In July 2014, ISIS announced itself to the world when it conquered Mosul, an Iraqi city of 1.8 million people, with only about 1,500 lightly armed men. But through coordinated social media promotion and astute marketing, ISIS was able to frighten a much larger and more heavily armed Iraqi army of 25,000 soldiers into abandoning their weapons and fleeing the city.
The Caliphate was born. But in August 2014, awakened to the horrors of ISIS’s brutal form of governance, the U.S. and other nations began to halt ISIS’s expansion. U.S.-led airstrikes resulted in ISIS’s battlefield losses and a shrinking territorial footprint.
In response ISIS ramped up calls for its followers to strike in their home countries, rather than traveling to Syria and Iraq. For example, ISIS spokesperson Abu Mohammad al-Adnani urged followers to kill disbelievers “in 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.”
Statistics released by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) confirm that these messages were heard loud and clear throughout 2015. According to IEP’s Global Terrorism Index 2016, international terrorism-related deaths in 2015 dropped 10 percent overall, to a total of 29,376 in 2015 compared to 2014, driven primarily by military actions against ISIS and Boko Haram. But while deaths from terrorism fell by almost a third in Iraq and Nigeria, deaths from terror in developed nations skyrocketed. While 77 individuals in Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries (U.S., E.U., some Asian countries, and Turkey) died in terrorist incidents in 2014, that number climbed to 577 in 2015—the highest yearly number since 2001. Two countries in particular—Turkey and France—suffered the highest number of terrorism-related fatalities among OECD countries.
The heightened loss of life due to terrorism in the West can be directly attributed to major ISIS inspired and directed incidents. In Turkey, ISIS suicide bombers killed 32 civilians in the southern town of Suruç in July 2015, and more than 100 people in Ankara that October. The trend continued into 2016, as three suspected ISIS suicide bombers killed 45 people at Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport in June. The country has also been ravaged by bombings perpetrated by the PKK, or the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, a Kurdish separatist terrorist group which the Turkish government has classified as the most dangerous terrorist group in the country. Statistics covering all of 2016 will be released later this year.
In 2015, France experienced its highest terrorism-related death tolls since 2000. The country was hit with the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015 and the horrific ISIS massacre in Paris in November that claimed the lives of 130 people. There were also numerous, intermittent ISIS-related attacks scattered throughout the year. The carnage continued in 2016 when an ISIS-inspired Tunisian mowed down 85 people with a cargo truck in July following Bastille Day fireworks in the southern city of Nice.
Notable inspired attacks carried out by self-radicalized individuals—often dubbed “lone wolves” or “bedroom radicals”—include the November 2015 San Bernardino, California attack that killed 14 and the June 2016 Orlando, Florida shootings that killed 49. In both cases, it was later revealed that the teachings of deceased al-Qaeda ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki—whose propaganda material is readily available online—had been a primary radicalizing influence.
Directed attacks in OECD countries were carried out by individuals who directly communicated and received orders from ISIS operatives. Some of these perpetrators previously fought alongside ISIS in Syria, and entered OECD countries by posing as Syrian refugees with ISIS-supplied counterfeit passports. Such attacks include those in Paris in November 2015 and in Brussels in March 2016.
To reduce inspired attacks, OECD countries must reduce the ability of individuals to radicalize remotely, i.e. over the Internet. This means keeping the worst-of-the-worst extremist content off major social media platforms. The technology now exists to enable social media companies in enforcing their standards which already prohibit terror promoting content. CEP recently developed, in partnership with Dartmouth College Computer Science Professor Dr. Hany Farid, software that can find and efficiently remove extremist images, videos and audio messages that have been pre-determined to violate the terms of service of leading Internet and social media companies.
The U.S.-led coalition has made progress in reducing terrorism-related deaths in the Middle East and Africa. The IEP statistics clearly show that Western countries are now bigger targets than ever and additional measures must be taken to shore up borders and to prevent radicalization and incitement to violence. As ISIS shrinks in Iraq and Syria, its impact must not increase in the West.