Friday has been a busy day in the realm of terror. First, there were reports of an attack at an industrial gas plant outside Lyon, France, in which the attackers beheaded one of the plant's employees and attempted to spark a large explosion. Next came the report of a suicide bombing at a Shiite mosque in Kuwait City that reportedly killed around 25 people. Last came the deadliest attack of the day, in which 28 people, mostly tourists, were killed when gunmen opened fire at two seaside resorts in Tunisia.
In the Kuwait attack, the suicide bomber, who has been identified as 26-year-old Khaled al-Shamari, was able simply to walk into the center of the mosque without being challenged or searched. According to photos released from closed-circuit TV cameras at the mosque, he was wearing typical flowing robes, allowing him to conceal his bomb. The Islamic State's Wilayat Najd (or Saudi province) has claimed the bombing. This is not surprising because the group has claimed two previous attacks against Shiite mosques in Saudi Arabia. The Kuwait mosque was a soft target. In Saudi Arabia, the government and the Shiite community itself have put in place security measures to protect mosques following May attacks. This has made these Saudi mosques more difficult to infiltrate, perhaps pushing the attackers toward Kuwait. Like the May 22 and May 29 attacks in Saudi Arabia, the Kuwait City bombing was tactically unsophisticated.
With its attacks on Shiites, the Islamic State intends to spark sectarian violence similar to that seen in Iraq and Syria. The outbreak of sectarian infighting in these two countries has afforded the Islamic State room to operate. The group also aims to create problems for the Sunni regimes that will lead their security forces to focus on violent Shiite responses, not just jihadist violence. So far, Saudi Shiites have refused to rise to the Islamic State's bait. Despite the long-simmering sectarian tensions in Saudi Arabia, Shiite clerics have urged their communities to remain calm. It will be important to watch to see whether Kuwaiti Shiite leaders follow suit. Shiites in Kuwait have generally been better-integrated than in Saudi Arabia, so Shiite leaders there can be expected to urge calm rather than stoke unrest.
The attack in France was also quite simple in execution and involved a vehicle and a knife. It is the type of simple attack long advocated by al Qaeda through avenues such as Inspire Magazine and then encouraged by the Islamic State last fall. While beheadings are a jihadist method that predates al Qaeda, this attack is the first completed jihadist beheading in Western Europe. (Jihadists attempted but failed to behead a British soldier in London in May 2013.) France has long struggled with the jihadist threat, and the threat does not just emanate from the Islamic State. The al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula-inspired Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January is still the deadliest terrorist attack in the West this year. If anything, it is surprising that here have not been more attacks in France given the number of radical jihadists there and the ease which which one can replicate an attack such as that carried out today using nothing more than a car and a knife.
The man arrested in connection with today's arrest was reportedly known to French authorities and had previously been under surveillance starting in 2006, but surveillance was reportedly dropped on him in 2008. This reflects how difficult it is for governments to conduct surveillance on a large number of potential threats over a long period of time. We previously discussed this problem within France in particular, in relation to the Mohammed Mera case in 2008.
Today Jihadists in Tunisia have also conducted their second simple attack directed against tourists. The first occurred in March, when gunmen attacked the Bardo Museum in Tunis. Like that attack, this one was operationally simple, involving gunmen with AK-47s targeting a vulnerable target. The Uqba ibn Nafi Brigade, which the Tunisian government blamed for the Bardo Museuam attack, had pledged its allegiance to the Islamic State. Jihadists in Tunisia also recently proclaimed an Islamic State wilayat, or province, in Tunisia, and this attack may be intended as a way for that new wilayat to establish itself on the global stage.
Tunisia's economy relies heavily on tourism and was already suffering from the consequences of the Bardo attack. This incident will compound the earlier damage. But beyond the economic damage, this attack will also cause many to question whether the government has the ability to keep the country safe from the jihadists. (For more on why hotels are appealing targets for jihadists, please read this special report on the militant threat to hotels.)
While all of these attacks occurred on the same day, they were all tactically simple and their execution did not show evidence of, nor did it require, any assistance from the Islamic State core group.
If there is any connection between the attacks it can be found in the timing. It is Ramadan, and the Islamic State has publicly encouraged its followers and sympathizers to conduct attacks during the holy month. Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani issued an audio statement on June 23 in which he urged his listeners to "Be keen to conquer in this holy month and to become exposed to martyrdom" and to make the month "a calamity for the infidels... Shiites and apostate Muslims."
We can therefore anticipate more simple attacks during Ramadan wherever there are jihadist franchises and sympathizers.