On Jan. 3, a man identified as Islamist extremist Nathan C. went on a stabbing spree in Villejuif, France, killing a man walking with his wife and wounding two women before being fatally shot by police. On Jan. 5, a U.S. soldier and two Defense Department contractors were killed when Al Shabaab attacked the Manda Bay Airfield in Kenya.
On Jan. 6, a bomb detonated on a bridge between Gamboru, Nigeria, and Fotokol Cameroon; though many details of that attack are yet to be confirmed, the chief of Nigeria’s naval staff said at the end of the year that in the previous two weeks the northeast had suffered 27 attacks from Boko Haram and ISIS. And on Jan. 10, at least 15 people were killed in a bombing claimed by ISIS at a Quetta, Pakistan, mosque.
The year is off to a rocky start on the terror front, not just in terms of attacks but fears of retaliatory action by Iran or its proxies that led to an NTAS bulletin, DHS cyber warnings and a BMAP alert on how to spot IEDs in the making. Certain terror trends are on track to be of particular concern this year — trends that can help dictate where to best direct resources and how public- and private-sector partners can work together to combat the greatest threats.
Terror groups nominally have been in the business of revenge attacks since long before Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani met his demise. Revenge messages cutting across ideologies regularly circulate through online extremist messaging, though the veneer of how terrorists try to justify their actions often slips to reveal operatives motivated by hate who robotically quote what an online mentor said about avenging a cause du jour. Notable events are used by terror leaders or propagandists to whip up would-be operatives and motivate them to conduct revenge attacks.
A white nationalist meme circulated this fall bearing a photo of the 1993 Waco siege with the words “and we did fucking nothing.” In 2017, Osama bin Laden’s son Hamza encouraged millennial revenge for his father’s 2011 death: “I invite Muslims generally to take revenge on the Americans, the murderers of the Sheikh, specifically from those who participated in this heinous crime.” ISIS in West Africa claimed that a Dec. 26 video showing the murder of 11 kidnapped Nigerian Christians was revenge for the death of self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The revenge terrorist can have the thinnest of connections to the actual aggrieved party, increasing the difficulty of predicting how an attack could take shape: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed revenge for the targeted killing of Soleimani, and reportedly wanted a direct attack by Iranian forces rather than leaving it up to proxies, but the incitement is already out of the bag. Iran’s supreme leader hashtagged it, promising via Twitter that “a #SevereRevenge awaits the criminals who have stained their hands with his & the other martyrs’ blood.” Iran said its limited airstrikes on Iraqi targets would be the extent of their retribution, but the door is still open for proxies and inspired individuals to act as the instigator wipes his hands of incitement by claiming the revenge is done.
White Supremacist and Anti-Semitic Attacks
As much as America has braced for the threat of Islamic terror and the specter of another 9/11, as of late America has bled more from the growing menace of domestic extremism. DHS’ Homeland Security Advisory Committee noted in its latest report that six of the 67 terror attacks in the United States in 2018 were lethal, and “all six of these attacks involved elements of far-right ideologies, primarily white supremacy.” As Brian Levin, a criminologist and director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, told Congress in September, “More people were murdered domestically so far in 2019 by just a handful of white supremacists than all of those killed in the whole of calendar year 2018 in every extremist homicide event.”
“These tragic events, now baked into the history of contemporary America, represent a rapidly changing paradigm and a new age for domestic terrorism in the United States,” the HSAC report said. The October 2018 shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, the April 2019 Poway synagogue shooting, the August 2019 El Paso Walmart shooting, the December 2019 Jersey City kosher grocery shooting, and the December 2019 Monsey Hanukkah party stabbing underscored this reality. The DHS Strategic Framework for Combating Terrorism and Targeted Violence rolled out in September called white supremacist violent extremism “one of the most potent forces driving domestic terrorism” today. Former neo-Nazi Christian Picciolini warned Congress that month that “the United States is losing vital ground in a battle we have yet to acknowledge exists on some levels.”
White supremacist groups and purveyors of racism and anti-Semitism have found an online base for incitement and recruitment much like ISIS honed the medium to further their goals of building ranks and inspiring lone terrorists. The DHS framework noted this similarity, adding that “in addition to mainstream social media platforms, white supremacist violent extremists use lesser-known sites like Gab, 8chan, and EndChan, as well as encrypted channels” to stoke hate or announce their intentions, such as when Pittsburgh shooter Robert Bowers posted “I’m going in” before his attack and New Zealand mosque shooter Brenton Tarrant linked to his attack livestream and told the like-minded to “do your part.”
Domestic extremists are also posting memes and metal-soundtrack training-camp videos that echo the stylized violence and call to arms used with devastating effect by ISIS and al-Qaeda. Picciolini reported white supremacist recruitment efforts targeted at kids playing multiplayer online games and vulnerable participants in online depression and autism forums, while some Americans have gone to train at camps in Ukraine and Russia. “We tend to view white nationalist attacks like those in Charleston or El Paso as isolated hate crimes, but I can’t stress enough that this view is naive, and dangerous, and will continue to expose Americans until we acknowledge that this threat is persistent and pervasive,” he said.
The late Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi whipped up would-be jihadists with the promise of a centralized physical caliphate and terrorist state, but the grand strategy of ISIS and its “just jihad” — their term for homegrown violent extremism — was a lot broader than that. Place a world map flat on a table, knock over a salt shaker and the ISIS vision emerges: concentrated more in certain places, with particles spread out across the world in the form of cells or individuals who may have never stepped foot in a foreign training camp but are willing to attack where they were born and bred.
ISIS has the motive, the means in the form of smuggled finances and loyal global core followers, and they’re seizing each opportunity including functioning as an insurgency in their old stomping ground — a top Kurdish counterterrorism official recently described the newly reorganized and resurgent ISIS in Iraq as “al-Qaeda on steroids.” Top counterterrorism officials told the UN Security Council in August that, in addition to robust affiliates, independently inspired operators and hundreds of millions in cash reserves, up to 30,000 of the estimated original 40,000 foreign fighters in the ranks of ISIS had survived the battles with the Syrian Democratic Forces that brought down the physical caliphate. Recruitment and attacks in West Africa are increasing fast, and among thousands of ISIS fighters in Asia women are increasingly stepping into the role of jihadist. And that doesn’t count what they called the “frustrated travelers” — an unknown number of ISIS sympathizers who wanted to journey to Iraq and Syria but couldn’t or wouldn’t, and have been radicalized but live to fight another day.
The terror group also has a recruitment pool that it’s counting on to grow its next generation of fighters. In its caliphate heyday, ISIS propaganda placed heavy emphasis on the importance of “cubs” to their staying power, and voices from across the counterterrorism spectrum have raised concerns about the future of children detained in poor conditions as their mothers — ISIS wives — hang in limbo waiting for acceptance by their home countries. Circumstances of the ISIS family camps are poised to result in children bolstering “their sense of being, in effect, citizens of the Islamic State, potentially preparing them to form the core of a future resurgence,” warned national security professionals in a 9/11 anniversary open letter.
Rising Terror in Africa
As the news cycle focused on the escalation in Iran tensions last weekend, Al Shabaab terrorists made their way toward the Manda Bay military base in Kenya and launched their deadly attack on American forces.
Terror thrives and grows where the world neglects to pay proper attention to extremists taking advantage of weaker security situations to set up shop. This past summer, citing increasing attacks and terrorist activity in the Sahel and West Africa, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres declared that the people of Africa “are on the front line of efforts to tackle terrorism and the spread of violent extremism,” and the international community needed to urgently step in and help countries buckling under the pressure of increasingly powerful terrorist groups. In August, UN Under-Secretary-General of the Office of Counter-Terrorism Vladimir Voronkov warned the UN Security Council of “a striking increase in ISIL and al-Qaeda-linked recruitment and violence” in West Africa and called ISIS’ West Africa Province “one of the strongest” affiliates of the terror group.
In 2018, 85 percent of all terror attacks struck the Middle East, South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. At a November briefing on the State Department’s annual country-by-country terrorism reports, counterterrorism coordinator Ambassador Nathan Sales was asked about terror in Africa rising as the caliphate in Iraq and Syria fell. “Terrorist fighters are always looking for the next battleground… the trendline in the Sahel is discouraging, to say the least,” Sales said. Maj. Gen. Marcus Hicks told CBS News during the spring Flintlock regional counterterrorism training exercises that “the spectacular rise of ISIS has garnered so much international attention that al-Qaeda has been able to take advantage of the attention being paid to the Middle East, while they quietly build infrastructure and support here in Africa” in what appears to be “a more sophisticated and deliberate long-term strategy.” Mali President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta warned in a November TV address that terrorism was so bad “the stability and existence of our country are at stake.”
Mainstream Extremist Recruitment
Al-Qaeda criticized the Obama administration for not doing enough to combat climate change. White supremacist groups have mingled core hate messaging with materials promoting clean living or mainstream political slogans. The Taliban have promoted tree-planting “for the beautification of Earth” and have a Commission for Prevention of Civilian Casualties and Complaints. As extremist methods and messaging have evolved, terror groups have paid special attention to their need to be palatable — so they can reel in new members with a more mainstream tone, and so they get less pushback from portions of the populace who generally agree with some of their less-extremist promoted messages.
These promotional manipulations try to cloak or soften the core aims of the extremists, which remain unchanged but with greater acceptance or more people turning a blind eye will become a greater threat. Tracking all messaging — the violent, hate-filled, and seemingly innocuous — gives not only an insight into extremist groups’ branding strategies but pinpoints where the group is operating and what new audiences they may be targeting.
Hybrid Methods, Crossover Training and Soft Targets
When the World Trade Center and Pentagon were struck by hijacked planes in 2001, law enforcement scrambled to secure the symbolic or prominent targets in their jurisdictions: airports and train stations, centers of government, popular tourist attractions, critical infrastructure such as power stations, etc. It was hardly fathomable then to think that, 14 years later, terrorists would plan and execute a mass shooting and attempted bombing at such a run-of-the-mill event as a holiday party for San Bernardino County health department employees.
ISIS propaganda pushed the concept of soft targets to unnerving territory, suggesting ambushing would-be renters with a fake Craigslist ad, targeting teens playing sports in a park, or killing lone patrons who stumble out of a bar and into adjacent alleys. The message was that the surprise element of the attack and terror sown on Main Street could be of greater value than trying — and perhaps failing, depending on the skill or access of the jihadist — to penetrate a symbolic hardened target. But that doesn’t mean critical infrastructure is off the hook — as targets diversify and the technologically skilled are counted among extremist ranks, hybrid cyber-physical attacks are a mounting threat.
This ISIS messaging was included in materials posted openly online, the same places where many of their adherents found and reaped tips from al-Qaeda magazines. Toledo synagogue attack plot suspect Damon M. Joseph, who sparked concern with his online posts and was charged with supporting ISIS, allegedly cited Pittsburgh synagogue shooter Bowers as an inspiration. Attacks are increasingly hybrid, and so are the attackers — extremists are feeding off each other’s best practices. The web is a terror marketplace where a group speaks not only to its adherents and an individual doesn’t just shout into the void with bomb-making techniques or target suggestions, but they contribute to an ample open-source library of D.I.Y. extremist training and incitement that crosses group allegiances and ideologies.