The horrific Bastille Day terror attack in Nice, France, undertaken by Tunisian Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, claimed over 80 lives and injured more than 200 persons. While details about Bouhlel’s background and motivations for attack are emerging French Prime Minister Manuel Valls described him as a “terrorist without a doubt linked to radical Islamism in one way or another.” Shortly after the attack French President Francois Hollande, elaborated on the threat, stating, “All of France is under the threat of Islamic terrorism.” Subsequently, an Islamic State’s (IS) linked news organization, Amaq, claimed Bouhlel as a “soldier of the Islamic State,” who targeted France (a coalition member fighting the caliphate).
The Nice incident comes against the unsettling reality that despite significant territorial losses in Iraq and Syria, the IS’s international operations are robust, evolving, and increasingly dangerous. Directed, connected, or inspired Islamic State terror attacks the past few months—especially during Ramadan, in Bangladesh, Egypt, Lebanon, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United States (Orlando), Yemen, and elsewhere—vividly underscore the global nature of their reach, in variant forms. Indeed, during the past two years, outside Iraq and Syria, the group has launched some 140 terror incidents in more than two dozen countries killing over 1,800 and wounding thousands of others.
Also, the group’s centers of gravity continue to shift globally. While the Islamic State has lost about 25% of the territory it held in Iraq and Syria, as of July 2016, the organization established wilayats or provinces in more than a dozen countries, including: Algeria, Bangladesh, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Nigeria, Afghanistan-Pakistan, Philippines, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Yemen. At the two-year anniversary of the Islamic State (June 29th), Amaq issued a diagram delineating its self-defined areas of control as follows:
• Areas of Major Control (Iraq and Syria)
• Areas of Medium Control (Chechnya, Yemen, Egypt, Nigeria, Somalia, the Philippines, Niger, Afghanistan, and Dagestan)
• Areas of Presence of Covert Units (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Algeria, France, Tunisia, Lebanon, and Bangladesh)
Additionally, the IS has developed affiliates or pledges of allegiance from terrorist groups in dozens of countries. The group’s levels of control and influence are broadening geographically. Such actions aggravate political unrest and instability worldwide, whether by mass casualty terror incidents, insurgent activities, fundraising, radicalization and recruitment enticing lone wolves and collaborative actors, or other facets of terror.
Furthermore, the estimated number of IS fighters span the globe: Iraq and Syria (18,000-22,000), Nigeria (7,000), Libya (5,000-8,000), Egypt (1,000), Yemen (several hundred), and Afghanistan/Pakistan (hundreds). These figures, coupled with the thousands of foreign fighters leaving the caliphate for planned attacks in their home countries or elsewhere, indicate the IS’s risks go well beyond the Levant. In July 2016, FBI Director James Comey said, "We all know there will be a terrorist diaspora out of the caliphate. Those thousands of fighters are going to go someplace.” The attackers in the November 2015 Paris and Brussels March 2016 incidents were largely French and Belgian operatives who trained in Syria.
Internationally, those not formally aligned with IS, have also heeded the May 2016 Islamic State’s spokesman, Abu Mohammad al Adnani, call for lone wolf attacks globally, “Truly, the smallest act you do in their lands is more beloved to us than the biggest act done here; it is more effective for us and more harmful to them.” During September 2014, Adnani said the disbeliever should be killed using “any manner or way, however it may be…Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him.” Sadly, this terror tradecraft is gaining resonance in IS-inspired attacks that have victimized dozens of nations.
Time will tell whether the Nice incident is, indeed, the latest example of the Islamic State’s ever-evolving, global, and multifaceted threat, or merely another facet of global violent jihadism. In any case, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker posed an important question following the Bastille Day attack, “We are now asking when will this end?” In light of the IS-aligned violence and chaos permeating the globe, the answer, appears to be: no time soon.
Dean C. Alexander is Director/Professor, Homeland Security Research Program, Western Illinois University (WIU), and co-author of The Islamic State: Combating the Caliphate Without Borders (Lexington, 2015). Alex Cluster, a member of the Illinois National Guard, is a student at WIU.