How Is ISIS Able to Commit Acts of Terror as It Loses Territory?

An Islamic State flag is seen in this picture illustration taken February 18, 2016. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

As Iraq and Syria are liberated from ISIS’s tyrannical grip, the cosmopolitan hubs of New York, London and Barcelona—among far too many others—are assaulted in its name.

ISIS has lost any shred of territorial claim it once held to a caliphate. In Syria, following a five-month campaign, U.S.-backed forces reclaimed its former capital of Raqqa, and Deir Ezzor—its last remaining stronghold—faces siege from both Syrian government forces and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. Since ISIS lost control of Mosul in Iraq back in July, it has forfeited the strategic cities of Tal Afar, Hawija and al-Qaim.

Yet, as Iraq and Syria are liberated from ISIS’s tyrannical grip, the cosmopolitan hubs of New York, London and Barcelona—among far too many others—are assaulted in its name.

It is often incorrectly assumed that ISIS’s external pivot away from the self-styled sanctity of its caliphate and toward the concrete jungles of urban cities was a desperate retaliatory plea to remain relevant amid territorial losses. However, the timeline of its establishment of the Emni, ISIS’s external operations branch charged with plotting attacks globally, challenges this supposition.

The Emni was formalized as a subgroup of ISIS in Syria in spring 2014, meaning that months before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the caliphate, ISIS was building the infrastructure for its global terror network. This validates that ISIS has been nurturing its international terror mission in tandem with—rather than in reaction to the loss of—its claim to a caliphate.

As recently as March, testimonies from ISIS-defectors indicated that the Emni moved its headquarters from Syria to Libya. Records show that Salman Abedi, the Manchester Arena bomber, met with key members of ISIS’s external operations branch while in Libya, evidencing that the network is already facilitating operations from its supposed new base. If the Emni’s relocation to Libya is confirmed, it will allow highly trained ISIS operatives to plot attacks from Europe’s doorstep. It is therefore imperative that counterterrorism officials develop an anti-ISIS strategy tailored to degrading and destroying it in its globally exported form.

The Emni as the Incubator of ISIS's International Terror Mission

The Emni has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to conduct high-impact attacks in multiple cities across the West. At the time of their respective atrocities, it was believed that the November 2015 attacks in Paris and the March 2016 attacks in Brussels were executed by a European cell of ISIS militants. While it was correctly assumed that both sets of attackers had been trained in Syria, the extent to which their missions were directed, financed and trained by the top echelons of ISIS leadership was vastly underestimated.

In August 2016, the New York Times was the first to report on the inner workings of the Emni based on information obtained from thousands of pages of French, Belgian, German and Austrian intelligence documents. The New York Times’ investigation revealed that not only were ISIS operatives sent to Europe from Syria to commit attacks, but they were trained and directed under the command of ISIS’s late spokesman and Emni chief, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani. More significantly, the wave of ISIS attacks in July 2016 that was judged by Western officials to be sporadic, unconnected, and ultimately inspired in nature were, in actuality, directed by a common Emni handler. The masterminds of the Paris attacks were Emni operatives, as were the bomb makers in the Brussels airport and metro attacks. An Emni member mentored both the gunman in the May 2014 Jewish Museum Brussels attack, as well as the perpetrator of the August 2015 Thalys train attack.

The Emni’s Future Maturation in Libya