An ISIS member sets a brush fire in Iraq. (ISIS video)

Terror Fire Season: ISIS Ramps Up Use of Wildfire Arson as Simple Tactic

In both action and propaganda, ISIS is yet again promoting the use of arson as a terror tactic — taking advantage of warming temperatures to find fuel to set alight with the intent of sowing fear, economic pain and potentially casualties.

A new video released by the terror group, “Strike Their Necks,” clocks in at 49 minutes and centers around ISIS attacks in Iraq, all with the frenetic pace and production quality of videos produced in the Islamic State’s heyday. Along with news footage of counterterrorism operations, the video features ISIS-shot footage of guerrilla-style attacks on various targets — particularly ambushes of vehicles on remote roads, often murdering civilians — along with terror training and executions.

(ISIS video)

The video also includes structure arson and nighttime footage of a small group of terrorists setting brush fires.

A spate of blazes last summer occurred after ISIS reportedly tried to extort taxes from farmers and set fire to their fields when they refused to pay. Long promoting the use of arson — both of occupied structures and of tinder-dry wildlands — as a cheap terror tactic that requires little skill but can inflict immense fear and harm, ISIS claimed in May 2019 that the terror group was behind a series of wildfires in Iraq and Syria. In the ISIS newsletter al-Naba article, “Roll Up Your Sleeves and Begin the Harvest — May Allah Bless What You Reap,” ISIS reminded “soldiers of the caliphate” that they “have before you millions of acres… their plantations, fields and homes, as well as their economic foundation” to burn.

ISIS said the targets were “apostates” whose “hearts have long been burned” and vowed the blazes are “just the beginning.” The terror group also emphasized the economic impact of the fires, noting “many agricultural lands have been destroyed” and “tons of crops,” including wheat and barley, went up in flames in the jihadists’ “harvest of another kind.”

This spring, an Iraqi Civil Defense Directorate report counted 88 wildfire incidents between April 21 and May 14, including those the government attributed to accidental causes, non-terror arson, and fires set by ISIS. Seventeen were listed as still under investigation.

ISIS has claimed responsibility for various blazes, promoting the tactic anew in al-Naba, and one farmer told Kurdistan 24 that “when our crops burn, we cannot go tend to the fires for fear of traps and threats by Daesh gunmen.”

ISIS arson also has been reported in Syria’s al-Hol camp, where ISIS women and children are housed and the hesba — self-appointed ISIS enforcers among the women — set fire to the tents of other women who refuse to obey. An April fire that torched three tents threatened to spread quickly in the camp, but security personnel jumped into action and used bulldozers to dump dirt on the blazes.

With an eye on the danger of scorching summers, ISIS and al-Qaeda have linked their calls for wildland arson to devastating fires in recent history, stressing to supporters that they can wreak similar havoc by intentionally sparking blazes as their method of jihad.

Propaganda also recently has included a push for jihadists to target gas tankers and stations: “Targeting oil and gas transport trucks with accidental accident that causes the truck to overturn,” directed one poster last year from ISIS-supporting Quraysh Media, which also showed a calendar at the bottom of the page switching from 2019 to 2020. “Targeting gas stations by throwing a cigarette to look like an accident. Do a search for the presence of oil pipelines, and then burn them.”

In January 2017, ISIS’ now-defunct Rumiyah magazine told would-be jihadists that when planning and executing wildfire terrorism they should look for dry brush “as fire cannot endure in damp or wet environments.” The article added that “incendiary attacks have played a significant role in modern and guerrilla warfare, as well as in ‘lone wolf’ terrorism.”

The magazine suggested targets for arson jihad to “include houses and apartment buildings, forest areas adjacent to residential areas, factories that produce cars, furniture, clothing, flammable substances, etc., gas stations, hospitals, bars, dance clubs, night clubs, banks, car showrooms, schools, universities, as well as churches, Rafidi [Shiite] temples, and so forth. The options are vast, leaving no excuse for delay.”

Jihadists were advised to time arson attacks “preferably in the later part of night to the early hours of morning when people are generally asleep,” and were instructed how to block off exits in an effort to increase casualties.

During California wildfires in 2o18, supporters of al-Qaeda — which has a lengthy history of promoting wildfire arson — circulated news photos from the blazes with the Quran verse, “They will question you about the mountains. Say: ‘My Lord will scatter them as ashes.’”

A tutorial in a 2012 issue of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Inspire magazine highlighted the damage caused by various wildfires and instructed jihadists on picking optimum weather conditions for arson and where to set a blaze to inflict maximum devastation.

“In America, there are more houses built in the country sides than in the cities. It is difficult to choose a better place other than in the valleys of Montana where the population increases rapidly. In the year 2000, a fire that is considered to be the biggest in the American history flared up in one of those valleys. It spread in a space equal to that of London. The fire burnt down 70 houses as well as a hundred car. On July of the same year and in the same place, a thunderstorm lighted 78 massive blazes in just one day, most of them were deadly firestorms,” the “Open Source Jihad” article said.

“We mention such examples only to show the magnitude of the destructive impact that fires or firebombs make, to then ask the question: Is it possible for us to cause a similar destructive impact using a similar weapon? The answer is: Yes, it is possible. Even in a shorter time and with much bigger destructive impact,” the Inspire tutorial continued, offering a step-by-step guide on building an “ember bomb” with a timer to spark a conflagration.

Arson terrorism isn’t just the domain of Islamist terrorists: dozens of cell phone towers in the United Kingdom have been torched this year by domestic extremists linking the communications equipment to a conspiracy theory on the spread of the coronavirus. Numerous cases of white supremacists using arson as a tactic include the April arrest of a Massachusetts man charged with using a five-gallon gas canister to make an incendiary device planted outside of a Jewish-sponsored assisted-living facility and the Missouri man accused of setting fire to an Islamic center in April.

Islamist extremist propaganda and white supremacist propaganda not only reflect similar themes and memes in the ways they recruit and incite, but they all contribute to an ample online open-source library of D.I.Y. extremist training and incitement — including encouragement to take advantage of dry, hot weather conditions or discussion of ways to use the simple tactic of fire-setting — that crosses group allegiances and ideologies.

“The most important damaging result… is the spreading of terror among the targeted community,” al-Qaeda said.

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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