Beirut | International terror attacks seemingly inspired by the Islamic State group are increasing as its fortunes fall in Syria and Iraq. The attack on the Istanbul airport was still unfolding when Turkish authorities said IS is the likely culprit, although no group has claimed responsibility so far. If IS is behind the latest carnage, it would be in keeping with its accelerated campaign of exporting terror, a tactic which appears aimed at deflecting attention from mounting territorial losses in Syria and Iraq.
Two years after it declared a caliphate across large parts of Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State is in crisis. In the last few weeks, the group has suffered major territorial losses in Iraq, Syria and Libya, and is fighting hard to defend major strongholds. Iraqi forces have retaken the key city of Fallujah west of Baghdad, and Libyan forces have swept into the IS stronghold of Sirte.
In Syria, IS militants are fighting off US-backed forces in Manbij, a town on a key supply line from Turkey to the group’s de facto capital, Raqqa. The losses can be added to a growing list of defeats, including the historic Syrian town of Palmyra in March, the Syrian border town of Kobani and the Iraqi city of Tikrit.
The tempo of international attacks has increased with each military defeat, from the Paris attacks in November and the Brussels attacks in March to a suicide attack on the Syrian-Jordanian border last week that killed seven Jordanian soldiers, the deadliest attack in the kingdom in years. Such attacks help the group project strength and reassure supporters who might be demoralized by the shrinking borders of its self-styled caliphate.
Attacks can also give a boost to propaganda and fundraising efforts, which are increasingly important as IS loses oil wells and other sources of revenue in Syria and Iraq. At least in the near-term, the threat of inspired external attacks will rise as the group’s fortunes fall, according to an analysis yesterday by the Soufan Group security consultancy.
For the same reasons, IS has an interest in taking credit for attacks carried out by self-radicalized loners. Orlando gunman Omar Mateen said he acted on behalf of IS, which claimed him as a soldier of the caliphate, but there is no evidence he was in contact with the group.
Elias Hanna, a political studies instructor at the American University of Beirut, said the Istanbul airport attack follows the group’s modus operandi of using multiple suicide bombers to attack soft targets, as it did in Brussels earlier this year. Such random attacks against civilians instill fear in the hearts of its enemies, something which the group thrives on.
The Istanbul attack also comes during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when radicals believe martyrdom holds special significance. IS has ordered stepped up attacks during Ramadan, calling for its supporters to strike wherever possible.