There are many forms of terror perpetuated by the self-proclaimed Islamic State. On Friday, the world saw nearly every type carried out at almost the same time.
The group’s desire to inspire lone wolf attacks around the West happened in France when a man tried to destroy an American-owned factory with explosives and then beheaded a man, reportedly placing Islamist flag near the body.
ISIS’s effort to instill fear across the Middle Eastern of fighters returning home from Iraq and Syria to attack played out in Sousse, Tunisia. Two men carrying Kalashnikovs, killed at least 37 people at a beachside resort. It was the deadliest attack to strike Tunisia.
The group’s ongoing call for attacks on Shiite places of worship happened Friday in Kuwait City when a suicide bomber walked into a Shiite mosque and detonated himself as worshippers gathered for Friday prayers. The attack came at an unusually busy period—weekly prayers during the holy month of Ramadan, which began last week. At least 37 died and another 36 were injured in that attack. It was the first time Kuwait had seen such an attack, and ISIS quickly claimed responsibility for the attack.
And earlier this week, ISIS reportedly reclaimed territory in the northern Syria of Kobani. On Friday, a Syrian monitoring group reported that ISIS fighters killed 146 residents there in a house-by-house rampage.
Each case represented, in its own way, the different styles of ISIS attacks: inspired lone wolves, jihadists returning home, zealots seeking to spark a sectarian religious war and, in Kobani, battles for the boundaries of a caliphate.
U.S. defense officials scrambled Friday to assess whether ISIS coordinated the attacks. Initially, the Pentagon said there was no evidence of active coordination. But ISIS later in the day claimed responsibility for two of three strikes.
Rather, officials believe that audio messages issued by ISIS’s leadership are the connective link. They call for strikes against perceived enemies; terror attacks follow days later, even if the places attacked are not always named in such messages. The release of such messages appears to be enough to inspire members and supporters to launch attacks, the officials said.
“The public messaging is encouraging these attacks,” a senior defense official told The Daily Beast. “That is our conclusion.”
Three days before the most recent spate of attacks, Abu Muhammad al Adnani, an ISIS spokesman, issued a nearly 30-minute audio message for the holy month of Ramadan, announcing a new member of the Islamic States in the Caucuses.
He also called for “calamity for the infidels… Shi'ites and apostate Muslims.” And he said there should be more attacks in restive and unstable states—Iraq, Syria and Libya. In the region’s more relatively stable states—Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia—supporters should launch more attacks, Adnani added.
According to Adnani, the U.S.-led coalition campaign against ISIS had not deterred the group.
“We will continue, God willing, in our path and will not care even if many nations gang up against us or how many swords we are struck by,” Adani said.
Days later, a global bloodbath followed.
Experts said questions—like whether or not the attacks were operationally connected—are ancillary. Either way, the attacks were a coup for ISIS, these experts said. Aspiring jihadists heard ISIS’s call for terror.
“It doesn’t matter for their supporters because they will view it as a win for ISIS. We sometimes want to create a nuance in ways not important to those inside the Islamic State—supporters, members, cheerleaders,” says Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs who studies jihadist movements.
Similar attacks have happened—in the same countries and region—before, but rarely on the same day and never in three continents. In April, ISIS supporters are suspected of hacking TV5Monde, a French television station, for three hours. In March, ISIS claimed responsibility for an attack on tourists visiting Tunisia’s National Bardo Museum, killing 21 people, mostly European tourists. Up until Friday, the museum attack was deadliest act of terror in Tunisia’s history.
And several Shiite mosques across the Persian Gulf have been attacked this year—largely in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Like Kuwait, these are Sunni dominated states with a disenfranchised Shiite minority.
Friday was “a continuation of what we have seen already. It just happened on the same day,” Zelin said. “It highlights different ways [ISIS] can do attacks.”
The French suspect, Yassine Salhi, was dormant for so long he fell off the intelligence community’s radar. Salhi was under government French surveillance for two years—from 2006-2008—but dropped when he did not appear to be a threat, according to France’s interior ministry shortly after the attack.
Tunisia, in particular, has been susceptible to its citizens coming home to attack. Some estimates conclude that, with at least 7,000 fighters, Tunisia has more of its citizens in ISIS than any other country in the world.
This is not the first time attacks have surged after an ISIS audio message. Shortly after ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi issued an audio statement in May calling for fighting to join and celebrating the expansion of the Islamic State into places like Nigeria and Libya, there were several major attacks.
ISIS claimed responsibility for an attack on two Shiite mosques in Saudi Arabia, the first time such attacks had happened in such succession in the kingdom.
“In a blessed martyrdom operation, a polytheistic monument was targeted, that (the Shiite community) established in Sunni areas to spread out their polytheism,” ISIS said in a statement.
And perhaps, most notably, ISIS took control of the Iraqi city of Ramadi, its first major territorial gain in Iraq in nearly a year..
The U.S. has spent $2.74 billion destroying 7,655 targets in Iraq and Syria since Obama pledged to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, according to Defense Department statistics.
But of course, those airstrikes are only targeting a single type ISIS threat—the one presented to the people of Iraq and Syria. The terror army has so many more.