Terrorists' focus turns closer to Arab countries

Flag over the Iraqi Mosul freed from ISIS
Flag over the Iraqi Mosul freed from ISIS

In his first statement in 10 months, the Islamic State’s spokesman on Sunday called for violence against neighboring Arab nations, suggesting that the group’s focus was turning closer to home. As The New York Times writes in the article ISIS Spokesman Calls for Attacks on Arab Nations, the remarks were a departure from the last pronouncement issued by the spokesman, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, which aimed to incite attacks against Europe and North America.

It comes as the group is retrenching in its core territory after losing all but 3 percent of the area it once held in Iraq and Syria. In a nearly hourlong audio recording, released inside the group’s chat rooms in the messaging app Telegram, the spokesman called on fighters to redirect their ire toward the leaders of Arab nations in the region, whom he described as “apostates,” a term the group uses to refer to fellow Sunnis who have strayed from its extreme interpretation of the faith. The spokesman said there was “no difference” between fighting the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran and the Palestinians “and their American Crusader allies, or the Russians or the Europeans.” He argued that they deserved to be treated even more harshly because “these are Arabs and are more fierce and vicious against Islam.” 

In the spokesman’s last speech, released in June of 2017, he recalled famous battles from early Islamic history in which Muslims prevailed despite being outnumbered, and called for lone-wolf-style attacks in Europe, including in Russia. The June recording echoed a much-quoted speech by the group’s original spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, that was released in 2014 — the year ISIS pivoted from a regional threat to a global one. The 2014 speech was routinely quoted by attackers across the world as justification for their acts of violence, including in video wills left by the suicide bombers who blew themselves up at a stadium and concert hall in Paris in 2015. Now, it appears that the group’s canvas has shrunk and it is returning to its roots as a regional insurgency. Hassan Hassan, a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, said the speech was in line with the group’s recent evolution. It “aligns perfectly with ISIS’s recent moves, of going ever more internal,” he said in a series of Tweets.

ISIS is an outgrowth of the group that was once Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and for years the affiliate clashed with the larger terrorist group over whether it was strategically sound to carry out massacres against Shiite Muslims. As far back as 2005, the second-in-command of Al Qaeda upbraided the affiliate in a 6,500-word letter, saying the group should focus on expelling American troops, and hold off on attacking Shiites in Iraq and neighboring Arab countries until that first goal was accomplished.

But the group that went on to become ISIS disregarded this counsel from the beginning, dragging Iraq into a bloody sectarian conflict. In 2014, after seizing territory the size of Britain in Iraq and Syria, ISIS aggressively carried out attacks on enemies in the region, even while laying the groundwork for successive attacks overseas. For much of the three years that it held onto a vast territory, ISIS appeared intent on fighting on all fronts, with fighters in Europe and suicide bombers in the crowded markets of Baghdad, as well as targets in Lebanon and Iran.

In Mr. al-Muhajir’s latest audio statement, he cited texts from the puritanical Wahhabi tradition to create a spiritual rationale for killing ever more Muslims — not just Shiites, but also Sunnis, whom ISIS claims to represent.

He focused especially on Iraq’s parliamentary elections that are scheduled to begin on May 12, calling anyone who collaborates with the Iraqi government a legitimate target. “The polling centers and those inside it are a target of our swords,” he said. “So stay away from them and do not walk near them.”

At the same time, the ISIS spokesman mocked the United States, taunting President Trump. Without naming him, Mr. al-Muhajir said America had lost its influence under the current administration. “Look at you, you evildoer, confused and lost, and with your goals scattered. You are now forced to beg and go along the wishes of your supposed adversaries,” he said, in an apparent reference to Russia.

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