The Islamic State (IS) or Daesh marked the start of the Islamic New Year (ie Muharram 1438H), which coincides with early October 2016, in the most sacrilegious manner by having its Al-Hayat Media Centre release the second edition of the magazine Rumiyah (ie Rome) in several languages including in English and Bahasa Indonesia.
The magazine dedicates a chapter "Just Terror Tactics" which espouses savagery by encouraging potential terrorists to overcome their squeamishness of "plunging a sharp object into another person's flesh", promotes knives as a form of discreet and highly lethal weapon that is widely available in every land, and offers advice on launching an effective campaign of lone-wolf knife attacks on the infidels. Another chapter "Brutality and Severity towards the Kuffar" essentially buttresses the early chapter by distorting the history (i.e. Seerah) of the Prophet and his companions to justify knife violence against non-Muslims and Muslims who do not subscribe to their ideology.
This marks a calculated strategy by Daesh to use lone wolves to main its currency in the global jihadist arena, and to engulf and distract law enforcement and security agencies as the returning foreign fighters plot more damaging stratagems.
Strategic Shift in Tactics
Shortly after the magazine's release, two Belgium police officers in the Brussels district of Schaerbeek were stabbed in a suspected case of terror attack by an assailant identified as "Hicham D" who reportedly has links to foreign fighters who had travelled to Syria. While no terrorist group has claimed responsibility for the Schaerbeek attack, social media postings have been portraying an implicit attribution of the latest Rumiyah magazine to the attack.
The use of knife tactics by lone wolves, although an unsophisticated terrorist tactic, is a cause for concern for law enforcement and security agencies given Daesh's calculated elevation of the rudimentary object as a weapon of choice in its propaganda calling for domestic attacks on member countries of the US-led global coalition to counter ISIL. Indeed, Daesh in the latest Rumiyah magazine has glorified the knife attack by Somali American Dahir Adan in Minnesota, US in September 2016 and several terrorist knife attacks in Bangladesh (i.e. article on "Operations in Bengal"). This might signal a strategic shift given that the enhanced and sophisticated measures by law enforcement and security agencies (for e.g. tougher legislation, counter-terrorism financing controls, community engagement, and safe cities initiatives such as ubiquitous CCTV surveillance) would in the long run limit the resources, capability and opportunity for terrorists to stage spectacular or mass-casualty attacks at urban centres.
The elevation of knife tactics by Daesh as a defining feature in terrorism appears to be done by way of a two-pronged approach. First, the Rumiyah magazine exploits stories of medieval era conflict in Islamic history to portray the knife/sword as a sacred weapon used by early generations of pious mujahideen to vanquish their adversaries and defend Islam. The knife is therefore exalted as the symbolic weapon of Jihadists and an asymmetric response to the sophisticated homeland security capabilities of modern nations.
Second, it rides on the creeping anxiety that stems from the trend of horrendous terrorist knife attacks reported in several countries. An August 2016 article on Lone-Wolf/Low-Tech Terrorism by the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism of the University of Syracuse, New York notes the emergent pattern of global terrorism in which terrorists transform common objects such as knives and vehicles into tools of execution as a method of heightening the intimidating effects of terrorist attacks.
Message Sharpens the Knife
Daesh understands that the immediate dual objectives of any terrorist attack; i.e. Tactical: inflict physical harm and damage, and Communication: convey a loud message that instills fear and suspicion among the masses – could only be achieved with wide media coverage. A lone wolf knife attack is likely to be small scale as compared to a more spectacular bomb explosion, active shooter or vehicle-ramming and limited media coverage would only confine the impact to the immediate victim(s). The attack would then be a wasted endeavour as the terrorists' message of fear is not propagated to the wider public audience.
Given this inherent limitation of knife tactics, the Rumiyah magazine outlined the necessary steps to maximise the impact of knife attacks. To ensure that a knife attack would not be perceived as a random act of violence, the attackers are advised to leave "some kind of evidence or insignia identifying the motive and allegiance to the Khalifah" at the scene of attack especially if the demise of the attacker is anticipated. In this respect, attackers could take to the social media to speedily broadcast their savagery to a wide audience as in the case of the lone wolf Larossi Abballa who streamed a video on Facebook Live as he brutally knifed a police officer and his partner in their home outside Paris in June 2016.
Cutting a Hole in Homeland Security
Daesh's pronouncements for lone wolves to stage more domestic small-scale attacks and its propensity to claim responsibility for such attacks despite its lack of direct links with the perpetrators in several cases suggest the organisation's growing desperation in sustaining its currency within the arena of global jihadism as it sustains military setbacks and a shrinking caliphate. However, these developments hardly suggest that Daesh's days are numbered and could be perceived by jihadists as short-term setbacks that necessitate strategic shifts in a perpetual struggle that would culminate in the end of time as prophesised in Islamic eschatology.
Indeed, such strategic shifts underpin the enduring threat of Al Qaeda which has switched tactics from spectacular attacks in its early days to small-scale attacks with minimal or non-existent coordination with the central organisation. A May 2011 article by The Atlantic dubbed this strategy by Al Qaeda as a "War of a Thousand Cuts", and this "war" will become more complex as Daesh enters the fray. Europol in its EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (TE-SAT) 2016 highlighted that Al-Qaeda affiliates and more recently Daesh favour lone wolf attacks, and the operational difficulties in preventing such attacks.
Daesh's calls for more lone wolf attacks – including with the use of knife tactics – buttress the larger strategy of utilising returning foreign fighters who bring home with them the intent to stage domestic attacks or cultivate sleeper cells. Lone wolves, empowered by their unpredictability and ease of knife tactics, could engulf the intelligence and frontline resources of law enforcement and security agencies and divert their attention from the more elaborate and damaging stratagems of foreign fighters.
Given the complexity in combating the dual threats of lone wolves and returning foreign fighters, law enforcement and security agencies must beef up their intelligence analysis capabilities and maximise operational cooperation with international partners to keep staying ahead of terrorists. Concurrently, communities must collaborate with the agencies in exercising vigilance and preparedness to prevent and mitigate the impact of terrorist attacks.