The recent attacks in Paris and Beirut and the downing of a Russian airliner in Egypt were the first results of a centrally planned terrorism campaign by a wing of the Islamic State leadership that oversees “external” targets, according to U.S. and European intelligence officials.
Carrying out attacks far from the Islamic State’s base in Iraq and Syria represents an evolution of the group’s previous model of exhorting followers to take up arms wherever they live — but without significant help from the group. And it upends the view held by the United States and its allies of the Islamic State as a regional threat, with a new assessment that the group poses a whole new sets of risks.
One possible motivation of the change in strategy by ISIS is to seize leadership of the global jihad from al-Qaida — from which the Islamic State broke away in 2013. The attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali on Friday was probably carried out by two al-Qaida-linked groups, suggesting, as one senior European counterterrorism official put it, “The race is on between ISIS and al-Qaida to see who can attack the West the best.”
U.S. and European intelligence officials said they based their new assessment of the external operations structure on intercepted communications, the Islamic State’s own propaganda, and other intelligence.
Two Western counterterrorism officials revealed that in the Paris attacks there were electronic communications between Islamic State leaders in Syria and Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the man suspected to be the architect of the assault, in the weeks before the attacks.
Similar evidence analyzed after the bombings in Beirut, the Lebanese capital, suggest that those strikes were directed from Syria and conducted by operatives on the ground. The downing of the Russian airliner followed a larger Islamic State goal to strike Russian interests but was probably carried out autonomously by the group’s affiliate in Egypt, officials said.
According to U.S. and European officials, the man overseeing the attacks outside Iraq and Syria is Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, a 38-year-old Syrian who is the official spokesman for the Islamic State and one of the most trusted lieutenants of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group’s supreme leader. But it is in his dual role as head of external operations that Adnani has drawn intensified scrutiny from Western officials.
Adnani is best known for a 42-minute audio statement issued on social media in September 2014 in which he called on individual Muslims living in the West to kill civilians in their countries by any means necessary, and to do so without waiting for further instructions from the terrorist group’s leaders.
As a result, Adnani now has a $5 million bounty on his head, offered by the United States, and is on the kill list for the U.S.-led air campaign in Iraq and Syria.