clock menu more-arrow no yes

Why is ISIS turning to global terrorism? Because it’s losing.

Secretary Of Defense Ashton Carter Travels To Middle East
Iraqi military training in Baghdad.
(Carolyn Kaster/Pool/Getty Images)

ISIS vowed to make Ramadan violent, and it has delivered. As the Muslim holy month came to a close in the past week, a wave of ISIS-linked terrorist attacks hit places around the world, including bombings at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, the execution of roughly 20 hostages in Bangladesh, and one of the deadliest suicide bombing in Baghdad’s recent history. Clearly, the group is stepping up its terrorism efforts. Why?

According to Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), the answer is clear. ISIS is losing territory and money and is lashing out in an attempt to find a way to survive the losses.

"The Islamic State’s gradual decline in Syria and Iraq has finally brought a long expected shift in the group’s tactics," Watts writes in a piece on FPRI’s blog.

Since ISIS swept across Iraq in June 2014, the Islamic State’s core resource has been territory. Controlling land allows it to claim that it is the one true Islamic caliphate, and thus beat out al-Qaeda for recruits. Controlling territory also allows ISIS to run the extortion rackets on the people who live in its territory, which is how it gets most of its money.

Today, its territorial empire is in clear decline. The US government estimates it has lost 45 percent of its peak territory in Iraq and 20 percent of its peak territory in Syria. The funding situation is so dire that it has slashed salaries for its fighters in half.

According to Watts, the recent string of terrorist attacks is a way to make up for these defeats. Terrorist attacks can create the perception of strength, he argues, and attract donations from radical sympathizers:

The Islamic State’s rapid pace of violence may come at a time when they need to find a new home for the brand. Their caliphate revenues and oil production continue to dry up. They will need to shift to illicit schemes and donations to survive. Successful attacks attract investors: will this latest string of violence bring money? Probably not, but what this rampant violence can do is signal to Islamic State’s central leadership which affiliates are still committed to the Islamic State brand.

This shift in strategy toward global attacks was apparent as long ago as November, when ISIS attacked the Bataclan nightclub and other civilian targets in Paris.

"Before this, they had satisfied themselves with trying to inspire attacks. But anyone skilled who's abroad, they were primarily trying to attract them to Syria and Iraq for state building," Will McCants, director of the Project on US Relations With the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution, told me at the time. "This would suggest that they have changed their focus and are willing to direct more resources to foreign operations."

As territorial losses continued since then, the shift to terrorist attacks intensified — resulting in the past week’s carnage. "ISIS loss of territory prompts more ISIS attacks abroad," McCants recently tweeted.

The key takeaway here, then, should not be that these attacks show ISIS is a growing threat. Selling the past week of attacks as a sign of reach and strength, rather than weakness and decline, is handing ISIS the narrative it wants.

This perspective doesn’t make last week’s attacks any less of a tragedy. But being clear about the sources of ISIS’s turn to terrorism helps us limit its ability to profit from the murder of innocents.


Why ISIS attacked Brussels in March

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays