As we come to terms with the atrocities carried out on June 26, 2015 in France, Kuwait, and Tunisia, it is tempting to draw parallels between the attacks, and, specifically, to view them as the Islamic State’s realization of its stated ambition to create terror in the West. Indeed, it is not hard to believe these events are part of the seemingly unstoppable rise of Islamist terrorism, the result of a maturing network ramping up its grisly war on Western values. It is easy, but it is not the whole picture.
There are two key problems with this narrative. First, it overstates the Islamic State’s ability to attack the West. Second, it exaggerates Islamism as the cause of these atrocities. This may appear absurdly counterintuitive following three horrifying terrorist attacks on the same day, but this narrative is riddled with holes.
Partly due to the timing of these incidents, Western media has treated the three attacks as part of a coordinated effort and evidence that the Islamic State is on the march. As comparisons are drawn, the same bloodstained reporting processes, used for every terrorist attack, kick into play: headlines decry the horror; graphic photographs go viral; families, still unsure of the fate of their loved ones, are interviewed with morbid curiosity; and the familiar “terrorist experts” are wheeled out to talk about the very little they know.
But, linking these incidents under the black banner of the Islamic State hides an array of difference. Whilst the Islamic State was quick to claim responsibility for the attack on the Shiite mosque in Kuwait, it was only after many hours that it took credit for the Tunisia attack – strongly suggesting it was responding to the event and claiming it ex post facto, rather than directly ordering or coordinating the incident. While the Islamic State flag reportedly flew next to the corpse of the beheaded victim, the group has yet to take credit for the attack at the factory in Grenoble, France.
To say that the atrocities in Tunisia and France are in anyway demonstrative of the logistical power of Islamic State is particularly problematic. The group is simply unable to initiate coordinated attacks like these, across various continents. Like many anti-state organizations that use the tactic of terrorism, the Islamic State is highly decentralized, with what has been described as a “horizontal” structure. This framework ensures that the death or capture of one individual or cell is unlikely to have major repercussions on the wider organization. This can be seen on the ground in Iraq and Syria, where the Islamic State has sustained order by keeping a number of local militias on its side. Because of this structure, the Islamic State lacks the centralized capacity and man power necessary to carry out large strikes outside of its zone of influence in Syria and Iraq. Instead, it relies on sympathizers with little actual ties or affiliation to the group to conduct what are often disorganized and opportunistic acts of violence, with no direct control on the part of the Islamic State.
The Islamic State, like al-Qaeda before it, has been able to generate substantial social capital amongst anti-Western sympathizers throughout the world partly because of how feared it is by Western governments and media. Its name – or, indeed, branding – has become a franchising tool, loaned out to other groups to help spread fear of the Islamic State, whilst simultaneously propping up local armed organizations that are ailing. These small groups originally formed to tackle localized grievances, like political disenfranchisement and socio-economic grievances that have little to do with the Islamic State’s concerns. A similar phenomenon happened with al-Qaeda (the Algerian GSPC, for instance, changed its name to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in order to improve recruiting). These grievances, rather than the agenda of the Islamic State, continue to motivate the actions of these groups.
Many commentators, such as Charlie Winter of the Quilliam Foundation, see the three attacks as the result of a radical Islamist ideology, a “totalitarian infusion of utopianism and eschatology.” But even taken in its most totalitarian and millenarian forms, branding these incidents as caused by “violent Islamism” is an inadequate explanation for the jump from thought to action. A thinker of radical thoughts cannot be conflated with a doer of radical action – and it takes a number of additional factors for individuals to carry out an atrocity.
Blaming Islamism for these attacks also side steps the fact that many Islamists and Islamist groups are mainstream political forces, integrated within democratic systems. For instance, after ousting its authoritarian leader, Zine el Abidine Ben-Ali in January 2011, Tunisia had a democratically elected government, led by the Islamist group, Ennahda, for a number of years. Ennahda remains a sizeable force within the country’s political sphere.
What these attacks do powerfully demonstrate is the resonance that the Islamic State’s message has outside of Syria and Iraq. The group’s anti-Western, anti-[neo]liberal discourse – couched in Islamic language – is a powerful narrative given additional credibility by the reflexive tendencies of Western governments, media, and analysts, to see all terrorism as an indication of the Islamic State’s Western advance. By treating attacks like those on June 26 as “Islamic State terrorism,” the organization is given more credibility than it deserves and others with anti-Western grievances are encourage to adopt the Islamic State’s mantle.
These attacks are horrific but are rare and caused by a confluence of factors, many of which have little to do with the Islamic State. Greater attention to these nuances will yield far more useful information critical to understanding how and why such attacks occur.