An analysis of 82 significant recent terror attacks that are believed to be inspired, supported or directed by the Islamic State (IS) during 2015 and 2016 shows 57% of attacks occurred in areas previously not considered at significant risk of terrorism.
This concerning development represents a significant shift in where terrorist attacks are occurring. Historically, significant attacks by jihadi groups were almost always focused in high-profile areas. This meant the focus of counterterrorism efforts could be concentrated in major cities where there were typically more resources available. While the threat of attacks in smaller cities and towns, could not be ruled out, there was a much lower risk of such attacks occurring.
No longer the case
This is no longer the case. The recent wave of inspired and supported attacks has made a reality what many in counterterrorism feared and talked about for decades. Directed attacks by their nature tend to heavily involve key operational planners and others based in the terrorist group’s primary area of operation. These operational planners have at their disposal a broader array of resources, training and professional aspirations that naturally steer their planning towards high-profile attacks. Major cities tend to provide the richest target sets for these types of operations.
Inspired and supported attacks, however, work on a different model. The attackers and planners are often one in the same. They have limited resources, training and no professional aspirations as their first attack is often their last. Furthermore they tend to have a much more localized view on targeting. Instead of viewing a world of targets and selecting for the greatest effect, they base decisions off of what they are familiar with and have access to. Targets which a “traditional” operational planner would never even have known existed or considered worthy of an attack, suddenly move into the mix. This approach is supported by group’s messages when calling for inspired attacks.
This however, does not represent a reduction in threat to major cities. The rate of significant attacks outside of war zones has accelerated from every 21 days in 2014 to an attack every 10 days in 2015 and now every eight days in 2016 as of 20 Dec. 2016. As a result, the threat of major attacks in cities has increased while only accounting for 43% of attacks by IS.
Since it is currently not possible to accurately predict where jihadi terrorists will succeed in inspiring future attackers, there is no way to know where future attacks will occur. For the first time in the history of jihadi terrorism, attacks are occurring without geographic limiters. There is no city, town, village or rural area too small. Furthermore, as Orlando (Florida) and Nice (France) demonstrate, inspired and supported attacks can achieve mass casualties that rival directed plots.
Directed jihadi attackers are continuing to accelerate attacks on high-profile targets while inspired IS attackers increase the rate of attack against targets in the areas they live, work and visit, regardless of its size or prominence.
All attacks associated with IS were counted including both directed, supported and inspired attacks. Inspired, supported and directed attacks tied to al-Qaeda or other jihadi groups were not. Attacks occurring in war zones and insurgent theaters were not counted such as those in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya. In countries like Egypt and Pakistan where parts of the country are part of an insurgency campaign, only significant attacks outside of that area were counted. In places like Bangladesh where there is an increasing volume of low-level attacks, only those significant ones were counted.