Earlier this month I wrote an analysis asserting that time is working against the Islamic State. I argued that the factors responsible for the Islamic State's stunning rise in popularity last year — the group's territorial gains, its successes against authorities and its propaganda — are starting to wear out. Much of the group's appeal lies in its portrayal of itself as an agent of apocalyptic Islamic prophecy, and as time passes without the prophecies coming true, people will become increasingly disillusioned.
Since that analysis was published, it has come to light that the Islamic State's Wilayat Sinai was responsible for the Oct. 31 bombing of Metrojet Flight 9268. Meanwhile, the Islamic State also claimed responsibility for the Nov. 13 Paris attacks. In the wake of these incidents, many people are asking me, "How can the Islamic State be weakening when they are conducting spectacular terrorist attacks?" So I thought it would be a good time to discuss where terrorism fits within the spectrum of militancy and how a weakening militant organization can still effectively employ terrorism, even as its capabilities to wage conventional and guerrilla warfare diminish.
Tool of the Weak
For the most part, terrorism historically has been employed by weak militant organizations against militarily stronger opponents. (There are, of course, exceptions to this.) Many revolutionary theories hold that terrorism is the first step toward launching a wider insurgency and eventually toppling a government. Marxist, Maoist and focoist militant groups have often sought to use terrorism as the beginning phase of an armed struggle. In some ways, al Qaeda and its spinoff, the Islamic State, have also followed a type of focoist vanguard strategy. They attempt to use terrorism to shape public opinion and raise popular support for their cause, expecting to enhance their strength enough to wage an insurgency and later, conventional warfare, to establish an emirate and eventually a global caliphate.
Terrorism can also be used to supplement an insurgency or conventional warfare. In such cases, it is employed to keep the enemy off-balance and distracted, principally by conducting strikes against vulnerable targets at the enemy's rear. Such attacks are intended to force the enemy to divert security forces to guard these vulnerable targets. The Afghan Taliban employs terrorism in this manner, as does the Islamic State. But the goal of most militant organizations that employ terrorism is to progress beyond it and pursue larger, more complex forms of military action. Most revolutionaries do not believe they can overthrow a regime with terrorism alone.
Despite its limited use in overthrowing a government, terrorism is a very economical tool. It takes far less manpower and fewer weapons to conduct a terrorist attack than it does to wage guerilla or conventional warfare. In fact, the manpower and ammunition required for one large guerrilla warfare battle could be enough to support many terrorist attacks.
Organizations that are no longer capable of conventional warfare will often shift to fighting a less resource-intensive, hit-and-run insurgency as a means to continue fighting. Likewise, militant groups who have taken losses on the battlefield often shift from insurgency to terrorism in an effort to remain relevant and continue striking their opponents while conserving resources and attempting to rebuild, with the goal of someday returning to larger-scale military efforts.
Shifting to Terrorism
For many years now, Somalia's al Shabaab has served as a prime example of an organization moving up and down the militancy spectrum. It has switched back and forth between holding and governing areas, waging an insurgency and launching terrorist attacks. Of course, al Shabaab also often used terrorist attacks to supplement its insurgency campaign.
But as outside forces from Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya invaded Somalia and removed al Shabaab from Mogadishu and then Kismayo, the group also shifted the focus of its terrorist attacks: Instead of purely internal offensives, it began to launch more externally focused attacks in places like Uganda and Kenya. Still, despite lashing out against Uganda and Kenya, al Shabaab continues to be hard-pressed inside Somalia, and it has not been able to maintain a high tempo of attacks outside the country.
The Islamic State's Wilayat al Sudan al Gharbi (better known by its former name, Boko Haram) has also shifted from holding and governing territory to insurgency and terrorism. As noted in a previous analysis, the group's use of suicide attackers has increased dramatically this year as it has lost control of areas it had previously taken over in northeastern Nigeria. Unlike other jihadist groups, a very high percentage of Wilayat al Sudan al Gharbi's suicide bombers are female; in 2015 alone, they employed more female suicide bombers than any group in history. In fact, Wilayat al Sudan al Gharbi has employed more than twice as many female suicide bombers so far this year as its total number of bombers (26) in 2014.
Wilayat al Sudan al Gharbi also lashed out with suicide bombings in Chad, Cameroon and Niger, countries that are supporting Nigeria's fight against the jihadist group. Yet despite this rapid escalation of suicide bombings (the group has conducted well over 100 this year), and their spread to neighboring countries, there is no doubt that the group is considerably weaker now than it was in 2013, when it didn't conduct any suicide bombings, or in 2014, when it conducted only 26 suicide bombings. In other words, the number of terrorist attacks a militant organization launches is not necessarily an accurate gauge of its strength.
The same holds true for the Islamic State's core organization. It is still unclear exactly what the connection was between the Paris attackers and the Islamic State core, but even if the core leadership planned, funded and directed the attack, the Islamic State's ability to hit soft targets in Paris does not mean that it is getting stronger. Indeed, the Paris attack is merely the latest of several Islamic State plots that have emerged in Europe over the past year. The difference is that officials did not detect and thwart the Nov. 13 plot, as they did the others that very well could have achieved similar results. Likewise, the fact that the Islamic State's Wilayat Sinai was able to destroy a Russian airliner has little bearing on the current strength of the Islamic State core or its Egyptian branch.
That said, even though the Islamic State is weakening as its fighters die, it loses financing and territory, and its apocalyptic message loses appeal, the group will continue to pose a terrorist threat. The same was true of its predecessor, the Islamic State in Iraq, after it lost its territory and most of its fighters following the Anbar Awakening. Terrorist attacks ultimately require far fewer resources than holding and governing territory, which will enable the Islamic State to remain dangerous long after it loses control of Ramadi, Mosul, Raqqa and the other territories it governs.