ISIS has lost control of many areas of Syria and Iraq, and has been unable to carry out major terrorist operations within Europe and the US, while also suffering a significant decline in its number of foreign fighters. In the wake of this, ISIS has begun to establish a strategic unit for targeting Western countries which utilizes a "hit-and-run" approach to carry out surprise operations against Western countries and interests, through operations including stabbings, explosions, hit-and-run vehicle attacks, and other methods with broad effects but limited scope. These operations require lower human and material costs than other operations they have previously carried out.
A New Strategy
ISIS began to increase its use of this strategy after its defeat in the town of Baghuz in Syria in March 2019. This "hit-and-run" strategy involves several components, including:
1- Using crude methods and the tools available to them: ISIS’s "hit-and-run" strategy has used crude, low-cost methods such as cold weapons, firearms, and primitive IEDs. There have also been kidnapping operations and killings, the most prominent of which was the terrorist operation that occurred in Nice, France, in October 2020 and resulted in the killing of a woman inside the Notre Dame Basilica, while another woman sustained grave injuries and died after the incident, and a church worker was stabbed. About a month before that, another terrorist operation in Paris involving a knife attack carried out by a person of Pakistani origin resulted in four people being injured.
2- Operations relying on surprise, then quickly fleeing the scene: ISIS has mostly chosen to carry out operations in places where they can inflict the greatest number of casualties, and where there is a limited security presence. It usually operates outside major capital cities, and relies upon an element of surprise during the operation, and then quickly fleeing afterwards.
3- Relying on "lone wolves": In order to carry out its strategy, ISIS has recruited disaffected Muslims in Western countries who are sympathetic with ISIS in some capacity. These individuals are referred to as "lone wolves," since they are usually recruited over the internet, and do not work within a traditional hierarchy of power. The former ISIS spokespersonAbu Mohammad al-Adnani had called on ISIS sympathizers to kill "without checking in with leaders, and by using the weapons available to them," even if only a kitchen knife.
4- Attracting recruits with criminal backgrounds: It does not seem that ISIS has paid much attention to jurisprudential or ideological questions in recruiting potential agents to carry out this "hit-and-run" strategy. A broad examination of the terrorist operations that ISIS has carried out in Europe during the past two years demonstrates that ISIS has begun to work on attracting individuals with a criminal background who are living in Western countries, without particular concern as to their religious or ideological orientation.
Investigations in Tunisia regarding the terrorist Ibrahim al-Issawi, who carried out the Nice operation in France in October 2020, found that al-Issawi was not classified as a terrorist by Tunisian authorities, and that he had left the country through legal avenues in September 2020. However, he had previously been linked to other incidents involving drugs and violence, since he was addicted to drugs for a time.
The reasons that ISIS has adopted this "hit-and-run" strategy to target Western countries can be explained through the following conditions:
1- Declining human and financial resources: ISIS’s logistical and financial resources have fallen significantly since its defeat in Syria and Iraq. It has also experienced a drop in recruitment after losing control over these territories as well as losing many of its funding sources, and experiencing declining appeal among many extremists. This has led the terrorist organization to search for a strategy to carry out operations that could have a wide-reaching effect at the lowest cost. Given all these challenges, the "hit-and-run" strategy has become its preferred method for carrying out retaliatory terrorist operations against Western countries.
2- Losing the capacity to make tactical plans: After the defeat of ISIS and the fall of the so-called "caliphate" in Syria and Iraq, ISIS is no longer able to make tactical plans for major operations, or to plan for organized operations in Western countries. These factors have prompted the terrorist organization to adopt a new strategy that relies on crude, low-cost methods and plans that can be carried out by ordinary people without prior training or planning. This became particularly true after most of the organization’s leadership was either killed or fled.
3- Demonstrating the ability to carry out new operations: Through these lightningattacks, ISIS is trying to demonstrate that it is capable of carrying out costly special operations, especially givenWestern and global media’s particular interest in covering such operations. This would allow it to achieve one of its goals,which is to demonstrate the ability to maintain its hold and to deal serious blows, in spite of the hits it has taken, after most of the two top tiers of its leadership were killed, including its former leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
4- Rebuilding the trust of its followers and supporters: ISIS aims to use this strategy to win back the trust of its supporters and followers in Western countries, after the major defeats that it has suffered, after which many of its followers fled. Therefore, it wants to maintain its image in the eyes of its supporters,and to show that it is capable of keeping its hold and carrying out new operations against Western countries which had previously dealt major blows to ISIS. This will enable it to attract new terrorists from Western countries.
In conclusion, ISIS’s special unit’s "hit-and-run" strategy to target Western countries demonstrates that it has suffered significantly from its reduced capabilities after being dealt major blows. This has prompted ISIS to try to demonstrate that it can carry out new operations and strike back. This strategy enables it to circumvent security obstacles and its own limited capacities, and to utilize an element of surprise to expand the scope of its impact and media interest in its activities. This is what ISIS needs in order to rebuild the trust of its supporters and followers, after the fall of its "delusional" project.