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Attribution is key to broader ISIS strategy

Attribution is key to broader ISIS strategy

The suicide bombing of a Shia mosque in Kuwait, shooting of Western tourists in Tunisia, and a beheading and attempt to blow up a chemical factory in France.

Three continents, three different attack methodologies and three different targets, but ultimately the same result. The death of innocent civilians in a brutal, horrific manner that dominates the news agenda. But aside from each attack being linked to ISIS and that they occurred (in all likelihood coincidentally) on the same day, the attacks appear to have had very little in common in terms of strategic aim.

In Kuwait, the attack marks the expansion of attempts by ISIS to undermine the domestic policies and sectarian unity of Sunni regimes across the Middle East.

Although Western tourists were ostensibly the target in Tunisia, the attack appears to be another attempt to degrade the ability of Tunisia's secular government to maintain security, specifically for the valuable but vulnerable tourist economy.

And at this stage, the French attack appears to have been the latest in a series of ISIS-inspired, 'crowd-sourced' attacks, unsophisticated in nature, easy to achieve and difficult to prevent. 

But  the attacks do demonstrate the complexity of the threat posed by ISIS. If the violence associated with ISIS could be described as 'barbaric' or 'stone age', its use of these tactics to achieve strategic aims is anything but. And as pressure on ISIS in Iraq and Syria increases, further attacks outside of the region are likely. [fold]

ISIS have now claimed that it or its affiliates were responsible for the attacks in Tunisia and Kuwait. But I would argue, particularly for attacks similar to the one in France, that the issue of 'responsibility' is becoming less relevant from a counter-terrorism investigative perspective. Al Qaeda's centralised command and control meant that identifying and removing attack planners or bomb makers could also remove the future threat. But the minimal planning and sophistication required for both the Tunisian and French attack makes this more difficult.

Where ISIS responsibility is important is in the media coverage of, and the social media response to, an attack or attack disruption. ISIS is a savvy organisation that uses its propaganda to construct a narrative of continued and inevitable success. In a week where ISIS has suffered significant losses in Iraq/Syria, these attacks allow it to continue this narrative, while encouraging copycat attacks elsewhere.

Which is why we should be careful when attributing attacks or attack plans to ISIS. It is undoubtedly true that ISIS, as AQAP before them, have legitimised the concept of localised and unsophisticated jihad. 

But self-declared links to ISIS or ISIS propaganda, or social media interactions with low-level ISIS foreign fighters and keyboard warriors do not make these attackers 'apart of ISIS' or a plan an 'ISIS plot'. Nor are they relevant to discussions concerning the threat posed by returning foreign fighters. 

That is not to say that such attacks are at odds with the strategic aims of ISIS. But by attributing responsibility, we help to build the ISIS brand and the perception that they are 'coming after us'. 

And most importantly, by viewing ISIS solely through a 'threat to the West' prism, there is a danger of becoming distracted from its true aims and focus. ISIS did publicly call for an escalation in attacks during Ramadan, and the French attack may have occurred in response to that. But we should remember that ISIS has focused on maintaining and building a Caliphate in the Middle East. 

If violence against the West or Western hostages will help achieve this aim, then they may well use it. But its primary tool for achieving this aim is through the carrying out and incitement of sectarian violence within the region, predominantly against Muslims. The bombing in Kuwait represents just the latest terrorist attack against the Shia Muslim minorities in predominantly Sunni countries such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

And by attacking Western tourists in secular and democratic Tunisia, ISIS aims to undermine the Tunisian Government and economy. This is terrorism to encourage regime change in a direction more favourable to ISIS, not mindless violence. Or in other words, ISIS foreign policy.

With ISIS-affiliated groups also emerging in unstable and violence-ridden countries such as Yemen and Libya, ISIS is not predominantly a terrorist threat to Australia and the West, or just a problem to be addressed by military operations in Iraq. It poses a foreign policy challenge with implications across North Africa, the Middle East and perhaps South Asia.

And given the differing motivations and levels of participation in the alliance combatting ISIS, helping to combat it will require a nuanced and sophisticated Australian Government strategy.

So preventing Australian citizens (dual or otherwise) from becoming ISIS cannon fodder in the Middle East is responsible governance. As is doing everything we can to prevent terrorist attacks occurring in Australia. But fundamentally, a much bigger problem is emerging across the Middle East and North Africa, one that could lead to more failed states, civil wars, and the continued forced migration of millions of innocent civilians from war zones.

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