Photo of Jean-Baptiste Salvaing and partner Jessica Schneider. Kamil Zihnioglu/AP/Press Association. All rights reserved.The carnage in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida on 12 June 2016 is one of the very worst of the so-called 'lone wolf' assaults. Though it was certainly an anti-LGBT attack, it is still not clear how much it was inspired by ISIS. That connection is evident in the case of the killing of a police commander and his partner in front of their 3-year-old son, near Paris on 13 June, which has so affected opinion in France.
What is becoming apparent is that ISIS is now fully engaged in encouraging if not instigating attacks across north Africa and western Europe, sometimes extending to north America. This wide-ranging effort comes at a time when the movement is under serious pressure in Iraq and Libya. Some analysts are also concerned with developments only indirectly related to ISIS and al-Qaida. These include an increase in pro-ISIS support in Kosovo and the southern Philippines, the onset of more frequent attacks in Bangladesh and the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan.
Even so, it is the connection between the attacks on western targets and the restrictions that ISIS faces in its self-declared caliphate that are germane. These have two aspects, only one of which is commonly recognised.
This is the widespread view that ISIS is doing its utmost to take the war to the “far enemy” because of the threats it faces from the US-led Operation Inherent Resolve and the continuing Russian air assaults. Thus, the more it comes under attack the more it will try to strike back.
What seems to be missed is the second aspect, namely the connection between the US-led campaign and the ability to encourage what ISIS sees as retaliation. At the core of this is that the extent of that operation, US-led air-war in Iraq and Syria, is on a scale almost entirely unrecognised across western countries and largely ignored by the media.
As of the end of May 2016, US Central Command (CENTCOM) was reporting that it had undertaken 91,821 individual sorties since August 2014, which included 15,707 strikes, often against multiple targets. About 80% of the raids were done by US forces with the other members of the coalition making up the rest. In all, CENTCOM was reporting a total of 26,327 targets destroyed or damaged, including 6,545 buildings and 7,824 fighting positions.
What was rather less clear was the number of ISIS supporters killed and how many of them were civilians, although Airwars is doing its best to publish the figures and currently puts it at over 1,300 civilians killed.
In mid-February, CNN put the figure for overall ISIS-related deaths at 26,000. The intensity of recent operations in both Iraq and Syria means that the current figure will be around 30,000. This means over 140 people are killed by coalition action each week, compared with the forty-nine killed in the Orlando atrocity.
These realities are scarcely recognised among the general public across western countries. But it is far better known across the Middle East and north Africa, with much more detailed reporting on networks such as al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya. They, in turn, provide only a fraction of the coverage that is available through a wide range of social-media outlets, including many that are overtly extreme and deeply propagandistic.
ISIS has long presented itself as the true protector of Islam under attack by the crusaders and their Zionist conspirators. Moreover, the close links between western forces and Shi’a and Iranian militias in Iraq gives further power to the threat from the Islamic apostates, in turn justifying the numerous attacks on Shi’a communities in Iraq and beyond.
By presenting itself as the true Islamist guardian, ISIS can play strongly on the theme that at the very time when it is most under attack, so this is the time for true believers to come to its aid. While that may be increasingly problematic in Iraq and Syria, where there are credible reports of a serious loss of morale, the message for supporters living far from the immediate war zone simultaneously acquires extra traction.
Such acts might be individual or small-group attacks that have no direct connection with ISIS except inspiration, or they might have rather more direct links. In either case, the greater the pressure that ISIS comes under, the higher the likelihood that attacks abroad will be stimulated.
This reality, paradoxical as it seems, is hard for people in the west to recognise – especially when the terrible details of the Orlando or suburban Paris attacks are to the fore. Yet facing the conundrum that the more ISIS is attacked, the more it can succeed in inciting violent responses, is a vital step in reaching beyond the current cycle.