europe and Egypt, is to recognise ISIL’s use of decentralised cells and support systems in many countries.

READ MORE: Brutal truths about ISIL victories

These seem to be able to operate independently, but also to coordinate in cases like Monday’s multi-country, multi-city attacks and the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels.

This should come as no surprise, given the experience of many of ISIL’s senior commanders in militant movements during the past two decades or so, as well as the presence of some hardened former Iraqi intelligence officers in ISIL’s formative core group.

These political and military leaders have learned the lessons of both their own past experiences and the fate of other militant takfiri-salafists, like many senior al-Qaeda personnel, who were killed or captured. 

This would seem to augur badly for the immediate future, should coordinated military action already under way contain ISIL in a few small areas in Iraq and Syria and smash its headquarters in Raqqa.

ISIL presumably anticipates this, and will set in motion continuing guerrilla and terror tactics by perhaps scores of decentralised units organised in small cells across the Arab world and Europe. Monday may have been a preview of what it can do, and how it can do it, when and where it wants.

Rami G Khouri is a senior public policy fellow at the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut and a non-resident senior fellow at Harvard University Kennedy School. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


More from Author
Most Read