An attack this week that killed 148 people and wounded at least 200 in the Alawite stronghold of Syrian President Bashar Assad is a result of various transformations going on in the dynamics of the ongoing war.
Islamic State claimed responsibility for the multiple suicide bombs and devices planted in cars that struck Jableh and Tartous on Syria’s coast and the heartland of the Assad regime on Monday, an area that until now has survived relatively unscathed from the Syrian civil war.
One of the reasons for Islamic State’s shift away from attacking regime-allied Shi’ite Hezbollah, Iranian, or militia forces and other rebel groups is that the group likely wanted to start to make Russia feel pressure for its ongoing military operations in the country.
Russia was forced to withdraw from its war in Afghanistan during the 1980s after suffering heavy military and economic losses as a result of jihadist guerrilla tactics.
Perhaps Islamic State wants to replicate history.
Assad’s stronghold contains Russian military bases from which Russia launches its attacks on rebel forces, including Islamic State.
The Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor of MEMRI (the Middle East Media Research Institute) shared with The Jerusalem Post various documents it found related to recent Islamic State activity, including a statement of responsibility for the major attack.
The statement issued on a leading Islamic State-affiliated jihadi online forum, Shumoukh Al-Islam, blamed Russian air strikes on Muslims for its attack.
The statement concluded by promising “much greater and bitterer” attacks in the future, saying: “[Muslims] will bomb and burn, as they have been shelled and killed.”
Other evidence showed that Islamic State may be undergoing a transformation from focusing on building its “state” or caliphate and gaining more territory to carrying out terrorist attacks against its enemies on the battlefield and abroad, which is more similar to al-Qaida attacks.
For example, Islamic State threatened Israel and Jews worldwide in an article in its weekly newsletter, Al-Naba, this week, saying that unlike Hamas, its “war on Israel will not be limited by geographical boundaries or by international norms.”
And resembling al-Qaida’s past, more global jihad focus, the article said the organization “rejects this ‘international order,’” and its war against its enemies “has no boundaries other than those which Allah prescribed on the Muslims in their jihad to make the polytheists submit to Islam’s rule – the entire world is an arena for its jihad; all the Muslims are potential soldiers in its army; and all polytheist combatants on earth, and the Jews among them, are legitimate targets for it.”
In another example, Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani released an audio statement on the group’s Al-Furqan outlet urging “caliphate soldiers” and supporters to target civilians in the US and Europe.
“And here [the month of] Ramadan has come. The month of jihad, fighting, and conquests. Get ready and be prepared and let each of you make sure to spend it as a conqueror for the sake of Allah and seek what Allah has preserved for you, and make it a month of wrath against the kuffar [infidels] everywhere,” said Adnani.
Interestingly, Adnani also mentioned the growing difficulty the group is having in getting foreign fighters to reach its territory and suggested instead that they attack in their home countries. This goes against previous calls by Islamic State for Muslims to immigrate to its territory.
“Oh servants of Allah, Oh monotheists, if the tyrants have shut the doors of hijra [immigration to ISIS territories] in your face, then open the gate of jihad in their faces and make them regret their action,” said the Islamic State spokesman.
“The smallest bit of work that you can carry out in their countries is far better and beloved to us than any major work [i.e., operations] here. [These operations] would be of much success and more harmful to them.”
Steven Stalinsky, the executive director of MEMRI, told the Post, “I was struck with Adnani essentially copying al-Qaida and its former media personality, Adam Gadahn.”
Gadahn was killed by a US drone strike in Pakistan last year.
Years ago, Gadahn had made a similar statement, telling Western supporters that if they are unable to reach us, stay home and attack, noted Stalinsky.
Asked why the shift in Islamic State strategy, he responded that it has to do with Turkey shutting its border, resulting in the blocking of prospective fighters.
“Islamic State is busy fighting on the ground, yet they have been forced to shift their strategy,” added Stalinsky.
He stressed that Islamic State is still focused on building its state, but it’s under severe strain from Western air attacks and efforts by the Iraqi government to retake Fallujah, and in the future its headquarters in Raqqa, Syria, could be lost.
This is part of the reason for its support for plots like in France and Belgium, or lone-wolf style attacks by its supporters, as in San Bernardino.
“Adnani’s September 2014 address laid this out when he warned the West – since you attack us, we will come to you,” Stalinsky said.
On the ground, the fallout from the Tartous bombings is having an impact, and the success of such operations suggests they will be repeated.
Joel Parker, a researcher on Syria at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, said that the Tartous bombings did not gain the expected support among some rebel factions.
“Political figures behind the Western- backed Free Syrian Army, such as the Syrian National Coalition, and even amateur Twitter supporters of the rebels have condemned the Islamic State operation,” he said.
But for many other more radical rebel supporters, this was par for the course,” added Parker.
Parker is unsure if the bombings represent a major breakthrough for Islamic State, since it has carried out large-scale attacks in the past, such as in Damascus in February, when over 80 were killed.
Other less radical rebel groups have not carried out attacks at this level, targeting civilians, and “it could reflect a lack of will in these kind of attacks or perhaps a lack of capability,” he said.
As the latest round of negotiations for a political settlement expectedly failed, it can be expected that the war will drag on until facts on the ground dictate a solution.
Islamic State can be expected to ramp up isolated terrorist attacks, like it carried out this week, in Assad’s stronghold as well as elsewhere in the world against Western, Israeli or Jewish targets.
As the organization loses more territory and control in Syria and Iraq, the group will be forced to revert to other locations, such as its growing presence in Libya, and rely more on international terrorist plots that became a trademark of al-Qaida.