The killing of at least 30 security personnel in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula could be more than just jihadist violence – but an indication of new and dangerous tactics from the Islamic State group.
Four separate attacks in North Sinai on Thursday night are thought to have been carried out by Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which recently changed its name to Sinai Province after swearing allegiance to the Islamic State group.
A video message spread via Islamic State social media account on Friday morning claimed the attack had been carried out by “men of the Islamic State”.
It is the latest example of a new trend in which the Islamic State claims responsibility for attacks outside its self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
We could say the group is on the back foot, which is a most worrying moment. Raffaello Pantucci, RUSI
An attack on a hotel in Libya on Tuesday, by another group that has sworn allegiance to IS, was claimed by Islamic State social media accounts.
And earlier this month Islamic State declared a new “wilayat”, or province, across the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The jihadists in Afghanistan and Pakistan now getting support from the Islamic State are former Taliban commanders and officials. They had already sworn allegiance to the Islamic State group, in October last year, but it is now that IS is recognising.
On Friday a blast at a Shia mosque in Pakistan, during Friday prayers, was claimed by Jundullah – a Taliban splinter group which has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group.
Above: pictures circulated on social media of a sharia police force allegedly established by Islamic State allied militants in Libya
Islamic State appears to have recently begun paying more interest in what is happening outside its borders.
“This is a new, interesting phenomenon,” said Raffaello Pantucci, a Middle East expert from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). “The question is, what does it all mean?”
The Islamic State group’s motto is “remaining and expanding”, and Mr Pantucci argues that the group’s recent difficulties in fulfilling that mantra could mean it is looking further afield.
He said: “They (IS) had a very good year last year but this year we have started to see some cracks.”
Since the start of the year the Islamic State group has failed to take the Syrian city of Kobani – being driven back by a mixture of Kurdish fighters and US-led coalition air strikes. There have also been reports that locals have fired on Islamic State fighters in towns they control, and that the Iraqi government is making headway in its fight against the group.
The Islamic State is trying to regain both its narrative and momentum after meaningful losses in Syria and Iraq. The Soufan Group
“We could say the group is on the back foot, which is a most worrying moment,” Mr Pantucci said. “The group has to demonstrate success and progress, it has to look strong.
“If it can’t do that on the battlefield it is possible that it is looking to express this outside its borders.”
Intelligence group The Soufan Group echoed these concerns in a briefing on Wednesday.
“The Islamic State is trying to regain both its narrative and momentum after meaningful losses in Syria and Iraq, marking an exceedingly dangerous period of confrontation,” it wrote.
“By claiming credit for any and all terrorist attacks abroad – from those with possible connections such as the Tripoli, Libya hotel attack or those with only inspirational connections such as the Sydney or Ottawa attacks – the group is trying to perpetuate an aura of truly ‘remaining and expanding’ and shifting the fight away from its embattled borders.
“The latest call by the group for its supporters to attack the west wherever and however possible, proclamations of a new Khorasan emirate in the Pak-Afghan region, and the markedly different dealings with several hostages show a still-dangerous group struggling with a changing dynamic.
“The Islamic State isn’t in any danger of collapsing but it is concerned with losing its image among its supporters as a unique pseudo-state instead of merely a powerful terrorist group.”
The change potentially shows a shift from a group solely focused on establishing its caliphate, to one that also wants to wage war on western targets – a model more liken that of al-Qaeda.
There is a lot of fanboyism out there. Raffaello Pantucci
As well as promoting fear through its regional offshoots, it seems the group wants to use the phenomenon of “fanboyism”, disparate supporters across the world of Islamic State’s goals.
MI5 chief Andrew Parker, speaking in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in paris, claimed IS was “trying to direct terrorist attacks in the UK and elsewhere from Syria, using violent extremists here as their instruments”. It was also “seeking through propaganda to provoke individuals in the UK to carry out violent attacks here”.
IS has long pushed its PR campaign across the world, translating its publications into many different languages and producing slick, video game style videos. It even sends out instructional documents such as “How to make your own banner of Tawhhed”.
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But recently there has been a greater emphasis on people in countries across the world carrying out “lone wolf” attacks – with the group circulating document to advise people on how to successfully commit home-grown terrorist atrocities.
“There is a lot of fanboyism out there,” Mr Pantucci said. “The danger is that people get excited by attacks, that they see attacks as a part of a movement. And then you get people, crazy people, who act because of the perception that they is a larger plan out there.”