The Blog

Islamic State Attacks in Europe: A Rough Guide to ISIS Lone Wolves

There is a myth that the Islamic State claims every terror attack in the West as its own. But even its claims of responsibility for events should be accepted sceptically. Let's establish a criterion that distinguishes between directed attacks - that is those organised by ISIS and those attacks which are inspired by ISIS.

There is a myth that the Islamic State claims every terror attack in the West as its own. But even its claims of responsibility for events should be accepted sceptically. Let's establish a criterion that distinguishes between directed attacks - that is those organised by ISIS and those attacks which are inspired by ISIS.

When ISIS claimed responsibility for the Paris and Brussels attacks, it soon became pretty clear that it was directed by the organisation. All the signs and tropes were there. ISIS issued its press release in a seamless whole, the language of the press release was luxurious, full of detail from location, to weapons used and so on. The press release was almost a conclusion to an operation that had gone well. There was no doubt in any one's mind that ISIS had directed this operation from its head quarters in Raqqa and Mosul. In these cases the attackers were referred to as the 'Soldiers of the Caliphate'.

With the Brussels attack ISIS was far more reserved probably due to its operatives still being active. But the level of detail offered suggested that this was something directed by ISIS itself. Let's take another more recent attack, the Holey attack in Dacca, Bangladesh. Four gun men took over a pretty exclusive restaurant in Dacca and caused devastation amongst Italian expats and others. Here too it possessed all the hall marks of ISIS direction. As Amarnath Amarasingham, a Fellow at the George Washington University's Programme on Extremism, points out: "as the attack was happening...ISIS media channels posted, almost in real time, photos and details about the assault that turned out to be accurate. These included the number of people killed as well as photos from inside the bakery. Shortly after the attack, ISIS media channels also posted images of five smiling attackers in front of the Islamic State flag. This was all accompanied by official claims of responsibility and a video promising more attacks." This then is how an organised ISIS terror attack looks like. Seamless.

Now compare the ISIS inspired operations, the lone wolf attacks that ISIS has retrospectively claimed responsibility for such as Magnanville, Orlando, Nice and the attacks in Germany. What it shows is a messy and an uncomfortable relationship that exists between ISIS and those who carry out operations in its name.

When Larossi Abballa gave allegiance to Abu Muhammad al-Adnani and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Amaq claimed responsibility for the killing of a French police officer with a curt statement: "Islamic State fighter kills deputy chief of the police station in the city of Les Mureaux and his wife with blade weapons near Paris." Their channels were following events and gleaning as much information as they could and quoting sources as disparate as CNN to the Express. Their response wasn't real time, nor was it slick.

This was also the case with Omar Mateen's action in Orlando. But the case of Mateen blew up in ISIS' face. Arguably, it was a propaganda own goal, whilst ISIS welcomed the damage inflicted on US civilians resulting in the loss of forty nine souls, Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack perhaps a little too soon. After all Mateen had given his 'oath' of allegiance to ISIS. But this oath turned out to be problematic. As more details emerged regarding the killer, from being a practising closet homosexual to his wild threesomes, Mateen clearly hadn't renounced his sinful lifestyle for one of piety and abstinence. Instead Mateen, the sort of man ISIS throws down tall buildings, became one of their most successful 'blessed' soldiers and martyrs. It didn't sit too easy with ISIS media channels. From then on they exercised much more restraint in claiming responsibility for every act of terror in its name.

When Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel careered down the corniche in Nice, initially the Telegram channels affiliated to ISIS were cautious. This was not directed by the ISIS hierarchy but probably organised by low-level French fighters from Nice encouraging their mates to do lone wolf terror acts. But whilst the Telegram channels affiliated to ISIS revelled in the deaths of French citizens and the recycled memes were released in real-time some channels cautioned that one shouldn't be too quick to draw too many conclusions about the perpetrator. Why? Because lone wolves were wild cards. ISIS telegram channels just like every one else, were looking for proof that it was carried out by one of theirs. But equally hoping that 'their' own was sufficiently clean. Later as the Nice situation became clearer, whilst no press release from Amaq was forth coming, some Telegram channels suggested that Bouhlel was a Munāsir, 'helper' not a soldier. In other words this attack wasn't directed from the upper rungs of ISIS command but rather this was a spectacular lone wolf attack.

Moreover, as the channels were waiting for further details to emerge about this killer, Amaq still didn't claim responsibility. He was someone who didn't pray, drank, smoked cannabis all day, was a petty thief who abandoned his family and beat his wife not the ideal poster boy for an ISIS soldier. He didn't have ostensibly at least, any signs of 'tauba' or repentance where the man had renounced his past and made good. With Larossi, here was an intensely zealous man, before the killing he had to be kicked out of the mosque because he was reciting the Quran, he had links with Jihadists, there was a history of activism to say the least. With Bouhlel nothing. He was like Mateen, a man who picked up old men for possible sex sessions. But still his background was vague enough, Amaq decided to refer to Bouhlel as a soldier but gave him a degree of independence, in a carefully worded statement they said he 'responded' to the call of al-Adnani's speech that called on Muslims to attack the West in what ever way they could. The wording was precise and careful. They knew he could be a PR disaster.

With Riyad Muhammad, a 17 year old Afghan refugee going on an axe rampage in Würzburg, they started to follow an established formula. Again the Telegram channels whilst celebratory were careful to simply claim it out right. When responsibility was claimed the language was near identical to Nice and consistent with the idea that this was a lone wolf operation rather than it being directed. A similar pattern could be observed with Ali Sonoboly's mass shootings in Munich on the anniversary of Anders Breivik massacre in Norway. What was interesting was that the ISIS affiliated channels believed that it was indeed one of their own and kept on updating its followers on the channels willing the shooter to be an ISIS soldier. There were even pictures being uploaded showing how Germany was helping the 'apostate' Libyan fighters against them in Sirte. It was implied that this was possibly the reason for the attack in Munich.

I am certain that had Ali David Sonboly pledged allegiance a similar press release would have been given. This is suggested by a similar press release for the suicide bomber of Ansbach, Mohammed Daleel. It was only released after their own ISIS affiliated Telegram channels mentioned that the suicide bomber had given the oath of allegiance which was around 3 PM UK time. Only after that did Amaq give out a formulaic press release using near identical language that they had used for Bouhlel- that is he is a soldier who acted in response to ISIS' calls to attack the Coalition. The truth is Amaq didn't know who the suicide bomber was. Otherwise they would have mentioned his name just like they did with the suicide bomber who carried out the recent attack on the Baghdad shopping centre that killed over a hundred people. ISIS mentioned the name Abu Maha al-Iraqi in the actual press release . With the Ansbach suicide bomber they may have claimed responsibility for it around 3 PM UK time, but they released his name and photograph around five and a video of the attacker reading out a martyrdom testament later. None of that information was forth coming immediately as an organic whole organised and directed from the top. It probably had some low level ISIS input perhaps a friend of the Ansbach bomber was guiding him in the way we have seen British ISIS fighters like Reyaad Khan and Junayd Hussein were doing with Britons in the UK. It suggests that this lone wolf attack whilst it may have low level contacts with ISIS members, was smothered with a heavy dose of hype.

What exactly does this reveal about ISIS and its lone wolves? Firstly it's a tactical animal, rather than a long term, strategic animal. It looks at situations and takes advantage where there is advantage to be had without understanding the far reaching consequence to its goals. It has an uneasy relationship with 'lone wolves', it doesn't get too close to wolves because as the case of Omar Mateen has showed, it can damage ISIS' reputation. It wants to claim responsibility when there is tactical advantage even if that means its home constituency- that is Syria and Iraq gets some sort of catharsis from the West feeling the pain it feels every day.

Finally Western media shouldn't assume that just because Amaq claims responsibility for an event it does not necessarily mean that it actually had much to do with it. ISIS knows how to talk a good game even when it had no role to play in an event whatsoever. Journalists should have a criteria to distinguish between those ISIS directed terror attacks and those that were inspired by ISIS in order to dispel the idea that ISIS' organisational reach is far.