In April 2014, in what quickly made al-Qaeda’s jihadist hegemony look passé, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) blazed through Syria and Iraq, ravaging cities and penetrating power structures to force its fundamentalist interpretation of Sharia law on local populaces. By June, ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had declared the resurrection of the caliphate, claiming 34,000 square miles from the Mediterranean Coast to the south of Baghdad. Over the next two years, ISIL would acquire an army of tens of thousands of Muslims and over 30,000 foreign fighters, eventually achieving military dominance in 162 strategic locations.
This past summer—thanks to the anti-ISIL coalition’s battlefield successes, the targeted killings of ISIL’s senior leadership, and the waning ideological attraction of ISIL propaganda—ISIL has lost 57 percent of its territory in Iraq and 27 percent in Syria. While ISIL’s infamy is often attributed to its ability to function as a quasi-state actor, its alternate identities—as both an insurgency and a transnational terrorist organization—pose more imminent threats to US national security interests. In spite of ISIL’s shrinking caliphate, the highly trained members of its external operations branch—known in Arabic as the Emni—are growing in strategy and tactic as the global exporters of ISIL’s terrorist and insurgent missions. As ISIL faces the imminent loss of its headquarters in Raqqa, the Emni offers the infrastructure for ISIL to extend its presence across the globe as a virtual government in exile. In light of this threat, US counterterrorism resources should be distributed to supplement combat on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria with preparations for ISIL’s sinister sequel: its mission to attack the West via its Emni operatives.
The Emni has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to conduct high-impact, low-sophistication 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 ISIL 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 ISIL leadership was vastly underestimated.
On August 3, 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 ISIL operatives sent to Europe to commit attacks, but they were trained and directed under the command of ISIL’s late spokesman and Emni chief, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani. Most significantly, the wave of ISIL attacks in July 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. The executors of the Rouen church attack were in communication with Emni members for guidance on attack planning. Further, it was recently discovered that an Emni member mentored both the gunman in the May 2014 Jewish Museum Brussels attack—ISIL’s first successful attack on European soil—as well as the perpetrator of the August 2015 Thalys train attack. While the relationship between ISIL and the driver in the December 2016 Berlin Christmas market attack is still being assessed, the target and tactics of the plot point to the possibility of an Emni member’s direct or indirect involvement.
The Emni was formalized as a subgroup of ISIL in the spring of 2014, meaning that months before al-Baghdadi announced the formation of a caliphate, ISIL was building the infrastructure for its global insurgency. This timeline challenges the generally accepted argument that ISIL’s shift towards global attacks is a sign of its emerging weakness, and a desperate retaliatory plea to remain relevant amid territorial losses. On the contrary, the Emni’s two-year existence and alarmingly successful track record validate that ISIL has been nurturing its global insurgency mission in tandem with—as opposed to in reaction to the loss of—its claim to a caliphate. This finding has sinister repercussions for US national security in light of the Emni’s likely evolution in 2017. Not only has the Emni proven to be resilient and adaptive in light of escalating adversary tactics, but it has demonstrated its functionality as a durable organization with transnational ambitions.
While the Emni is undoubtedly on the US Intelligence Community’s radar, knowledge about the group’s operations is limited, if not non-existent, among officials in the public space. As the anti-ISIL coalition continues to chip away at ISIL’s claim to a caliphate, the Emni will be forced to intensify its execution of attacks to stay relevant. If past plots are any indication of future attacks, Emni operatives will seek to evade detection by local authorities by striking soft targets in densely populated areas. Similar to how more traditional governments in exile seek political and diplomatic recognition, the Emni could attempt to engage in more coercive tactics, such as high-profile kidnappings for ransom, to increase its leverage.
In addition to dedicating both hard and soft power political resources to combat the Emni threat, it is imperative that counterterrorism professionals and their respective institutions prioritize obtaining a well-informed understanding of the Emni’s tactics, targets, communication methods, and membership portfolio. Such an effort will be critical to developing an anti-ISIL combat strategy in its renewed phase, and to directing the US-led effort to “degrade and destroy” ISIL beyond the caliphate in its globally exported form.
Jacqueline R. Sutherland is a Senior Security Analyst at The Chertoff Group. She also serves as a non-resident Counterterrorism Fellow at the London-based Asia-Pacific Foundation, through which she is regularly interviewed as a counterterrorism expert on international news. Jacqueline holds a MS in International History from The London School of Economics, and is an incoming 2017 Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP).
Charged Affairs is a publication of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Views of the authors do not necessarily represent the views of the organization. All rights reserved.