About midday on Friday, along a stretch of beachside hotels in the glistening Mediterranean tourist town of Sousse, in Tunisia, a British vacationer named Gary Pine heard what he thought were firecrackers perhaps 100 yards down the beach. When pops were followed by an explosion, it became clear something terrible was unfolding.
"There was a mass exodus off the beach," Pine told Sky News. Managers at his hotel told the guests to barricade themselves in their rooms.
The attack has ended, and police are still counting the bodies. So far, what they will say is that at least 27 people were killed in an attack that targeted either one hotel or two. One gunman is dead.
Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away in the French city of Lyon, at an American-owned industrial chemical plant, a car barreled onto the factory grounds, ramming its way into the plant. A man got out of the car and, in circumstances that remain unclear, attacked a man there, decapitating him. He tried to blow up the facility, using nearby gas canisters, but failed.
When police arrested him, they found flags adorned with Arabic writing. According to some early reports, the victim's body was covered in such writing as well.
The same day, on a third continent, in the capital city of the small and wealthy Persian Gulf nation of Kuwait, about 2,000 worshippers kneeled for prayer in the sprawling Imam Sadiq Mosque. A man stormed into the mosque wearing an explosives belt and detonated. At least 13 have died.
ISIS and the diffusion of terror
What to make of this cascade of attacks? Are they connected? The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for Kuwait City, but so far neither Lyon nor Sousse. It may be that all three attacks were launched in coordination by ISIS, and it may not be.
The Kuwait attack was claimed not by ISIS's central leadership, but rather by a faction that is based in Saudi Arabia and has conducted attacks there. In Lyon, the flags and inscriptions may turn out to be those of ISIS, but it's not clear. In Tunisia, memories have returned to a similar attack from March, when terrorists killed 22 people, mostly tourists, at a museum. ISIS claimed that attack, but the Tunisian government blamed it on local groups.
This wave of attacks, though, calls to mind the warnings that some terror analysts have made for some time about ISIS: that the group, while in the past largely focused on expanding and defending its caliphate in Iraq and Syria, was a ticking time bomb waiting to inflict its horror elsewhere. As ISIS loses ground in Iraq and Syria, its energies may shift from this state-building mission to the easier cause of transnational terrorism. If it can no longer derive its legitimacy and reason-to-be from its caliphate, it must derive them from random acts of transnational murder.
At the same time, as European and Middle Eastern governments have long dreaded, citizens from their nations who went to fight on behalf of ISIS are, inevitably, beginning to return home. They are bringing their training, their connections to other extremists, and the ultraviolent bloodlust of the battlefield with them.
But it could be that the attacks were neither directed by ISIS nor conducted by ISIS veterans, and yet in a different sense the group might still be responsible. Unlike al-Qaeda, which operates in a tightly controlled hierarchy, ISIS has long encouraged vigilante violence in its name. Freelancers with nothing more than an internet connection and a certain admiration for ISIS may decide to copy the group's tactics.
Again, to be clear, none of these connections have been demonstrated, and it may turn out that the attacks were entirely unrelated. But the point is that these attacks did not come out of nowhere. This looks an awful lot like what some terror analysts have been warning ISIS would bring to the world once its caliphate began inevitably declining: seemingly random violence, erupting in ways small and large, with little obvious meaning other than to kill.
The future of global terrorism?
Someone who works on Middle Eastern security issues recently remarked to me that one of the things that kept us safest from al-Qaeda was the group's own tactical shortsightedness. Al-Qaeda's obsession with symbolically rich targets and with spectacular, centrally planned attacks made its plots difficult to execute and, after 2001, easier to track and to stop.
If al-Qaeda had ever figured out how much terror it could sow by attacking smaller targets like shopping malls or public parks, he pointed out, the group would have been far harder to stop — and its psychological toll on Americans would have been far greater.
ISIS, he worried, may be the threat that we always worried al-Qaeda would become. Its focus on small-scale violence against more modest targets is much harder to defend against. Its strategy of indirectly "inspiring" local recruits makes those recruits less capable, as they lack training, but also harder to spot. And now, as ISIS veterans of Syria and Iraq return home, the group's reach and its members' expertise will both deepen.
It is the group's embrace of random violence for the sake of little more than random violence, at times too extreme even for al-Qaeda, that is perhaps most disconcerting of all. How are counterterrorism officials supposed to anticipate the next moves of a disparate and disorganized group far more nihilistic than al-Qaeda? How are citizens in targeted countries supposed to absorb this new danger, however remote, into their understanding of when, and where, they are safe?
The senseless and seemingly meaningless violence we saw unfold today on three difference continents may yet just be a dark coincidence. But it bears striking resemblance to the predictions of a new phase of global terrorism, one ushered in both by ISIS and its battlefield decline, that is fundamentally different from al-Qaeda in ways we are still only coming to understand.