Islamic State and Lone Wolves

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 16 November 2018

Attack in Melbourne, Australia, 9 November 2018 (image source)

In the latest edition of its newsletter, the Islamic State (IS) explained how it had some of the terrorist attacks committed in its name around the world, where it had not had prior contact with the killers.

The 156th edition of Al-Naba, IS’s roughly-weekly newsletter, had an article on the bottom half of page 8 entitled, “On the Blessed Melbourne Operation”.

The reference was to a 9 November terrorist attack in Australia. Around 16:20 local time [05:20 British time] last Friday, a man drove a car filled with gas cannisters onto Bourke Street in Melbourne, lit it on fire, and stabbed three people—one fatally—before being shot by police. Fortunately, the cannisters did not explode. The murdered man was identified as Sisto Malaspina, 74, the owner of Pellegrini’s café. The attacker, a Somali-origin immigrant named Hassan Khalif Shire Ali who had had his passport cancelled in 2015, died soon after in hospital. It was revealed later that Ali was on bail at the time he committed his atrocity for “routine driving offences”. The Islamic State quickly claimed the attack through Amaq News Agency.

There has been an ongoing analytical debate tied into the notion that IS has been defeated because its “caliphate” has been nearly destroyed: What impact does removing territory from IS have on its external operations?

One view is that losing territory is effectively disconnected from the foreign terrorism; the brand was build by creating the statelet, but it does not follow that collapsing the statelet reduces the global pull to IS. Infrastructure-wise, the IS guides are able to operate online without needing a bureaucracy to govern millions of people and IS’s media apparatus, after a shock, is back in business, able to claim the attacks.

The opposing view is that without terrain, IS is unable to train operatives for attacks on the scale of the Paris massacre in November 2015. The group is able at the “centre” to run a fierce insurgency—which Al-Naba has lauded and explained again and again and again—but its global reach is diminished; far less people are inspired to act for it and those who are can only receive spiritual sustenance and basic instructions to carry out primitive attacks.

The implications of these two views feed into a secondary debate. If the first version is true, then the tempo of IS attacks has not much diminished and the decline in “successful” attacks is a testament to improvements in Western security services. On the other hand, if the second version is true, then the destruction of the caliphate is at least one cause of the decline and Western security agencies, particularly in Europe, are continuing to function relatively poorly.

Mixed into this debate, not always in ways that are intuitive, is the interminable debate over “lone wolves”, more precisely if such a typology exists.

Which brings us to Al-Naba 156. The article begins by gloating about how responsive people have been to IS’s call to “target the Crusaders in their homelands”; scarcely two or three weeks go by without an attack. “At a time when the Crusaders and their apostate agents have declared the end of the Islamic State”, says Al-Naba, these are reminders that the movement is alive.

The Melbourne attack was executed by “one of the soldiers of the Caliphate”, Al-Naba says, who was shot dead by police after an “operation [that] resulted in the stabbing of three people, one of whom died”. The attacker was a “mujahid hero”.

Al-Naba then gets to the key part:

These heroes mostly did not meet the leaders of the Islamic State or any of its men. They did not receive religious or military training at its camps, nor did they receive any funding from it. But they did know [the State] through their actions, the words of their leaders, the deeds of its men, and its manhaj (methodology) …

This operation [in Melbourne] confirms that there is still motivation for young people [to join the Islamic State’s cause, despite] growing up in neighbourhoods and attending schools in countries where they have been deceived and lied to by [television] stations and the media. They carry out heroic operations with such courage and daring … The motivation behind this is al-aqeeda (the creed).

It is the “clarity of the manhaj adopted by the Islamic State since its establishment in Iraq” and their relentless war against unbelievers that has attracted so many to its banner, Al-Naba concludes—implicitly, not claiming it was IS’s ability to direct these sympathisers.

In assessing IS’s foreign attacks campaign, it seems worth bearing the group’s own testimony in mind.

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