Image Relevant After Christmas Market Massacre [Image: Patrick Seeger][Lima Charlie News]

Ambitions Never Laid to Rest: ISIS Remains Relevant After Christmas Market Massacre

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A man opened fire into crowds at the Christmas Market, Strasbourg, a reminder that as it suffers defeat, the Islamic State is continuing to revert back to its roots.

On 11 December 2018, at 19:50 (ZULU+1) local time, a man opened fire into the crowds at the Christmas Market, the Christkindelsmärik near the central Cathedral of Strasbourg, France. Reportedly, the attacker utilised a “military style assault rifle” with full auto capability, with some reports indicating that the rifle was an FAMAS F1, the French military’s premier and most commonly issued bullpup-styled, select fire assault rifle, along with a knife.

The attacker killed three and wounded 13 before flagging down a taxi and leaving. Eight of the wounded are reported as serious, and a European wide manhunt involving over 1,000 police officers is underway. The shooter is believed to be a 29-year-old Moroccan male with Islamic State-affiliations named Chérif Chekatt. 

The French prosecutor’s office has stated that it is investigating, and considers, the event to be a terror attack.

Suspected attacker Chérif Chekatt [CREDIT: @CANARYFRANCE/]
Suspected attacker Chérif Chekatt [CREDIT: @CANARYFRANCE/]

The attack could be the symbolic initial salvo of the Salafist-Jihadi group known as the Islamic State as it shifts from its geostrategic ambition of creating a Sharia-adhering Caliphate in the Middle East, towards going back to its roots of micro-tactical level worldwide terror. By so doing, the group could become more dangerous to the world than ever before.

The Caliphate

The Islamic State (IS) of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) was militarily largely defeated in 2017. Thanks to the combined efforts of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF), the Iraqi Armed Forces, and the US-led international coalition Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), ISIS was forced to fall back across terrain it previously held, into minor enclaves in far flung borderlands. In essence, the joint military responses of 2017 against ISIS pushed the group from being an overt geostrategic issue into being perceived as a mere regional tactical one.

Failures on the battlefield, combined with a successful media campaign by Arab and Western groups alike showing the true nature of life under the Caliphate’s black banner, translated to the inability of ISIS to replenish its ranks.

The group proved, however, to be predictably resiliant.

Throughout 2018, ISIS carried out an organised counter-media campaign throughout the world’s various enclaves and Jihadist gathering points throughout the Internet. This media campaign, combined with the newfound and relative successes other affiliated groups have experienced under the black banner of the Islamic State, principally in South East Asia, made it possible for ISIS to replenish its ranks.

At its peak of 2018, the group is believed to have commanded a force of 28,000 to 30,000 men. Significant parts of its available manpower focused not on a single enclave, but on an area spread out across Syria and Iraq, mostly in the form of sleeper cells or small groups of insurgents in the hills and mountains throughout the northern areas. However, the group was able to gather up enough centralised manpower to mount a series of minor offensives.

These offensives were mostly focusing on expanding the remaining Islamic State-controlled enclaves along the Syrian-Iraqi borderland area.

Image ISIS propaganda poster posted to Twitter (June 2014)
ISIS propaganda poster posted to Twitter (June 2014)

The epicentre was the small Syrian border town of Hajin. Hajin became the de facto capital city of the group’s self-declared Caliphate in late November 2017, this after the group had been forced to retreat from its previous series of capital cities, Raqqa, Mayadin, Al-Qa’im, and Abu Kamal. This resulted in ISIS regaining control over a modicum of surrounding land, including some oil fields.

In response to this, in December, 2018, the SDF went on a counter-offensive from the Syrian side. The SDF operation became an extension of the 2017 SDF-operation called Cizire Storm. Focusing its efforts on piercing the very heart of its Sunni-Salafist enemy, on December 1st 2018, the SDF began its advance from the east where ISIS held terrain was weakest. On December 4th the SDF breached the Hajin defensive perimeter and seized the town hospital, a key strategic position. However, on December 5th ISIS pushed the SDF troops back, out of the town, in a counter attack that resulted in the death of 44 SDF members and 56ISIS fighters.

The Islamic State, by all standards, is likely done as a real military and geostrategic threat. It is only a matter of time before the SDF, the SAA or the Iraqi forces will eliminate the group’s last strategically held enclave. But for awhile longer, ISIS will continue to threaten the stability of vulnerable nation states in Asia and Africa. But that threat will only last as long as its luck runs.

It is however, not as a military force or a geostrategic threat that the Islamic State will continue to pose a threat to the world. Without territory, ISIS has predictably quickly reverted back to its origin as a nimble terrorist group. Many have come to call the new, transformed variation of the group, ISIS 2.0. In reality, it is more like a reversion toISIS 0.5, a return to a backup, still working, installed version of the group.

The new rendition is very familiar in all ways that matter. Its dogma and activities are that of its originating group, the ad-Dawlah al Islamiyah wa Sham. This group was the child and subsidiary of al Qaeda until 2013, when it broke with al Qaeda leadership seeking greater ambitions. It found its old partners to be too careful, and too progressive for its liking.

This development, or reversion, is one that makes ISIS more dangerous than ever. Even al Qaeda has moved forward, seeking to become a drop-in state replacement in places such as Yemen and Syria, meaning that it has largely left its past as a micro-tactical terrorist group that was directly capable and willing to strike at the heart of civilisation at will; to strike in places like New York City, Paris, Amsterdam or London.

Image ISIS flag
ISIS flag

The Islamic State seeks to again find its pivoting point, to fill the void left in the terrorist market place, to find its niché yet again. By so doing, the group seeks to remain relevant, its hope being that it will regain its position as a go-to option for recruitment and financial donations for individuals so inclined.

The attack in Strasbourg, France, on December 11th is believed to have been carried out by a man with known affiliations with the Islamic State. Within European intelligence circles, the attack is believed to be a direct response to the faltering of ISIS and its exposed position in Syria, and its need to pivot towards the proverbial safe grounds within Salafist-Jihadist circles. If so, it is likely to mean that the West, particularly Europe, has much to fear in its immediate and near-future.

Coming soon: Part 2: Ambitions Never Laid to Rest: An Open Society vs. The Terrorist

John SjoholmLima Charlie News 

John Sjoholm is Lima Charlie’s Middle East Bureau Chief and founder of the consulting organization Erudite Group. He is a seasoned Middle East connoisseur, with a past in the Swedish Army’s Special Forces branch and the Security Contracting industry. He studied religion and languages in Sana’a, Yemen, and Cairo, Egypt. He lived and operated extensively in the Middle East between 2005-2012 as part of regional stabilizing projects, and currently resides in Lebanon. Follow John on Twitter @JohnSjoholmLC

Lima Charlie provides global news, featuring insight & analysis by military veterans and service members Worldwide.

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