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 of IS to direct co-ordinated 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 against it — global travel, the internet financial markets.
Michael Leiter, a former director of the US National Counterterrorism Centre, said IS uses technology effectively, and is clearly more capable at radicalising individuals outside the region than al-Qaida ever was.
“More importantly, IS has been more effective in mobilising those individuals to violence,” Mr Leiter said at a conference organised by the Centre for a New American Security, a Washington policy group.
Mr 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,” said Mr Leiter.
Countries in the anti-IS coalition “face a new reality”, said General John Allen, the US special envoy to the coalition fighting the extremists.
“Potential foreign fighters need no longer leave their home countries or even their homes to be radicalised and be recruited,” Mr Allen said June 3 in Qatar, warning of the growing concern of ‘lone wolf’ attackers.
Along with efforts to stop radicalised citizens from travelling to foreign battlefields, coalition members also will have to find ways to intercede at “the point of recruitment and radicalisation, which is often a personal computer or cell phone”, said Mr Allen.
The latest attacks prompted the US, UK, and Spain to ramp up security precautions. US Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson urged Americans to exercise caution around the July 4 holiday celebrating American independence.
Friday’s attack in France took place at the US-owned Air Products & Chemicals Inc gas plant near Lyon. US companies should pay renewed attention to security at their overseas branches, said Mr Johnson’s predecessor, former Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff.
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,” said Mr Chertoff.
“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.”
Officials are still investigating its links to the beheading of a Frenchman 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,” said US State Department spokesman John Kirby.
Mr Chertoff said that while there may not be evidence so far that the attacks were co-ordinated, “they’re inspired by the same general ideology”.
If there’s any bright spot from a black day, two US officials said, it may be that the effectiveness of IS at galvanising 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 Shia mosque in the Persian Gulf, a tourist resort in Sunni Tunisia and a US 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 US and Iran are a prime example, they said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence analysis.
The officials said the US National Security Agency and other US, UK, and other intelligence agencies are reviewing mountains of stored communications data in search of any phonecalls, emails, online postings, or other indications that the attacks are connected.
The attacks show IS can not 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 US officials termed its ability to evade technological spying tools such as electronic intercepts and spy satellites, highlight a weakness in US intelligence-gathering.
The US 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.
Another answer might be to create internet controls to block IS’s ability to attract recruits or incite violence online, Michele Flournoy, CEO of the US Centre for a New American Security and a former Pentagon official, said in Washington on Friday.