Over the past several months, the number of terrorist attacks orchestrated by ISIS appear to be increasing exponentially. Between June 28 and July 2, which coincided with the month of Ramadan in the Islamic calendar, ISIS claimed responsibility for multiple attacks that collectively resulted in the deaths of over 400 civilians. Since the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris, the international community has become acutely aware of the likelihood of ISIS activity outside the Middle East. ISIS’ new international frontier likely reflects its significant loss of territory and influence in Iraq and the greater Levant region. These attacks occurred just as the United States-led coalition to counter ISIS celebrated a series of military victories against the jihadist group. However, the efforts of the coalition have largely failed to address the growing problem of international terror.
ISIS’s new strategy of orchestrating terror attacks abroad represents an even more insidious threat to international security. The US-led coalition largely considers ISIS to be a regional phenomenon, which allows it to target the terror group militarily through airstrikes and limited ground forces. ISIS’s shift abroad makes traditional military action far less effective. The international community’s outpouring of support following attacks in Western Europe and its relative indifference to attacks in the remainder of the world (particularly majority Islamic-countries) also reveal our limited capacity for sympathy and outrage, which contributes to ISIS’s continued success and ideological expansion.
ISIS propelled itself to the forefront of international news in June 2014 when it published its most widely circulated recruitment video on social media. The video shows an ISIS-fighter astride the modern Iraq-Syria border, proclaiming that ISIS would never recognize the border as legitimate and that it was God’s will for ISIS to redraw the map of the Middle East. The video established the group’s overarching goal: to found an Islamic caliphate in modern-day Iraq and the territories held as French mandates after WWI, known collectively as the Levant. Its terrorist activity accompanies its pseudo-governmental structure, which includes established judicial, legislative, and military institutions. ISIS was thus, at its onset, simultaneously a politically and geographically coherent entity, a terrorist organization, and a global ideology that would attract thousands of alienated individuals across the globe.
As the U.S.-led coalition, aided by ground forces operating in the region, have taken back a number of key cities and degraded ISIS’s territorial legitimacy, the group has shifted its focus towards orchestrating terror attacks overseas. The November attacks in Paris left at least 130 people dead, bombings at the airport and at a metro station in Brussels killed 32 people, a June attack in Istanbul killed 42, and a July attack at a restaurant in Bangladesh killed 28. In June, lesser-reported attacks occurred across the Middle East, including an attack at a Ramadan celebration in Baghdad that left 250 dead and bombings in three Saudi Arabian cities. These attacks almost exclusively targeted Muslims. Violence loosely inspired by the Islamic State also points to its dangerous influence as a global ideology. Omar Mateen, for instance, who carried out the June 12 mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, post-facto declared his allegiance to ISIS, which promptly thereafter claimed responsibility for Mateen’s actions. ISIS’s loose ties to the Orlando shooting has made it a symbol for hate crimes broadly, expanding its influence well beyond its founding parameters of establishing a caliphate. It is easy for individuals such as Mateen to attach the ISIS label to personally motivated hate crimes.
The evolving nature of ISIS demands that the international community, and particularly members of the U.S.-led coalition, articulate a new strategy for “degrading and defeating” the terror group that extends beyond the military sphere. The coalition’s combined program of airstrikes and coordinated ground troops has effectively halted ISIS’ goal of establishing a caliphate. Yet the lack of a unified non-military strategy for preventing the rise of these attacks has led to a dangerous increase in divisiveness, xenophobia, and fear-mongering across the Western world.
Perhaps the most important and obvious manifestation of the divisive nature of this conflict is an imbalance in responses to attacks in Western Europe and in Muslim-majority countries. The Paris attacks received substantial news coverage and social media attention. Onlookers across the Western world decried the attacks as assaults on Western civilization, posted hashtags, and used filters for profile pictures that signaled solidarity with Paris residents. The March attacks in Brussels received similar attention on news and social media: Facebook enabled a “check-in” function that allowed users to mark themselves safe, and people across the Western world mourned lives lost.
The June attacks in Istanbul received a fairly large amount of news coverage across Western news platforms, but not nearly the same attention on social media. Turkey, a majority Muslim country that straddles Europe and the Middle East, is perhaps just far enough outside of the Western world bubble not to warrant nearly the outpouring of support that followed the attacks on Western European soil. And attacks in Bangladesh, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, covered by Western news outlets, to varying degrees, hardly received any attention, despite the fact that the attacks in Iraq were among the deadliest attacks orchestrated by ISIS against civilians this year.
To a certain extent, this sympathy gap is understandable: individuals are more likely to express solidarity with others whose lives, residences, and cultures more closely mirror their own. Civilians in the Western world have also become somewhat numb to hearing and reading about violence and attacks against civilians in Iraq, which partially justifies the lack of support and mourning for victims in Baghdad. Overcoming this instinct towards passivity, however, could go a long way in degrading ISIS’s global influence.
Beyond reflecting a now par-for-the-course divisiveness within the international community, the West’s tendency to homogenize the Islamic world as a uniform entity unworthy of sympathy feeds into ISIS’ recruitment model. ISIS sustains itself by driving a wedge between the Sunni Muslims it purports to represent and the wider world. It capitalizes on a sense of alienation and lack of social mobility within particular Sunni Muslim communities. When the Western world does not respond to acts of mass violence—Syrian President Bashar al-Assad unleashing ammunition against his own civilians, for instance—those civilians are susceptible to radicalization. A continued demonization of Syrian refugees plays into the same stock understanding of the “Islamic world” as a backwards and underdeveloped foil to the liberal, progressive Western world. A necessary and clear-cut yet remarkably challenging strategy to implement, overcoming this sympathy gap and indifference towards the “Islamic world” ought to represent a cornerstone of the global campaign to counter the Islamic State. Considering each terror attack a moment worthy of collective sympathy, no matter where that attack occurs, is a necessary prerequisite to degrading ISIS in its current incarnation.
Image source: Flickr/Day Donaldson