The death of the suspected planner of the Paris terror attacks as well as the targeted assassinations of two high-profile Islamic State members who were at the forefront of its international recruiting efforts are unlikely to turn significant numbers of supporters away from the group, experts say.
But there is some good news, according to analysts and internal Islamic State documents: The group might be encountering difficulty in finding new recruits from outside Syria and Iraq.
Aymenn al Tamimi, a jihadi expert for the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia, says an Islamic State document dated Oct. 2 that he has uncovered offered temporary amnesty to deserters from the group. That’s a possible sign that the group’s having trouble retaining troops amid flagging morale, he said, and may be one reason the group is expanding the battlefield to Europe at a time when it seems to have abandoned large-scale military operations in Iraq and Syria.
“On the home front, they’re facing challenges in recruiting and mobilizing,” he said. “Impossible to fight on so many fronts at once.”
J.M. Berger, a co-author of a book that focused on the Islamic State’s social media operations, agrees the group might be running out of recruits attracted to its carnage-driven ethos. He said the recent mayhem attributed to the group, including the apparent bombing of a Russian jetliner in Sinai that killed 224, may be intended to boost the group’s flagging international recruiting efforts.
“The view from 60,000 feet is that recruiting may be starting to plateau,” said Berger, who also is a nonresident scholar at the Brookings Institution, a Washington research center. “This is partly because airstrikes have targeted recruitment and social media operations pretty heavily, but ISIS has also lost some momentum. And ultimately, there might simply be a ceiling to how many people are going to find such a fringe, ultraviolent movement appealing.”
Tamami, who has archived an extensive collection of internal Islamic State documents leaked to him by residents of areas the group controls, says that the amnesty, which only applied for one month, might have been an admission that the group is stretched too thin.
But other factors might have had an impact, including greater efforts by Turkey to seal its border with Syria and prevent would-be fighters from crossing into the Islamic State.
Among the signs the Islamic State has lost momentum is the group’s inability to recapture one the Syrian government’s last outposts in Deir el Zour, the capital of the province by the same name. Despite controlling most of the city for more than a year, the group has been unable to evict the last Syrian government troops from an airbase on the outskirts of the city. That’s particularly notable, Tamimi said, because the Syrian soldiers have had their direct supply lines cut. A year ago, the Islamic State would have made short work of seizing the base, he said.
“I think the general point applies: Can’t afford to make intense commitments everywhere,” he said.
Will McCants, a Brookings researcher whose new book on the Islamic State, “The ISIS Apocalypse,” looks at the group’s philosophy, also sees internal problems as a possible reason for the Paris attacks.
“One reason jihadists undertake high-profile terrorist attacks is to attract new recruits to the cause and boost flagging morale,” he said. The carnage in Paris and the violent last stand by the ringleader of the attacks in an apartment in a Paris suburb five days later “will undoubtedly achieve both for the Islamic State.” The ringleader, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, died in the police raid in which thousands of bullets were fired.
It also might overcome whatever negative impact was inflicted on recruiting by recent Islamic State setbacks, including the group’s withdrawal from the town of Sinjar, Iraq, last month and the targeted assassinations of figures there were well known to foreign audiences: Juanaid Hussain, a British-born social media expert and the Islamic State’s so-called lead hacker, who died in a mid-September drone strike, and British subject Mohammed Emwazi, better known as “Jihadi John,” who starred in multiple execution videos, including those of American journalists James Foley and Stephen Sotloff. Emwazi was killed in a strike on Raqqa Nov. 12.
But one European counterterrorism official, who spoke under a grant of anonymity because he’s not authorized to speak to reporters, noted that the shift from the battlefields of the Middle East to a well-planned, high-profile attack in Europe represented an alarming change whose implications still are unknown.
The Nov. 13 Paris attack, he said, “is the sign that there’s something new that we don’t fully understand, and unfortunately I can’t say this is even close to the last time we will see similar operations.”
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero