EI-K, the new global threat? “Westerners must be very careful” – L’Express

EI K the new global threat Westerners must be very careful

These are the deadliest attacks in Europe since the Madrid attacks in March 2004 and its 192 deaths. Friday March 22, an attack carried out by a group armed with machine guns killed at least 139 people and injured more than 100 in a concert hall on the outskirts of Moscow. At the end of the evening, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, specifying that one of its branches, the Islamic State in Khorasan (EI-K) was responsible. IS explained that this action was “in the context […] of the raging war” between the group and “the countries fighting Islam”.

The loss of influence of Daesh, sponsor of the attacks of November 13, 2015 in Paris, had led to believe in a replacement of “commando” terrorism by “proximity jihadism”. The international emergence of a new offshoot of the Islamic State shows that, from now on, these two modes of action will coexist. Analysis with Barak Mendelsohn, associate professor of political science at Haverford College, in Pennsylvania, and author of the article “On the horizon: the future of the jihadist movement“.

L’Express: Were you surprised by the scale of the March 22 attack in Moscow?

Barak Mendelsohn: ISIS and other jihadist groups have already used this multiple-shooter method. There’s nothing new about it. The Bataclan attack is a typical example, like that of November 2008 in Bombay, India. At the time, ten coordinated terrorist attacks had taken place in the city. So there is little unique about the events in Moscow, apart from their scale, as well as the failure of the Russian government to prevent them. Western countries have nevertheless understood the threat for some time and will pay much more serious attention to this possibility of attacks in Europe. It is also reassuring to see that the intelligence services were aware, in advance, of the possibility of an attack in Russia. At the beginning of the month, the American government recommended caution during large gatherings in Moscow.

READ ALSO: The Islamic State of Khorasan, the bloodiest terrorists in Afghanistan

How is this attack different from the one we saw last year in France, in Arras for example?

For comparison, the author of the attack in Arras, France, was much more inspired by the Islamic State than controlled by its members. The perpetrators of this type of “proximity” attack are often radicalized mainly on the Internet. With the events in Moscow, the risk is now twofold: not only do these individuals have a new source of inspiration, but they are also capable of forming new operational connections, to carry out organized attacks from a distance.

Westerners must therefore be very careful. Of course, the method used in Moscow is not new: again, shooting civilians at random has been seen elsewhere. But the risk now is that several jihadist groups have been able to regenerate their capacity to attack far from their bases in recent years. This is clearly the case with ISIS in Khorasan, which is definitely worrying.

Dalerdjon Barotovich Mirzoyev, one of four men charged over the Moscow attack, appears in court in the Russian capital, March 24, 2024


Do you think the attack on Moscow signifies a change in the modus operandi of jihadist groups? Are we at risk of seeing new “commando” attacks?

Both can exist. Groups can carry out operations, as can individuals, whose capacity to cause harm has increased considerably in recent years, because you no longer really need an organization to carry out deadly operations in the name of your ideology. That being said, again, progress has been made in both directions. If individuals have the possibility of doing more damage, States also have better means to prevent these attacks. But we will have to be vigilant and, above all, take into account the fact that this threat is not going to disappear. It can happen in multiple cases, at different levels. The most important thing in this configuration is to avoid attacks – all attacks – which would impose significant reprisals on governments. Because part of the problem that concerns us is also found in the “overreaction” of the attacked countries which, instead of resolving the problem, can also inflame the conflict by destabilizing regions.

READ ALSO: After the Moscow attack, the worrying return of “remote-controlled” terrorism

What do you mean ?

Take the United States’ response to September 11, 2001. The “war on terror,” to use George W. Bush’s phrase, led to instability that extended well beyond Afghanistan. It is therefore necessary to understand in advance the strategic consequences that responses to terrorist attacks can have. Please note: I am not suggesting that states should simply absorb terrorist attacks. I am simply saying that we must adapt our response to a very specific threat, and not carry out an operation out of a spirit of revenge.

The origin of EI-K comes from instability in their region of origin, namely disputes between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban. The people who broke away from these groups had much more radical and aggressive positions than their original entity and formed ISIS-K. The organization has had its ups and downs, but has gained growing traction within and beyond Afghanistan. The main difficulty in their progress comes from the Taliban who successfully suppressed the movement for a long time. They are not doing this because they are opposed to terrorism, but for their own interests. But the fragmented nature of Afghanistan means that IS-K can always find somewhere to fall back and rebuild its capacity for action.

What will be the impact of the Moscow attack on this branch of IS?

The success of their attack on Moscow will increase the interest they arouse. They are sending the signal that, beyond Afghanistan, they will also concentrate their actions on different countries, such as Iran or Russia. It is therefore very likely that new attacks planned or inspired by EI-K will occur. However, I believe that Western intelligence services will be able to arrest most of them. The more sophisticated the attack, the more coordination it will require and the easier it will become for police to prevent them. We do not yet know the reason why the Russian services were held in check. We also have problems determining what is happening inside Afghanistan. But Western countries now have better tools than before to identify threats that could emerge inside Europe. Especially since after the events of this Friday, Western authorities know that EI-K is now the new leader of transnational jihad.

READ ALSO: IS attack in Moscow: why Russian services failed

Does this mean that they are the leaders of the Islamic State organization?

They still say they are part of ISIS. In their propaganda, however, they have long spoken not only about the problems they perceive in Afghanistan, but also in the rest of the world. Until now, ISIS branches were concentrated in only one region. The Islamic State in the Sahel is concerned with part of the Sahara and Nigeria, without carrying out attacks in Europe. The Islamic State which is evolving in Congo is doing the same thing. For a long time, we thought that EI-K behaved in the same way. By striking Iran, it was ultimately targeting a country located in the region. But attacking Russia is something completely new. The attack in Moscow is their way of officially communicating their position: EI-K is an organization that aims to act beyond its own region, and here is proof. In this regard, they seem to have become an outpost of the Islamic State.

In its time, Al-Qaeda experienced a similar development: branches focused on fighting in localized regions, while only one of them – Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, carried out attacks on Western targets. Each time, in this type of organization, one of the branches can decide to strike harder. Either because it considers itself the heirs of the parent branch, or because they clearly want to replace it.

READ ALSO: Moscow attack: “Putin is convinced of the intrinsic fragility of the Russian state”

The weakening of Daesh may have suggested that attacks would decrease. Friday’s events therefore showed that the terrorist threat was not over.

We have lived with radical ideologies for a long time – not just those linked to jihadism. This type of thinking always experiences bouts of fever. From the moment they appear to offer a form of diagnosis to a problem, they will continue to develop. The jihadist movement is much weaker than in the past, but will continue to exist. I would not be surprised if terrorist groups in the Sahel in turn tried to take on an international dimension, even if their positioning makes this ambition much more difficult to achieve than for EI-K. If the Islamic State in the Sahel decides to strike Europe, it knows very well that it will risk suffering the consequences much more quickly, due to its geographical proximity…