Interpreting Terrorist Waves

by Paul R. Pillar

A certain litany of comments and even vocabulary seems to be required after terrorist incidents. High-casualty attacks are “horrific,” certain methods of attack are said to be the “hallmark” of certain groups, and so forth. And with any set of incidents occurring within a short time, explanations are offered that assume a connection among the incidents, especially in terms of a presumed careful strategy being executed by a particular group.

The appetite for such explanations is understandable, and the press is only doing its job when it solicits them. But usually the interpretations outrun what the available information would justify. Humans are wired to see patterns and tend to see them even when they don’t exist. This is true of much of what has been said of the attacks during the past week in Turkey, Bangladesh, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. The timing of these attacks coming close together might not be just coincidence, but then again it might. Perhaps the holy Islamic month of Ramadan has something to do with the timing, either in presenting easier targets with crowds of people gathering at certain times and places or in sending a message related to terrorist claims of acting on behalf of a religious cause. But it is just as plausible that the timing of the attacks, as with the timing of many terrorist attacks, is related more to operational opportunities that have nothing to do with holy months or simply to when preparations for an operation happened to be complete.

Also typical is much interpretation about what the method of attack indicates about the sophistication of the attackers, and what this in turn means about who is responsible for the attack. In the current case there have been observations about how each of the attacks involved teams of people, and how this supposedly makes them more organized, and more sophisticated, than “lone wolf” attacks. Part of the problem here is the ubiquity of the “lone wolf” term, which has led to overstatement of the significance of any difference between an operation involving one person and an operation involving more than one. It does not take a lot of sophistication to organize three people, and whatever organizational facility is required can be supplied locally and not just by some large and distant group.

Moreover, there are different scales on which to measure sophistication besides the number of people involved. Success in killing people other than oneself might be one of those ways of measuring. The recent attacks have presented a mixed picture in this regard. The triple suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia don’t look very sophisticated. One of the bombers managed to kill four security guards, but the other two blew up no one but themselves.

An especially prominent subject in the current commentary concerns the role of ISIS, or its presumed role. One of the difficulties in trying to identify what ISIS—i.e., the gang that has established a mini-state in parts of Iraq and Syria—is really responsible for is that ISIS has become the most popular and prominent brand name among violent Sunni extremists, many of whom see advantage in invoking that brand name even if they really aren’t taking any orders from ISIS. Another difficulty is that ISIS has an incentive to claim responsibility for many operations that it did not actually perpetrate, to convey an impression of power and reach greater than what it really has. Of the recent well-publicized terrorist attacks, the one for which it is least likely that ISIS is responsible is that in Bangladesh, even though ISIS claimed credit for the attack and even though one of the local extremist groups that is a credible suspect has declared fealty to ISIS. Actual ISIS involvement is more likely in the other attacks farther west and closer to ISIS’s mini-state, but then again we do not know.

To the extent that ISIS really is involved in any of the recent attacks—an important qualification—then we probably are seeing a rise in attacks now partly as a reaction to the group’s losses on the ground in Iraq and Syria. Although that may sound like just an effort to put a positive gloss on a negative happening, it isn’t. Such a pattern would be consistent with how terrorism and ground warfare have entered into earlier wars, such as the war for Algerian independence in the 1950s and 1960s.

Some of the perpetrators’ thinking may center on the particular states targeted. Anything that prolongs political turmoil in Iraq and undermines support for the Abadi government—which bombings in Baghdad tend to do—helps ISIS to hang on a little longer in territory in controls in Western Iraq. And attacks against Turkey may be related to changes in Turkish policy that have made Ankara more directly opposed to ISIS than it was before. But the main reasoning would be that any violence that is conducted far and wide in the name of ISIS, or that people suspect was fomented by ISIS, helps to sustain an impression among the group’s supporters and would-be recruits that it is alive and kicking and not on the decline.

This article was first published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright The National Interest.

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One Comment

  1. The terrorist groups thrive on free publicity they’re getting from the media worldwide! The media instills fear in the general population around the world and it is doing exactly what the terrorist groups intend to do!
    I wish the media would initiate a short report as the incidents occur and end and then a complete black out in the middle! No commentary or nothing!
    This is not to say that the media is somehow responsible, the terrorist groups are responsible for their horrible acts but the media should fuel their fires!!

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