Originally published at The Henry Jackson Society
The Islamic State (IS) has escalated a campaign of global terrorism over the past few years, exactly as it was losing overt control of territory. In 2016, IS consolidated a model of guiding and claiming attacks in the West and elsewhere via is media channel, Amaq. The outlines of this have long been known. Now there is significant new detail thanks to a four part reporting series in the German newspaper BILD by Björn Stritzel, who contacted Amaq and posed over many months—in consultation with Germany security agencies—as a potential terrorist.
BACKGROUND TO IS’S FOREIGN TERRORIST INFRASTRUCTURE
IS, at its core a revolutionary movement, has always been global in its outlook. As a report for The Henry Jackson Society documented, IS, a group founded in 1999, moved to Iraq and had attempted attacks in Europe in 2002—before the Anglo-American invasion. Nonetheless, it is clear that IS has invested more in external attacks since 2014, and that the bulk of such attacks have occurred since then. The increase in external attacks is not a sign of desperation, however, or a way of IS lashing out as its caliphate is destroyed.
IS’s founder and leader until 2006, Ahmad al-Khalayleh (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi), did not have to invest so heavily in external attacks to strike at his Western enemies because between 2003 and 2011 the so-called “far enemy” was “on the ground right in front of him”. IS was driven into the wilderness by the “surge” of 2007, and it was rebuilding between 2008 and 2013, aided by its own realization and remedy of its mistakes in handling the tribes and other elements of Sunni society, the American withdrawal from Iraq, Iran’s expanding influence in Baghdad, and the failure to bring the war waged by the regime of Bashar al-Assad against the Syrian population to a swift conclusion.
By 2011, IS had recovered quite considerably within Iraq. Many of IS’s Sunni rivals had been eliminated and it was waging a concerted terrorism campaign against the government, including against the minorities and in the Shi’i areas to try to incite an official over-reaction. This insurgent-terrorism campaign increased in 2012 and 2013. A crucial aspect in IS’s recovery was the emergence from prison of senior IS operatives—notably Abdurrahman al-Qaduli (Abu Ali al-Anbari) and Adnan al-Bilawi (Abu Abdurrahman al-Bilawi)—either by government release or IS jailbreaks, and this cadre helped orchestrate the expansion of IS into Syria. In early 2014, with IS capturing territory but before the takeover of Mosul that put IS on the political agenda worldwide, IS was already trying to orchestrate attacks against outside targets, from Lebanon to Belgium and France.
Amaq was created in late 2014 as an ostensibly-independent news agency. In time, Amaq became the avenue through which IS allows Westerners planning to commit domestic terrorism to contact them. IS operatives from its foreign intelligence service, the Amn al-Kharji, then provide instructions and support—tactical, religious, emotional—to guide individuals toward an atrocity in which the loyalist will usually, and usually hopes to, die. The proof that IS is behind an attack comes from the video supplied by the killer to Amaq before the operation, which will contain a bay’a (pledge of allegiance) to IS’s caliph, Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), and often some outline of the type of attack (stabbing, vehicle ramming, etc.) that the individual plans to carry out.
NEW DETAILS ON AMAQ
This is the way Stritzel began his odyssey, posing the question to a closed Telegram group: “How can I send a video to Amaq?” As he explains, “Everybody knows what I mean by my question”. Stritzel is then given two English-speaking instructors, Abu K. and Abu Abdullah. The first instruction is to move off of Telegram to Wickr; though Telegram is encrypted it is apparently not considered safe enough. Wickr lets messengers know if recipients screenshot their messages, so Stritzel took pictures with a separate device.
(At a later stage, a German-speaking IS jihadist speaks to Stritzel. Stritzel is convinced it was Mohamed Mahmoud (Abu Usama al-Gharib), an Austrian who once ran a Salafi group, Millatu Ibrahim, with the infamous Denis Cuspert, known to IS as Abu Talha al-Almani, and previously known as “Deso Dogg”. Mahmoud had close links to the late Turki al-Binali, of whom he is a biographer.)
The Normandy Church attack followed Amaq’s video model. While the conversations are lost to us, it is evident that this was an instance of IS having decisive operational impact: the two killers, Adel Kermiche and Abdelmalik Petitjean, had never met, but both had advertised their loyalty to IS and IS then connected them. In terms of prior documentation of the minutia of how the Amaq system works—what it is that the IS guides tell their recruits—it was two cases in Germany that provided the best evidence: the stabbing and hatchet attack by Riaz Khan Ahmadzai (Muhammad Riyad) at the Wurzburg railway station and the Ansbach suicide attack by Mohammad Daleel, which Stritzel discovers IS regard as a failure, despite their public propaganda, because Daleel killed only himself. In both the Ahmadzai and Daleel cases, parts of the messages sent between the attackers and IS across encrypted platforms have been publicized.
Stritzel’s instructors tell him to set the messages between them on a five-day timer to self-destruct, which on Wickr destroys the messages at both ends, and also tell Stritzel to destroy the SIM card of the mobile telephone. If that process is completed, the exchange is unrecoverable. This is of primary interest because while the Amaq model first becomes apparent with the attack in the Magnanville area of Paris by Larossi Abballa in June 2016, where a policeman and his wife were slaughtered, a version of it was likely functional before that, though perhaps without the video component. The potential that, for example, Umar Mateen had contact with an IS guide before his terror attack in Orlando has to be considered, since even in the present not every attack claimed by Amaq is accompanied by a video release; it is enough to give bay’a to IS in private before an act of terrorism. (It is a stubborn myth, but a myth nonetheless, that IS “claims everything”; with a handful of contested exceptions, IS has shown itself to value its credibility and it has good reasons of self-interest to do so.)
Stritzel’s IS handlers were unconcerned about what he struck or how many were killed. They had some suggestions, of course, and sadistic ones at that. “Go to a hospital, look for the seriously ill, and slaughter them,” one instructor told Stritzel. Other suggestions for targeting the most absolutely defenceless people were an old people’s home and a monastery. But, they added, “Do not plan too much. Hit fast. The more time you take, the more mistakes can happen. As soon as the basic plan is ready, just trust in Allah.” Several days later, when Stritzel still has not carried out the attack, a handler urges him not to give the “kuffar police” any further chance to uncover his plans. “Just grab a knife and kill your neighbours”, says one of the IS operatives. Stritzel was directed to a video instructing him how to “slaughter the kuffar” by Abu Sulayman al-Firansi. As Laurence Bindner pointed out to me, this is, according to his family, a separate Abu Sulayman to Abdelilah Himich, the head of Amn al-Kharji.
But at bottom, for IS, the attack is the message: IS has hit the West again. This privileging of political-propaganda considerations over the military ones meant that what IS were especially insistent about was the content of Stritzel’s martyrdom-bay’a video. Stritzel should not frame his act of anti-civilian mayhem as reprisal for the Western attack on IS, he was told. Nor should he suggest that IS will call off its assault on Western electorates if Western governments leave it be. Rather, Abu K. told Stritzel, it must be clear that this act is at the command of the caliph and Allah, and such actions will continue until Westerners “pay the jizya or convert”, something IS has explained at great length previously. The religious nature of the attack is also used by the IS operatives to “sell” it to Stritzel; the rewards of the hereafter are held out to him when his delay leads them to suspect he is wavering.
Some U.S. officials might continue to insist that loss of territory is the primary issue in discrediting IS internationally, but it is obvious that, while this could have been the case, it is not now. The caliphate and its utopian pretentions were key in building IS’s international brand; the manner in which that statelet has been unraveled has decoupled IS’s battlefield fortunes in Syria and Iraq from its international appeal.
IS lost its urban stronghold in Libya in December, yet in the case of both the Berlin truck attack by Anis Amri and the suicide attack against the Manchester Arena by Salman Abedi there is every indication of a Libyan dimension. IS has lost its Iraqi “capital” and will soon be driven from its Syrian counterpart. As it happens there are already signs of recovery to a state of terrorist-insurgency of a magnitude exceeding 2013 in supposedly-liberated areas. Even were that not the case, IS is left as a powerful global movement in a way it was not before 2014, in terms of both support and capability, as Stritzel helped demonstrate.
Last time, when IS was recovering in the deserts, its powerful media department kept functioning to provide proof-of-life, effectively, with speeches from the leadership and videos of military operations against checkpoints, enemies, and “traitors”. That will surely occur this time, where IS has already prepared the ideological ground for its loss of territory, presenting it as a part of the cycle by which god tests the believers before he grants them victory. But this time there will also be the videos from those who take up arms on IS’s behalf half a world away, not least because IS’s media department is itself now a global enterprise.