Considering Claimed Attacks: Islamic State's Hidden Narrative

Introduction Summer 2017 - Executive Summary (By the Numbers)

*** TRAC's "Considering Claimed Attacks" Project was spearheaded by TRAC's Editorial Director, Veryan Khan. In addition to the two authors, TRAC would like to acknowledge Jasmine Opperman, Julia Sweet, Hylda Fenton and Philip Otto for their valuable contributions to the work. ***

Crumbling "Caliphate"

On 17 October 2017, United States-backed Kurdish and Arab forces declared they had captured the seat of the Islamic State's so-called caliphate in Raqqa, Syria. Thus, as a guide to how and where the Islamic State has imagined its own future, this report comes at an auspicious time.

About this Report

In the week leading up to the first day of Ramadan (26 May 2017), the Islamic State (IS) called for an all-out war on the West—even warning fellow Muslims to stay away from crowded areas in "America, Russia, France, Britain, Canada, Belgium, Australia, Italy and elsewhere outside the Caliphate Role." In order to better understand the Islamic State and its global-projection efforts, TRAC counted all the explicit attack claims generated by IS media outlets* outside Iraq and Syria from 20 May to 22 September ("Summer") for 2015, 2016 and 2017. 

TRAC still plans to publish an attack-claim report for the full three years listed above, but the May 2017 declaration of war—followed by a significant number of global claims in June 2017—prompted a more urgent assessment of the links between the Islamic State's worldwide propaganda campaign, various regional contexts and actual attacks on the ground. IS's highlighting of terror attacks against civilians in Western Europe, and the mainstream media's obsession with those attacks, serves to obscure important aspects of Islamic State global strategy.

* Nashir and Amaq agencies; Al Hayat Media's Rumiyah and Dabiq magazines; Al Naba newsletter

Claims = Media tactics

Islamic State is trying to sell a transnational image via claims that do not reflect actual capacity. To drive recruitment, the Islamic State must appear to be winning through constant propaganda. And yet they must have credibility at the same time. Many significant attacks are not claimed, contrary to conventional wisdom.

  • Attack claims are designed to "puff up" the Islamic State to appear everywhere all the time—within the limits of credibility. 
  • Claiming attacks serves as a morale booster and as an image of a unified Islamic State-centered Ummah—as well as a distraction from IS battlefield losses in the so-called Caliphate for both fans and counterterrorism officials alike. 
  • Claims tell supporters where to do hijrah—where to go to fight.

Road map to an Islamic State Future

Islamic State's Al Hayat Media Center released "Inside the Khilafah 4: Hijrah Will Not Cease" on 24 September 2017. The narrator Abu Uqayl from Singapore, speaking in English, beckons "believers from the four corners of the world" to "join the ranks of the mujahideen in East Asia" to fight the crusaders, otherwise "make your way to Sham, Khurasan, Yemen, West Africa and Libya."  Thus, Islamic State media portrays these locations as the future for IS followers.

Our findings based on claim tallies confirm East Asia/Philippines (ISEA) can be perceived as the deadliest IS franchise outside Iraq and Syria. ISEA has claimed the killing of more than 523 military personnel in four months. This creates an image of global strength and constructs a hydra effect: As the head is cut off in ash Sham, more heads sprout. Those new Islamic State heads currently appear to be growing in several other locations, most notably Afghanistan and Egypt/Sinai.

By the numbers

** Islamic State media claimed 21 attacks in 7 countries during Summer 2015. They claimed 80 attacks in 21 countries during Summer 2016. The number of attack claims nearly tripled in Summer 2017: 222 attacks in 21 countries. Over the 3 Summers, 32 countries were attacked.

** This projection of increasing global reach is immediately undercut by a second finding: 16 of those 21 countries had 3 attack claims or less. Only 5 of 21 countries had 6 or more claims.

** Just 3 countries accounted for 175 of 222 claimed attacks (nearly 80 percent): Philippines (99 claims), Afghanistan (43 claims) and Egypt (33 claims). TRAC contends that these places, which receive scant Western attention, represent a narrative of the Islamic State's future regarding established territory.

** Just 3 areas in those countries accounted for 118 of 222 (more than 50 percent): Marawi city in Philippines' Autonomous Region of Muslim Majority or ARMM (70), Nangahar province in Afghanistan (26) and Egypt's upper Sinai town El Arish (22).

** For the 21 countries in Summer 2017, Islamic State media claimed to have killed at least 877 government/military personnel and 121 civilians outside of Iraq and Syria. This is the absolute least amount of deaths claimed. Many claims did not specify the number killed but said, for example "50 dead and wounded" or "several" soldiers killed.

** During Summer 2017, IS could not claim repeat attacks in 10 countries that had been attacked in 2015 and 2016. Bangladesh went from 6 claims in 2016 to zero in 2017. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) had 3 in 2015 and no subsequent summer repeats. Germany had just two claims total, coming in summer 2016. The inability to repeat attacks in the same location summer after summer highlights the Islamic State's lack of sustainability in a given area.

** For Summer 2017, the United Kingdom topped the newcomer's list with three high-profile attacks. These three attacks received more international attention, especially in the Western media, than the siege of Marawi in the Philippines, which displaced at least 300,000 people and had 70 claimed attacks.

** Out of the 32 total countries attacked, only 4 countries—France, Libya, Yemen and Egypt—were attacked 3 Summers in a row. Libya, Yemen and Egypt are Islamic State provinces of the Caliphate. Even with the recent spate of claims in the U.K., France has been by far the country hardest hit by IS in Europe. 


Image: Screenshot on Telegram 16 September 2017, from Nashir News Agency, justifying attacks outside of ash Sham. 

Image: Circulated 7 June 2017 - a targeted message warning of impending attacks in lands "outside the Caliphate" during Ramadan circulated via IS Telegram chat rooms. Muslims should stay away from prominent locations in said nations, (particularly France) because the Islamic State are targets for their soldiers. Running over civilians, bombings and knife attacks can occur at "anytime." (CGI) Islamic State Propaganda Poster: O Worshippers of the Cross: Your Destruction in Your homeland Soon By Allah’s Will, So Wait for What is Worse - 30 May 2017


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About the Contributor

Daniel Lebowitz

Mr. Lebowitz earned his M.A. in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey in 2015. As a student, Daniel excelled in researching lone...

Michael Quinones

Michael Quiñones analyzes jihadist activity and propaganda, specializing in the Pacific Rim and Middle East. He is currently writing his master's thesis on the relationship between security and...