Targets chosen by al-Qaeda and ISIS operatives reveal much about the groups’ underlying ideology and strategic choices. Among the values held by these groups and evidenced by their target choices are the groups’ disregard for civilian life, their desire to seek revenge for Western military intervention, and their motivation to economically weaken the target country. As a result, al-Qaeda and ISIS have regularly targeted airplanes and airports, military and police installations and personnel, public spaces and transportation infrastructure, and Jewish and Christian institutions and individuals. Cartoonists who have drawn the Islamic prophet Muhammad have also been a common target choice for al-Qaeda and ISIS terrorists.
While there is overlap between how the groups justify their efforts, ISIS appears less concerned with providing ideological reasoning for the methods of its terror. While al-Qaeda has produced manifold theological and tactical justifications for its violence, ISIS has reiterated that its primary goal is to kill kuffar, and may be more likely to carry out randomized, wanton violence. This pattern also holds true in the Middle East, where ISIS has slaughtered minorities—including Shiite Muslims and Yazidis—en masse, while al-Qaeda leaders have emphasized attacking the West rather than engaging in local, sectarian warfare. (Source: Wilson Center)
In their justification of the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda ideologues liken airplanes to catapults—unable to distinguish between civilians and soldiers—which the prophet Muhammad permitted Islamic soldiers to use against enemy villages. From a strategic standpoint, al-Qaeda has also sought to attack airports and airplanes in a declared effort to wreak economic havoc on the country in which the attack takes place. Al-Qaeda and ISIS’s lone wolves have also targeted soldiers at military installations throughout America. At least twice, American jihadists have waged these attacks in an attempt to protect Muslims in the Middle East from death at the hands of those U.S. soldiers. Law enforcement personnel, referred to by ISIS as the “protectors of the Crusaders,” are increasingly common targets in the West, according to a report released by the Combating Terrorism Center in June 2016. Al-Qaeda has also highlighted the tactical ease of targeting western police forces, who “cannot withstand a bang of a grenade, let alone a full car blast.” (Sources: Middle East Policy, p. 89, Inspire, p. 64, New York Times, New York Times, Combating Terrorism Center, Inspire, p. 71)
Both al-Qaeda and ISIS’s leaders have commanded followers to kill civilians in the West—making crowded areas such as cafes, concerts, public transportation systems, and sporting events popular locations for attacks. With regard to cartoon-related targets, al-Qaeda- and ISIS-tied extremists have sought to target cartoonists that have depicted the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Al-Qaeda wrote in 2010 that defending Muhammad—including by killing those who have drawn him—was a “greater cause” than fighting in Palestine, Afghanistan, or Iraq. Both groups have also targeted Jewish and Christian institutions and individuals in the West—a theme that is indicative of the groups’ deep-seated hatred of both religions. (Sources: Heavy, Wilson Center, Inspire, p. 28)
As al-Qaeda- and ISIS-linked plots and attacks grow in number and frequency in the West, the groups’ preference for certain target types has become at once increasingly apparent and relevant. Continued high-level security of these locations—as well as familiarity with jihadists’ ideological and tactical reasoning when choosing their targets—remains crucial in order to both thwart and suppress future attacks. It is for this reason that CEP has outlined the groups’ common target choices and corresponding ideological interpretations in its report Terror Targets in the West: Where and Why. (Source: Combating Terrorism Center)