ISIS's recent seventeen-minute video "Kill Them Wherever You Find Them" portraying nine of the attackers who carried out the November 2015 Paris attacks killing 130 civilians is a wakeup call for the West. We now know more about the attacks, and we have clarified and confirmed a number of details. But there’s still a lot to learn. The slickly produced video includes a threat to the UK and a coded message that is meant to challenge Western intelligence services.
1. ISIS Has Not Changed Its Strategy.
After the Paris attacks, a flood of "experts" from the media and think tanks talked about the shift in ISIS's strategy from targeting the near enemy (Shiites, other Muslims and Middle East governments) to the far enemy (the West). True experts on ISIS who are Muslims, speak Arabic and who have lived in the Middle East know otherwise.
ISIS has not changed its strategy. It attempted attacks on the West before and after the Paris attacks. Paris was simply ISIS's first successful spectacular demonstration of planning and intention. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the mastermind of the Paris massacre, was involved in multiple earlier plots that were uncovered before they could be executed.
This fact alone should have placed Abaaoud on a watch list and informed terror experts that the earlier plots were indeed part of ISIS’ main target. ISIS's new video shows eight of the attackers in Syria committing murder or being trained as terrorists. This didn't take a week or so. Their training lasted for many months.
2. The West Does Not Have Enough Skilled Terrorism Analysts.
While Abaaoud was a known figure, this new video reveals another attacker (and possibly two more) on one of ISIS's propaganda videos more than a year before the Paris attacks.
In this new video, the attacker "Abu Fuad al-Farensi," whose real name was Foued Mohamed Aggad, appeared on ISIS's video one year prior. The older video showed the beheading of the US aid worker Peter Kassig. At that time, Aggad appeared in that video as one of Jihadi John's assistants beheading Syrian soldiers.
While Western media and intelligence services were obsessed in profiling and hunting ISIS's caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and his British executioner, Jihadi John, Baghdadi's aides were plotting with Jihadi John's aides to carry out the Paris attacks. Thus, while the chief planners are important, in this case the larger organization should have been carefully scrutinized.
This revelation shows the missing connection that the West failed to comprehend: Many of ISIS's foreign fighters who left the West to fight in Syria fought first with the Free Syrian Army, then became radicalized and joined al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s arm in Syria, then later joined ISIS. They formed ISIS's foreign units that helped the terror group control much of Syria and some became suicide bombers.
Because of their languages skills, their familiarity with the West and their passports, they were the ISIS specialists involved in kidnapping Western journalists and aid workers, moving them, guarding them and killing them before the cameras. They also were ISIS's propaganda videos' stars, whose aim was to recruit more Western jihadists. Finally and most importantly, they were ISIS's choice to conduct attacks in the West.
ISIS’s Belgian unit in Syria, the Abou Shaheed Brigade, is a perfect example of this plan. Abaaoud served in that unit, which was connected with the attack on a Brussels museum in May 2014. It was also affiliated with an extreme local Belgian group called Sharia4Belguem.
The brigade was also involved in kidnapping and guarding foreign hostages and abetting other attacks in France and Belgium. If Europe had enough skilled terrorism and propaganda analysts to connect the dots along with sufficient law enforcement officers to follow any leads, the Paris attacks may have been prevented.
3. ISIS Will Continue to Use Sympathizers Living in the West to Carry Out Attacks.
Of the nine attackers portrayed in ISIS's new video, seven were Europeans who traveled to Syria, joined ISIS, traveled back to Belgium and finally to France where they conducted the Paris attacks. Their nefarious journeys shed light on the legal gaps in Europe that gave refuge to extremists who desire to implement an Islamic caliphate there.
Until a few months ago, extremists like Anjm Choudary in the UK and Mulla Krekar in Norway promoted an Islamic caliphate and recruited ISIS's sympathizers, yet were still living freely with access to the media, the Internet and Muslim societies in Europe.
One of Choudary's followers is ISIS’s new Jihadi John, Siddhartha Dhar. He traveled from the UK to Syria after being inspired by Choudary. Mullah Krekar founded the terror group Ansar al-Islam in Kurdistan, Iraq which gave refuge after the 9/11 attacks to ISIS founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
It’s hard know whether a secular or a fundamentalist Muslim could be converted to a radical Islamist. Millions of secular Muslims suffer prosecution in the Middle East, and dream of living in the West. Yet many of them are denied that dream while some extreme Islamists who seek the most backward version of Islam -- where women wear burqas and have extreme limits on their personal freedoms -- are granted visas to the West.
Choudary, Krekar and many others lived freely for years, despite the fact that their followers marched in European cities to demand an Islamic caliphate and Sharia laws, promoted hate speech and waved al-Qaeda's flags, harassed Western women for wearing European-style clothes or for walking with their boyfriends. All this was taking place because technically those ISIS sympathizers were not violating the law. As long as these kinds of actions continue – and the laws remain the same -- ISIS will always find Western sympathizers and attacks in the West will occur.
4. As Long As ISIS Controls Land and People, There Will Be More Attacks in the West.
The final lesson learned from ISIS's recent video is well known but needs to be restated. As long as ISIS controls territories that are being used for training and producing propaganda videos, the attacks on the West will not stop.
The West has been too concerned about who will govern ISIS-controlled territories after ISIS falls and how to combat and replace extreme Islamist thinking, but has neglected how to win the war in the battlefield. The fact that millions of people are living in areas equal to that of major European countries under the full control of a terror group that is more dangerous than al-Qaeda cannot be overlooked.
As long as there is no able force on the ground nor sufficient air raids to disable them, ISIS will continue to direct and inspire more attacks in the West. There is a misconception among the Obama administration and other allied governments that although the U.S.-led alliance might not be winning now, ISIS is also not winning. To the contrary, in the eyes of many Muslims, a third world terror group that is not being defeated by 62 countries, including the U.S., Russia, the U.K. and France, is winning.
The U.S.-led alliance's inability to target ISIS's propaganda videos production units or prevent these videos from being released on the Web and shared due to insufficient air raids aimed at ISIS's propaganda units and an inadequate number of cyber warfare experts with accurate linguistic and cultural skills, will allow ISIS to recruit more Western sympathizers, and to direct and train them to attack the West.