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Does ISIS Tailor Its Attacks According to Its Audience?

As the Muslim holy month of Ramadan nears its end, security analysts and experts are searching for answers to the dozens of gruesome terrorist attacks that have marred this period – from Dhaka to Orlando.

In a recent article published by The New York Times, foreign correspondent Rukmini Callimachi examines a trend within ISIS’ attacks that many experts have identified over the last few months. ISIS appears to tailor its attacks according to its audience.

Callimachi writes, “For years, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, has pursued a campaign of wholesale slaughter in Syria and Iraq. And in the attacks the group has directed or indirectly inspired in Western countries — including the coordinated killings in Paris and Brussels and the mass shooting inside an Orlando, Fla., nightclub — the assailants killed at random.

But a closer look at the attack the Islamic State has claimed in Bangladesh — and at the fact that it has not claimed bombings attributed to it in Turkey, including the airport attack this past week — suggests a group that is tailoring its approach for different regions and for different target audiences.”

Her analysis for this particular article stems from a piece written by Rita Katz, the Director and co-founder of the SITE Intelligence Group. Katz examined why no group had yet to claim the recent Istanbul Airport bombing on June 28th. Although we now know that the assailants had ties to ISIS, the organization itself has not officially claimed responsibility for the attack. Katz writes, “As I write this article, it has been almost two full days without any such message—significantly longer than it took for IS to claim the Paris attacks (made less than 12 hours after their initiation), the Brussels attack (less than five hours after), and the downed Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 (less than six hours after).”

Image Source: Day Donaldson
Image Source: Day Donaldson

Ratz claimed that it’s not only ISIS’ “complicated” relationship with Turkey that may impede it from officially claiming the attack, but it’s also due to their overall strategy.

“IS has shown comparable discretion when conducting attacks in other Muslim countries, focusing on government targets, perceived religious deviants, and enemy factions, as opposed to random civilians. For example, this week, IS claimed its first suicide bombing in Jordan against “the Rukban American-Jordanian [military] base.” Other comparable attacks include IS’ May 22, 2015 suicide bombing on a Shi’ite mosque in Saudi Arabia’ al-Qatif province, or IS’ June 30, 2016 claim killing of a Coptic priest in al-Arish, Egypt (accompanying its attacks on other military targets in the country).

Even for its January 14, 2016 attack in Jakarta, Indonesia, IS was sure to frame the attack as one against foreign tourists, not locals. In claiming the attack, the group touted killing “nearly 15 Crusader foreigners along with those tasked with protecting them from the apostates, and injuring several of them.” Reports described the attack as taking place near a police post and retail stores, all within close proximity to a United Nations office.”

Callimachi reiterates this idea, stating that the issue of killing Muslims in attacks has also been a part of the rift between Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

“The disagreement dates back to at least 2005, when the then-No. 2 of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri, wrote a letter of complaint to the head of the group’s affiliate in Iraq, chastising him for repeated attacks on Shiite shrines, which the Qaeda leadership feared would turn the population against them. The recipient of that letter was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who carried out the strikes anyway. His jihadist branch, Al Qaeda in Iraq, would years later re-emerge as the Islamic State.”

The most recent attacks in the Muslim holy city of Medina in Saudi Arabia, and in Baghdad, Iraq serve as stark reminders of the tailored attacks ISIS willingly carries out and claims. In both instances, affiliates and/or sympathizers of the group targeted observing Muslims as they were praying and/or breaking fast. However so far, ISIS has only officially claimed responsibility for the attack in Baghdad. Perhaps claiming an attack that targeted one of the holiest places in the religion it claims to espouse, is just one step too far.

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