How Should Governments Respond to ISIS’s Unconventional Terror Tactics?

As it loses physical ground, ISIS is encouraging sympathisers to carry out unconventional ‘lone wolf’ attacks in their own neighbourhoods.

French police and forensic officers stand next to a truck July 15, 2016 that ran into a crowd celebrating the Bastille Day national holiday on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France, July 14. Credit: Reuters/Eric Gaillard

French police and forensic officers stand next to a truck July 15, 2016 that ran into a crowd celebrating the Bastille Day national holiday on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France, July 14. Credit: Reuters/Eric Gaillard

On Monday, the UK announced that it was banning all electronic devices larger than a normal smartphone on inbound flights from airports in six countries. They all happen to be Muslim-majority countries, but the UK government has dismissed the idea that it was taking a leaf out of Donald Trump’s Muslim ban. It marketed the ban as a terror protectionist measure just like the US did, which has banned electronics on inbound flights from ten airports. The New York Times reported that intelligence showing ISIS developing a bomb in portable electronics could have trigged the UK and the US to initiate the ban.

Even before the UK ban came into effect, 52-year-old Khalid Masood rammed a car into people walking on the Westminster Bridge in London before crashing it into the gates of the British parliament in an attempt to enter the complex.  He then ran and stabbed an unarmed police officer in the parliament compound before being shot dead. Masood was born in the UK and used a knife to send ripples of terror around London. ISIS took responsibility for the attack, though the claim still remains unverified.

Freelance terror

Moving away from conventional practices like recruiting, training and assigning missions to create terror, ISIS seems to be embracing a more of a freelance approach to terror. Like everybody else, it is using the power of technology to connect with its sympathisers and potential operators. By using online resources like its magazines, it is providing simple manuals for everyday radicals. Its new mantra: do it at your own comfort, with everyday items like knives and in your own neighbourhood.

Even as news reports about ISIS losing territory on the ground surface, the increased unconventional terror attacks seem to indicate a new pattern in terror improvisation. We could call either call this desperation or digital strategy on ISIS’s part. Now that it has become harder to enter ISIS territories and fly out, they seem to tell supporters to stay wherever they are and carry out attacks. The incentive will of course be that ISIS might claim the attack and the person who carried the attack will feel he was carrying it out on the behest of ISIS. So far, it’s going well for them. Not only are they freelancing but also crowdrising – sourcing ideas and inspiration from the crowds of supporters that might come up with strategies to carry out attacks.

Vehicle attacks

In July 2016, a cargo truck deliberately rammed into a crowd of people celebrating French National Day, killing 84 people and injuring 434 people. Capitalising on the incident, the November edition of one of ISIS’s publication carried a detailed feature on how to carry vehicle attacks.

“It was superbly demonstrated in the attack launched by brother Mohamed Lohouaiej-Bouhlel, who was travelling at a speed of 90 kilometers per hour, plowed his 19 ton load bearing truck into crowds celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, France, harvesting through the attack the slaughter of 86 crusader citizens and injuring 434 more,” the report said. The feature outlines how to choose a vehicle and how to choose particular method for a target. In December 2016, another truck was driven into a Christmas market in Berlin, Germany killing 12 people and injuring 56. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack and said that the assailant had answered its call to target citizens.

Knife attacks

Even before the London attack, in November 2016, a young Somali refugee carried a knife attack on Ohio State University’s campus. He had previously expressed concern about Islamophobia in the US and how he couldn’t even openly pray without being judged. This is not the first attempt to use knives to create terror, but certainly the first after ISIS published its 2016 October edition of one of its magazines.

In its section titled ‘Just Terror Tactics’, it talks at length about knife attacks and why they make great terror weapons. “Knives though not the only weapon to inflict harm upon the kuffar, are widely available in every land thus readily accessible. They are extremely easy to conceal and highly lethal, especially in the hands of someone who knows how to use them effectively. And also due to their accessibility, were a person to conduct a campaign of knife attacks, he could dispose of his weapons with each use, finding no difficulty in acquiring another one,” said the author. The section goes into great lengths about all operational tactics necessary and encourages people to conduct ‘lonewolf’ attacks

Arson attacks

In January edition of the magazine, the acknowledgments to the attackers of the Ohio State attack as well as the Berlin attack are hard to miss. It is quickly connected to the need to continue attacks and this time with a new tactic – arson.

“Throughout history and until present day, incendiary attacks have played significant role in modern and guerrilla warfare, as well as ‘lonewolf’ terrorism. Such attacks have been behind destruction of neighborhoods, and public, private and government property, while likewise claiming numerous lives,” begins the in-depth feature on making a Molotov cocktail and using them along with a picture of a church in Dallas with the caption “a popular crusader gathering place waiting to be burned down”. The article ends with how to claim responsibility of any attack as well as the potential invisible destruction of carrying out an arson attack.

Every other edition of the magazine seems to carry a section dedicated to one particular kind of attack and explaining all the needful steps, helpful tips and guidance on how to efficiently carry out different kind of attacks. Some features even discuss why not to choose other weapons and what might be the pros and cons of every such selection. The magazines are freely available on the internet, at least in the US.

Propaganda publications produce in-depth content to recruit independent supporters and sympathisers to carry out attacks in the West. While these writings might help understand and anticipate attacks, how can the overall digital strategy of the ISIS be effectively countered?

Just like the US and UK already knew which planes and airports the potential terrorists were going to take, hopefully they can share how they have resources to stay on top of this digital content distribution. Only an unconventional strategy can match the old medicine in new bottle propaganda of ISIS.

Tejeswi Pratima Dodda is a digital communications specialist in the San Francisco Bay Area.