Analysis of ISIS-Inspired Terrorist Attacks in Western Countries

Religious war ISIS-style: the front page of Dabiq, ISIS's English-language publication. An ISIS operative pushes over a cross on a church steeple. The front cover reads, "Break the cross" (Dabiq #15, July 2016). The first ISIS-inspired terrorist attack of its type, carried out in a church in the French town of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, near Rouen in Normandy, where ISIS operatives slit the throat of a priest.
Religious war ISIS-style: the front page of Dabiq, ISIS's English-language publication. An ISIS operative pushes over a cross on a church steeple. The front cover reads, "Break the cross" (Dabiq #15, July 2016). The first ISIS-inspired terrorist attack of its type, carried out in a church in the French town of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, near Rouen in Normandy, where ISIS operatives slit the throat of a priest.

The Role of ISIS-Inspired Attacks in ISIS's Anti-Western Terrorist Campaign

1.      For the past year ISIS and its supporters have waged a broad terrorist campaign against Western countries and Turkey. They have carried out attacks in airports, hotels, tourist centers, clubs, social institutions, mass-attendance events and more. The objective of the campaign is to terrify the West, deter Western governments from continuing their attacks on ISIS and cause economic damage. It is also intended to raise the morale of ISIS operatives and supporters and to draw attention away from the blows inflicted on the organization in Iraq, Syria and Libya. So far it can be said that ISIS and its supporters have successfully carried out attacks. Hundreds of civilians have been killed and wounded, extensive damage has been done to the tourist industry, and daily life in many European cities has been disrupted.

2.      Some of the attacks carried out during the past year in Europe and Turkey were planned by ISIS's headquarters in Syria. They included operational, logistic and intelligence preparations in Syria and the involvement of local terrorist networks (sometimes with participation of foreign fighters who had returned from Syria). However, there were also attacks initiated and carried out by local operatives inspired by ISIS without the participation of ISIS headquarters or its networks("ISIS-inspired attacks").

3.      The current wave is the second of ISIS-inspired attacks. The first wave occurred after September 2014 when the United States-led coalition began its aerial attacks on ISIS in Syria and Iraq. ISIS's attacks targeted coalition countries. Most of them were carried out in France and some in Canada, the United States, Australia and Turkey. Most of them were shooting, vehicular and stabbing attacks. The lethal nature of the first wave of ISIS-inspired attacks and their media coverage were considerably less than those of the current wave.[1]

4.      The ISIS-inspired attacks of the first wave were responses to the attacks carried out by the United States and the West. They were apparently the result of ISIS's inability to carry out more complex attacks, which would require operational, logistic and intelligence preparations. However, during the past year, since ISIS extended its operational capabilities and developed a network of terrorist operatives in Western Europe, its attacks have become more thoroughly planned and more complex. The combined terrorist attack in Paris (November 13, 2015), whose main target was the Bataclan theatre, was the beginning of a series of planned and combined attacks. They included attacks at the airport in Brussels, a Brussels subway station, the Turkish international airport and tourist sites in Istanbul.

5.      At the same time, during the past two months there has been a wave of ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks. We do not yet have a data base large enough for an in-depth analysis, but an initial examination of the attacks reveals certain common aspects: they have been initiated(in most cases) by lone (sometimes two) terrorists; and in most cases the terrorists were young Muslimswho were superficially exposed to ISIS's ideologyor influenced by ISIS's calls to carry out terrorist attacks in Western countries. Most of the attacks were carried out in provincial cities and not in capitals or large cities. The Internet and social networks were the main platforms for transmitting ISIS propaganda, which fell on willing ears even of young Muslims who led completely secular lives.


ISIS Calls for Terrorist Attacks in the West

In April and May 2016 ISIS initiated a campaigncalling on its supporters to attack civilians in the West(the "Crusader" countries). In ITIC assessment the campaign was aimed at deterring Western countries from attacking the organization and at the same time raising the morale of ISIS supporters in the wake of the blows suffered in its "core countries" (Syria and Iraq). In ITIC assessment the current wave of ISIS-inspired attacks was the result of the campaign.


7. As part of the campaign, two appeals issued by ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani were prominent:

1) On April 16, 2016, he appealed to every faithful Muslim "to kill the infidels: Americans, French and their allies." He said that anyone who did not have access to a gun or bomb was to use any other means at his disposal, including throwing stones, slitting throats, carrying out vehicular attacks, and burning houses and businesses(Akhbar Dawlat al-Islam, April 16, 2016).

Abu Muhammad al-Adnani calls on Muslims to kill the infidels, the Americans, the French and their allies (Akhbar Dawlat al-Islam, April 16, 2016).
Abu Muhammad al-Adnani calls on Muslims to kill the infidels, the Americans, the French and their allies (Akhbar Dawlat al-Islam, April 16, 2016).

2) On May 21, 2016, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani launched a new campaign of threats (in several languages, including English, French and German), appealing to ISIS supporters in Europe and America to attack and kill the Christian "Crusaders." There was no need, he said, to hesitate to kill civilians, because there were no innocent people in the "Crusader" countries. "Know," he said, "that in the countries of the Crusaders…no blood is immune and there is no such thing as innocence…Know that attacking those considered civilians it is more desirable and beneficial for us because it hurts them more."

8. In retrospect it can be said that Abu Muhammad al-Adnani's appeals to Muslims in the West fell on willing ears and influenced those who carried out ISIS-inspired attacksduring nearly two months. Most of them were in Franceand the remainder in Germany, Belgium, the United States and Israel. ISIS claimed responsibilityfor the attacks. Propaganda materials and recordings made on cell phones before the attacks were found in the possession of some of the terrorists, indicating an affiliation with ISIS. (For a description of ISIS-inspired attacks see the Appendix.) In July 2016 a new issue of Dabiq, ISIS's English-language publication, was circulated. Most of it was devoted to glorifying the attacks recently carried out in Western countries and the terrorists involved, and called for more.


Profile of the Terrorists Who Carry Out ISIS-Inspired Attacks

9. This study analyzes eight terrorist attackscarried out in recent months in Western countries in response Abu Muhammad al-Adnani's appeals:

1)   The machete attack near the police station in Charleroi, Belgium (August 6, 2016).

2)   The slitting of the throat of the French priest in a church in the town of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, near Rouen in Normandy, France (July 26, 2016).

3)   The suicide bombing attack in the southern German town of Ansbach (July 25, 2016).

4)   The axe attack on train passengers near Wuerzburg, in southern Germany (July 18, 2016).

5)   The Bastille Day vehicular attack on the promenade in Nice (July 14,2016).

6)   The murder of the French police officer and his partner in the town of Magnanville, near Paris (July 13, 2016).

7)   The mass-murder at the nightclub in Orlando, Florida (July 12, 2016).

8)   The shooting attack at the Sarona Market commercial and entertainment complex in the heart of Tel Aviv (June 8, 2016)

10. The initial examination of the profile of the eight terrorist operatives who carried out the aforementioned attacks revealed the following:

1) General background:

A)     Most of the terrorists were young, single men between the ages of 17 and 29. The exceptions were the terrorists in Nice (who was 31 years old and had three children) and Charleroi (who was 33 years old). Most of them were of second or third generation North African extraction(in France) or of Syrian, Pakistani and Afghan extraction(in Germany and the United States). Two (in Germany) were refugees who had not yet received permanent resident status. One (in Belgium) was in the country illegally.

B)     B. Most of the terrorists hadcriminal recordsand had been imprisoned for various offences. Five of them (in France) were being monitored by the authorities but no incriminating evidence had been found as grounds for arrest. The murderer in Orlando had been investigated by the FBI and no cause was found to continue monitoring him.

2) Motivation:

A.         Most of the terrorists did not lead strict religious Muslim lives. On the contrary, most of their neighbors and acquaintances said they lived normal secular lives and dressed accordingly. In one instance (Nice) the police hypothesized that following instructions from ISIS, the terrorist pretended to live a secular life in order to avoid arousing suspicion.[2] Acquaintances of one of the terrorists from Normandy sensed he was becoming radicalized about two weeks before the attack, but did not think to alert the authorities (such a short period of time makes it difficult to identify a terrorist).

B.         Apparently the terrorists had viewed and been influenced by many propaganda videosproduced in various languages and uploaded to the Internet and social networks. The videos encouraged Muslims to carry out terrorist attacksin their home countries [instead of joining the fighting in Syria and Iraq]. Some of them made their own videos on their cell phones before their carried out attacks, using the same terminology employed by Abu Muhammad al-Adnani. They were attracted by the idea of the Islamic State without examining its Salafist-jihadi ideology in depth.

3) Lack of combat experiencein the ranks of ISIS: None of the terrorists had gone to Syria or Iraq to fight. Only one (one of those who slit the priest's throat) had tried and failed to go to Syria to fight in the ranks of ISIS. Thus the terrorists who carried out the ISIS-inspired attacks did not have military experienceand in most cases prepared the attacks themselves. That might be because ISIS prefers to use operatives with combat experience to carry out more thoroughly planned combined attacks, rather than ISIS-inspired attacks.

4) General characteristics of the attacks:

A.      In most instances the attacks were carried out in crowded locationsto harm as many people as possible.

B.      Most of the attacks (with the exception of Nice and the Tel Aviv Sarona Market) were carried out using easily available weapons(knives, axe, machete). The did not require extensive preparation and were not dependent on external support.

C.     The attacks in the Sarona Market and possibly in Nice required logistic assistance. The assistance was apparently local but not necessarily connected to ISIS's networks.

D.     The locations of the attacks were apparently not prepared far in advanceand at least some of them were spontaneous. In most instances the terrorists chose familiar locations near where they lived(with the exception of the attack in Tel Aviv, whose perpetrators came from Hebron).

5) Locations of the attacks: Three of the attacks were carried out in France, two in Germany, and one each in Belgium, the United States and Israel. Almost all (with the exception of Tel Aviv) were carried out in provincial cities and townsrather than in capitals or major cities. The wide distributionof the attacks over large areas is another factor making it difficult to prevent them.

6) Swearing allegiance to ISIS: Most of the terrorists had sworn allegiance to ISIS close to the time of or during the attack. Two exceptions were the terrorists who carried out the attacks in the United States or Tel Aviv.

7) Claiming responsibility: ISIS publicly claimed responsibilityfor all the attacks(except the one in Tel Aviv) even when there was no evidence of a direct connection with ISIS (the attacks in Nice and the United States, for example). The wording of the claims was similar and used the same terminology as Abu Muhammad al-Adnani used in his appeals for attack.

Dealing with ISIS-Inspired Terrorist Attacks

11. The ISIS-inspired attacks pose a unique challenge for Western intelligence agencies. That is because the terrorists who carry out them out act independently, spontaneously, over a wide geographical area, and without logistic, intelligence or operational support from ISIS's headquarters or local networks. Moreover, they are home grown, speak the local language and easily blend into the local population. Thus, to address the challenge a new methodology has to be devised for the collection and analysis of relevant intelligence.

12. However, the difficulties facing the West are not limited to intelligence and security. ISIS's terrorist campaign, which includes ISIS-inspired attacks, also poses political, societal and legal challengesfor the West, and requires a thorough reexamination of relations with the Muslim communities in Western countries. In responding to the challenge, fundamental tensions exist between the needs of security and the rights of the individuals. The tensions are especially prominent in Western Europe and make it difficult provide an effective response to ISIS's terrorist campaign.

[1]For further information, see the March 4, 2015 bulletin "The International Coalition Campaign against ISIS – Initial Analysis," at
[2]ISIS issued an instruction booklet for Muslims in Europe about how to behave in public to avoid suspicion. It can easily be downloaded from the Internet.