Terrorist attacks across three continents on Friday demonstrate Islamic State’s influence and wide reach, as well as the difficulties of countering its use of the Internet to galvanize and inspire global violence.
Attacks in France, Tunisia and Kuwait left at least 65 dead, three days after a June 23 audio message by the group’s spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, urging followers to make the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, being celebrated now, a time “of disasters for the infidels.”
The ability by Islamic State to direct coordinated attacks outside areas under its control would suggest an expansion of its capabilities. In any event, the attacks highlight the group’s ability to inspire militants to act on its behalf, and the challenge of confronting terrorists who use the modern world’s tools -- global travel, the Internet, financial markets -- against it.
Michael Leiter, a former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said Islamic State uses technology effectively, and is clearly more capable at radicalizing individuals outside the region than al-Qaeda ever has been.
“More importantly,” Islamic State “has been more effective in mobilizing those individuals to violence,” Leiter said Friday at a conference organized by the Center for a New American Security, a Washington policy group.
Leiter said the group’s ability to project a potent image to disenfranchised young people around the world with videos, music and social media has been hard to counter.
“We’re pretty good at killing them once they are attracted to this ’jihadi cool,’ but we’re God-awful at keeping them from thinking this is cool and giving them alternatives, whether internationally or domestically,” Leiter said.
Countries in the anti-Islamic State coalition “face a new reality,” said General John Allen, the U.S. special envoy to the coalition fighting the extremists. “Potential foreign fighters need no longer leave their home countries or even their homes to be radicalized and be recruited,” Allen said June 3 in Qatar, warning of the growing concern of “so-called ‘lone wolf’ attackers.”
Along with efforts to stop radicalized citizens from traveling to foreign battlefields, coalition members also will have to find ways to intercede at “the point of recruitment and radicalization, which is often a personal computer or cell phone,” Allen said.
The latest attacks prompted the U.S., U.K. and Spain to ramp up security precautions. U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson urged Americans to exercise caution around the July 4th holiday celebrating American independence.
Friday’s attack in France took place at the U.S.-owned Air Products & Chemicals Inc. gas plant near Lyon. U.S. companies should pay renewed attention to security at their overseas branches, Johnson’s predecessor, former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in an interview.
The militants are “going to want to strike at Americans, and frankly it’s harder here than it is in Europe because there are fewer adherents here, so they’re going to try to strike at Americans in other parts of the world,” Chertoff said.
“American companies are going to have to really think about not just the obvious places,” where security is an issue, “but even places that are not obvious,” Chertoff said.
Islamic State claimed responsibility for 27 deaths at a Shiite mosque in Kuwait. U.S. officials are still investigating its links to the beheading of a French man and the shooting deaths of 37 people, mostly European tourists, in Tunisia.
Publicly and privately, though, American officials warned of drawing connections between the attacks too quickly. “We have to be very careful at this very early stage of trying to draw lines of connection,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said Friday in Washington.
Chertoff said that while there may not be evidence so far that the attacks were coordinated, “they’re inspired by the same general ideology.”
If there’s any bright spot from a black day, two U.S. officials said, it may be that Islamic State’s effectiveness at galvanizing people far from its self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq to attack in its name could prove to be a weakness.
The attacks on diverse targets -- a Shiite mosque in the Persian Gulf, a tourist resort in Sunni Tunisia and an American company in France -- coupled with its continuing offensives in Iraq and Syria, unite people and nations that otherwise have little in common or are adversaries. The U.S. and Iran are a prime example, they said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence analysis.
The officials said the National Security Agency and other U.S., U.K. and other intelligence agencies are reviewing mountains of stored communications data in search of any phone calls, e-mails, online postings or other indications that all or some of the attacks are connected.
Early evidence suggests that individuals inspired by Islamic State, acting independently, were behind the attacks in France and Tunisia, one of the U.S. officials said.
The size and placement of the explosives in the Kuwait attack appeared far more professional, this official said, and consistent with a pattern of attacks on Shiite targets in the Persian Gulf that target the rival Islamic sect, as well as the Sunni regimes in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
The least professional-looking attack was the one in France, the official said, and the deadliest one, in Tunisia, while crude -- gunmen armed with Kalashnikovs opened fire on tourists lounging on a beach -- showed some evidence of planning and surveillance.
The attacks show that Islamic State can’t be seen as a geographically contained threat, said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “The notion that it’s easily containable in a limited space like Syria and Iraq is less and less compelling,” he said.
At the same time, the group’s strength and appeal in the virtual world, coupled with what the U.S. officials termed its ability to evade technological spying tools such as electronic intercepts and spy satellites, highlight a weakness in U.S. intelligence-gathering.
The U.S. and its allies have had little success at recruiting agents in extremist groups, they said, and the American intelligence community remain focused largely on technology. James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, with support from some congressional intelligence committee members, is urging a renewed focus on old-fashioned spies, two other officials said, also speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss an intelligence issue.
Another answer might be to create Internet controls to block Islamic State’s ability to attract recruits or incite violence online, Michele Flournoy, CEO of the Center for a New American Security and a former Pentagon official, said in Washington on Friday. That may work much the way countries work internationally to fight child pornography.
“We get much more uncomfortable about when do you cross the line from stopping that, to constraining free speech or freedom of expression,” Flournoy said. “Given how much of the architecture that we operate, create, modify, run, we have to grapple with that question, the government in conversation with the key service providers.”