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IS group attacks signal shift in strategy, says expert

Adrien Morlent , AFP | People lay flowers in memory of the victims of the November 13, 2015 attacks in Paris

In claiming three attacks in 15 days, including one in Paris, the downing of a Russian passenger jet over Egypt and a bombing in Beirut, the Islamic State (IS) group may be signaling a shift in strategy, a former intelligence officer told FRANCE 24.


Up until recently the IS group has focused on the acquisition of territory to achieve its goal of a self-declared “caliphate” across Iraq and Syria, but with the attacks of the last 15 days the group is demonstrating a willingness to expand operations beyond mere territorial claims.

The spate of attacks has exacted a heavy toll. The downing of a Russian passenger plane over Egypt’s Sinai region on October 31 claimed the lives of 224 people, while 43 died in a bombing in Lebanon’s capital Beirut on November 12. The very next day, at least 129 people were killed in a series of coordinated attacks in Paris.

Alain Rodier, former senior intelligence officer and deputy director of the French centre for intelligence research (Centre français de recherche sur le renseignement or CF2R) claims that the attacks are a response to the number of setbacks experienced by the IS group as a direct result of combined Russian and US-led air strikes.

He spoke to FRANCE 24 about how the latest attacks in Paris signify a change in the IS group’s strategy.

FRANCE 24: The IS group appears to be expanding its operations beyond its sphere of influence. Why?

Alain Rodier: Up until now Daesh [the Arabic word for the Islamic State group] hasn’t carried out these types of operations because, unlike al Qaeda, it’s been preoccupied with conquering territory. They’ve been seeking to consolidate their territory in Iraq and Syria, which they call a caliphate. They’ve also been seeking to expand their provinces, which they call Wilayat, or areas where militant groups have pledged allegiance to them, such as Afghanistan, Egypt’s Sinai region, Libya and Nigeria for example.

But for nearly a year, Daesh hasn’t been advancing in Iraq and Syria, like it has in the past. This doesn’t mean that the organisation is in the process of being defeated. But there’s no longer a “smell of victory” in the air. Air strikes by the US-led coalition and France have, despite all criticism, helped break Daesh’s momentum. It has affected the organisation’s aura as well as the influx of jihadists upon which it depends. I’ve learned from Belgium’s intelligence services that the number of fighters leaving to join Daesh has been divided in half since the beginning of 2015. The group had to do something.

FRANCE 24: Are we witnessing a shift in the IS group’s strategy?

Alain Rodier: Yes. Everything began on October 31 with the Russian plane. But be careful, it doesn’t mean that they are no longer fighting on the ground. Their strategy in Iraq and Syria is the same. They have also run into phenomenal opposition from [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s] forces and allied militia in the Aleppo region, where they have been forced out. We can also soon expect a battle to retake the town of Palmyra from the jihadists. They are no longer on the offensive, but on the defensive, or more accurately the counter-offensive, since they are still gaining ground in the Hama province.

At the same time it appears as though they have decided – we don’t know when exactly – to carry out major operations abroad. This is for a number of reasons: first, in retaliation against the airstrikes, to avenge themselves, but also, and most importantly, to remain at the forefront and to continue outpacing al Qaeda. The Islamic State group is like a wounded animal: all the more dangerous.

FRANCE 24: Is the IS group becoming more like al Qaeda in terms of how it operates?

Alain Rodier: With its actions, yes, because the goal is to terrorise their enemies, who they see as being godless. We can also note that they are even more efficient than al Qaeda, since despite all its efforts, al Qaeda has never succeeded in downing a plane.

(This article was adapted from the original in French)

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