New York City’s Times Square on the night of 31 December, 2015 was, as it is every year, a predictable extravaganza of drunken revelry and universal optimism. Yet, amongst the carousing, resolving, and Auld Lang Syne-ing lurked a sober reminder of the times and what the waning year had seen. About six thousand uniformed police officers stood guard over the proceedings, the most since the aftermath of 9/11, responding to a terror threat issued a month before. Large-scale urban massacre by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a spectre which would have been dismissed off-hand by most participants in 2014’s celebrations, had become a disturbingly real possibility with tragically real data points in 2015[1]. As we dive into a new year when the fifteenth anniversary of al-Qaeda’s attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon will be marked, it is worth looking back on the year that saw a regional jihadist movement transition into a new – and perhaps greater – global terrorist organization[2]. From Raqqa to Ankara to Paris to San Bernardino, ISIS has leapt into a truly globe-spanning role in the past year, using brutal terror and strategic propaganda to export their deadly power everywhere.

Thierry Ehrmann

Image courtesy of Thierry Ehrmann, © 2015, some rights reserved.

February 2015 saw the first signs that ISIS was climbing the ladder to global stature. Facing bitter fighting and a strategic impasse on its home turf in Iraq and Syria, the group turned to power projection in a promising new theatre. A post-Qaddafi Libya displayed attractive characteristics for ISIS: chaotic civil war, disaffected and radicalized population, and no Western appetite for further intervention. Footholds were secured across the country, from strategic crossroads and towns in the southern countryside, to swathes of territory around the northern coastal hubs of Tripoli and Benghazi[3]. Local groups pledged allegiance to the powerful newcomers. Finally, on 15 February, ISIS emphatically planted its flag in Libya in characteristic fashion: it published a video showing a Libyan beach and the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians, Egyptian migrant workers who had been kidnapped from the town of Sirte, on the basis of their faith. Declaring war on all ‘people of the Cross’ and threatening to traverse the Mediterranean and capture Rome, the video caused quite a stir across the world, nowhere more so than in neighbouring Egypt[4]. The day after the video’s release, the Egyptian government began airstrikes against ISIS positions in Libya to avenge their murdered citizens and protect their long western border[5]. However, ISIS’ presence in Libya has persisted and recruits have flooded in.[6]

The next month brought more ISIS headlines and further evidence of their creeping reach. Nimrud, Hatra, and Dur-Sharrukin, the sites of ancient cities in Iraq which had survived bitter wars and weathered the rise and fall of great empires for millennia were systematically and totally demolished by the group, who deemed their pagan heritage unacceptable in the new world order.[7] Perhaps it was these dramatic declarations of global culture war which brought about ISIS’ next great coup: the submission of the West African jihadist group Boko Haram.[8] Statistically the deadliest terror group in the world,[9] Boko Haram had spent the last six years turning northern Nigeria into a bloody wasteland while remaining unaffiliated with most other major terrorist organizations. However, the rise of ISIS offered for Boko Haram a valuable opportunity for both global influence and propaganda expertise, so on 12 March, the African group’s fealty was pledged and accepted.[10] A whole new front opened for ISIS and the propaganda value of the strategic expansion was immeasurable. The month closed with ISIS claiming responsibility for a particularly deadly play for a global footprint: twin suicide bombings tore through two Houthi-affiliated Shiite mosques in Yemen’s capital of Sana’a, killing 142 civilians at prayer.[11] By wading into the raging Yemeni civil war, ISIS set itself up as both a global champion of Sunni interests and a shield against the growing influence of Iran, who supports the Houthis in their insurgency against the government of Yemen. Both roles demanded a worldwide presence, which ISIS was on its way to achieving through similarly calculated and publicized terror attacks.

Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting and prayer, began on 18 June and was immediately seized upon by ISIS as an opportunity to reach the entire global Islamic community. On 23 June, a senior leader of ISIS called upon all jihadists across the world to attack fiercely during the holy month.[12] Three days later, a multitude of attacks, all apparently unlinked except for their inspiration by ISIS, killed over 400 people, making it one of the bloodiest days in the history of radical Islamic terrorism.[13] While a ferocious attack on civilians and Kurdish fighters in the contested Syrian city of Kobani began, a suicide bomber destroyed a crowded Shiite mosque in Kuwait. Later that day, a French ISIS supporter decapitated his employer and attempted to blow up a gas factory, and a gunman massacred scores of tourists at a resort in Sousse, Tunisia. From Syria to the Gulf, from Western Europe to North Africa, ISIS flexed the muscle of its influence and propaganda. The message to its supporter and enemies alike was clear: borders were no issue, governments were no issue, even direct communication was no issue; wherever the Islamic State was opposed, there would terror be.

As the summer wore on, ISIS used its prolific scope to target what it viewed as its immediate potential enemies. Turkey had been on the fence for the duration of ISIS’ wars in Iraq and Syria, but was facing increasing pressure from the West to intervene. ISIS acted pre-emptively to demonstrate its strength. At a press conference held on 20 July in Suruç, Turkey by a socialist group planning to help rebuild the besieged city of Kobani, a bomb was detonated in the crowd, killing 33.[14] When ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, Turkey began a campaign of airstrikes. However, it also simultaneously reopened its longstanding conflict with Kurdish militants, whose Syrian and Iraqi counterparts had been, and continue to be, the most effective fighting force combating ISIS. Despite this policy of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my enemy’ (or perhaps because of it), Turkey’s actions prompted ISIS to go even further to prove its extent and power. On 10 October, a peaceful pro-Kurdish rally in the Turkish capital of Ankara turned tragic when two bombs ripped through the crowd and killed 102 people.[15] Investigations revealed that at least one of the suicide bombers was an ISIS fighter.[16]

Turkey was not the only new threat to ISIS, however, and another more powerful player had entered the fray before the Ankara bombings. Vladimir Putin declared in September that Russia would carry out airstrikes against all the enemies of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Though the Russians targeted ISIS’ enemies as much as ISIS itself, the airstrikes were taking a toll. To prove that even great powers are not safe from their destructive grasp, an attack was planned and carried out by ISIS Sinai Province in Egypt on 31 October.[17] Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 from Sharm el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg disintegrated over the Sinai Peninsula after an on-board bomb was detonated, killing all 224 passengers and crew.[18] ISIS’ propaganda machine continued to pump out the same message: the Caliphate has the capacity to strike anywhere and everywhere against those who dare to attack it. The Metrojet bombing projected a symmetry of power with a global heavyweight, invaluable for the ISIS narrative.

The message was demonstrated yet again in tragic fashion merely two weeks later. On the night of 13 November, Europe stood transfixed as it watched ISIS gunmen and bombers kill 130 people on the streets of Paris.[19] Never was the vastness of the ISIS network proven so brazenly than in the French capital. France’s contribution to anti-ISIS airstrikes were the stated casus belli. The day before, two ISIS suicide bombers had killed approximately 40 people in Beirut,[20] setting up the familiar combination of regional and global shows of strength. Determining the impact of these two attacks is difficult; the sadness, rage, and fear has yet to abate and it is too early to see the effects of France’s military response. However, the body blow to the Western psyche may prove significant. With little appetite in the West to fight ISIS ‘over there,’ ISIS’ reach grew and grew until they were finally able to bring the conflict ‘over here.’ The Paris attack may bring about a change in attitude towards the conflict, though the nature of this change remains to be seen. Whatever the future brings, ISIS global reach had been brutally confirmed.

As was probably inevitable, ISIS’ message eventually crossed the Atlantic. 2 December saw the final major ISIS attack of the year, though it appears to have been less of a centrally coordinated effort and more of a local symptom of the global ISIS disease. In San Bernardino, California, husband and wife Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik gunned down 14 people at an office party, while pledging allegiance to and inspiration from ISIS on Facebook.[21] The attack capped what must be seen as one of the worst years for counterterrorism in the last decade. ISIS had managed not only to maintain over 85 per cent of the Iraqi and Syrian territory it had declared as a caliphate in 2014, but to make that crucial step from bloody local movement to vicious global network and to penetrate the deepest reaches of the West with violent terror.

At the end of 2015, most estimates place the population living under ISIS somewhere between 3-8 million people (depending on how many people they’ve murdered), a population equal to that of Switzerland or Scotland. ISIS controls significant territory in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan, and Nigeria, with smaller operations in Pakistan, Algeria, Yemen, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Tunisia, Indonesia, Lebanon, Jordan, India, Bangladesh, and the Caucasus. They lead an army of 30-40,000 in Iraq and Syria, while 32-58,000 fight for them abroad.[22] The ISIS network ‘doth bestride the narrow world like a colossus,’ and its sheer magnitude is staggering, considering their position just one year ago. Over 12 months, a systematic campaign of violence and fear has planted ISIS flags in areas where it was previously thought impossible. A year of airstrikes, international summits, and pledges of hands-off support for fighters on the ground has produced, for the anti-ISIS coalition, a very small rollback of ISIS’ Iraqi and Syrian territory and the vigorous and bloody ascendancy of ISIS abroad. The strategy to downgrade and destroy ISIS must be categorized a complete failure at this point. ISIS has shown the ability to strike anywhere at any time, to project terror even to those lands deemed safe, and to command deadly loyalty across continents. That those revellers in Times Square on New Year’s Eve could feel threatened by an enemy half a world away, in the very city that witnessed the tragic beginning of the War on Terror, is evidence enough of the times we live in. We may look back on 2015 and remember many things, but ISIS will look back and see that the year belonged to them.

[1] Ray Sanchez et al, “ISIS Goes Global: Over 70 Attacks in 20 Countries”, CNN, February 18 2016, http://edition.cnn.com/2015/12/17/world/mapping-isis-attacks-around-the-world/.

[2] Naureen Chowdhury Fink and Benjamin Sugg, “A Tale of Two Jihads: Comparing the al-Qaeda and ISIS Narratives”, IPI Global Observatory, February 9 2016-03-05 https://theglobalobservatory.org/2015/02/jihad-al-qaeda-isis-counternarrative/.

[3] Jon Lee Anderson, “ISIS Rises in Libya”, The New Yorker, August 4 2015. http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/isis-rises-in-libya

[4] Lizzie Dearden, “ISIS Beheading of Coptic Christians on Libyan Beach Brings Islamists to the Doorstep of Europe”, The Independent, February 19 2015.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-beheading-of-coptic-christians-on-libyan-beach-brings-islamists-to-the-doorstep-of-europe-10049769.html.

[5] Jarid Malsin and Christ Stephen, “Egyptian Airstrikes in Libya Kill Dozens of ISIS Militants”, The Guardian, Fberuary 17 2015.

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/16/egypt-air-strikes-target-isis-weapons-stockpiles-libya

[6] Jon Lee Anderson, “ISIS Rises in Libya”, The New Yorker, August 4 2015. http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/isis-rises-in-libya.

[7] Kristin Romey, “Why ISIS Hates Archaeology and Blew Up Ancient Iraqi Palace”, National Geographic, April 14, 2015. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/04/150414-why-islamic-state-destroyed-assyrian-palace-nimrud-iraq-video-isis-isil-archaeology/.

[8] BBC News, “Islamic State Accepts Boko Haram’s Allegiance Pledge”, March 13 2015. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-31862992.

[9] Katie Pisa and Tim Hume, “Boko Haram Overtakes ISIS as World’s Deadliest Terror Group, Report Says”, CNN, November 19, 2015. http://edition.cnn.com/2015/11/17/world/global-terror-report/.

[10] BBC News, “Islamic State Accepts Boko Haram’s Allegiance Pledge”, March 13 2015. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-31862992.

[11] The Guardian, “Yemen Mosque Bombings ‘could only be done by the enemies of life’ – President”, March 21 2015.

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/21/yemen-mosque-bombings-enemies-of-life-president-abedrabbo-mansour-hadi-houthi-isis-al-qaida.

[12] Alessandria Masi and Erin Banco, “Triple Attack on Three Continents May Signal ISIS Ramadan Strategy”, International Business Times, June 26 2015. http://www.ibtimes.com/triple-attack-three-continents-may-signal-isis-ramadan-strategy-1986150.

[13] Alessandria Masi and Erin Banco, “Triple Attack on Three Continents May Signal ISIS Ramadan Strategy”, International Business Times, June 26 2015. http://www.ibtimes.com/triple-attack-three-continents-may-signal-isis-ramadan-strategy-1986150.

[14] BBC, “Suruc Massacre: At Least 30 Killed in Turkey Border Blast”, July 20 2015. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-33593615.

[15] Constanze Letsch and Nadia Khomami, “Turkey Terror Attack: Mourning After Scours Killed in Ankara Blasts”, The Guardian, October 11 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/10/turkey-suicide-bomb-killed-in-ankara.

[16] Hurriyet Daily News, “Nine on Run in ISIL Hunt, Explosives Seized”, March 5 2016. http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/ankara-suicide-bomber-officially-identified-as-brother-of-suruc-attacker.aspx?pageID=238&nID=90087&NewsCatID=341.

[17] Gwyn Topham et al, “Egypt Plane Crash: Russia Says Jet was Bombed in Terror Attack”, The Guardian, November 17 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/17/egypt-plane-crash-bomb-jet-russia-security-service.

[18] Gwyn Topham et al, “Egypt Plane Crash: Russia Says Jet was Bombed in Terror Attack”, The Guardian, November 17 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/17/egypt-plane-crash-bomb-jet-russia-security-service.

[19] BBC, “Paris Attacks: What Happened on That Night”, December 9 2015. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-34818994.

[20] Greg Botelho et al, “Beirut Suicide Bombings Killed 43; suspect claims ISIS sent attackers”, CNN, November 16, 2015. http://edition.cnn.com/2015/11/12/middleeast/beirut-explosions/.

[21] David Kawler et al, “San Bernadino Shootings: ISIL Claims Attack as Reports Suggest Wife Came to US to Perpetrate Terror”, The Telegraph, December 6 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/12030160/California-shooting-Multiple-victims-reported-in-San-Bernardino-live.html.

[22] Jim Sciutto, “ISIS can ‘Muster’ between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters, CIA Says”, CNN, September 12, 2014. http://edition.cnn.com/2014/09/11/world/meast/isis-syria-iraq/.