Appealing to Its Base, ISIS Tempers Its Violence in Muslim Countries

The first to be killed was a jogger, gunned down last September during his daily run in the leafy diplomatic quarter of Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka. He was identified as a 50-year-old Italian aid worker, and the police say the men who murdered him had been given instructions to kill a white foreigner at random.
In October, a Japanese man was killed. In November, gunmen riding a motorcycle pulled alongside a Catholic priest in northern Bangladesh and opened fire, wounding him.
For the Islamic State terrorist group, which broadly advised operatives it sent to Europe to kill “anyone and everyone,” the group’s tactics in Bangladesh have seemed more controlled. In the past nine months, it has claimed 19 attacks in the South Asian country, nearly all of them targeted assassinations singling out religious minorities and foreigners. They included hacking to death a Hindu man, stabbing to death a Shiite preacher, murdering a Muslim villager who had been accused of converting to Christianity and sending suicide bombers into Shiite mosques.
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 shootinginside 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.
“For I.S. to maintain support among its followers and prospects, it must take different considerations into account when planning an attack in a Muslim country versus non-Muslim countries,” argues Rita Katz, the director of the SITE Intelligence Group, which has tracked the group’s attacks in Bangladesh. “I.S. encourages the killing of random civilians in France, Belgium, America or other Western nations, but in a country like Turkey, I.S. must be sure that it isn’t killing Muslims — or at least make it look like it’s trying not to,” she wrote in an analysis recently published online.
The issue of killing Sunni civilians has been a main point of contention with Al Qaeda after the Islamic State broke away from the terror network several years ago. And it surfaced again in the past week.
After the triple suicide bombing at the Istanbul airport on Tuesday, a Qaeda official used Twitter to issue a stinging rebuke of the attack blamed on ISIS. “The Turkish people are Muslims, & their blood is sacred. A true mujahid would give his life up for them, not massacre them #IstanbulAttack,” wrote Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir, who has been described as an Australian member of Al Qaeda’s branch in Syria, according to a transcript provided by SITE.
The Islamic State’s uncharacteristic silence about the attacks in Turkey, when it tends to quickly claim bombings elsewhere, reflects the balancing act the terror group must undertake when carrying out violence in predominantly Muslim nations, analysts say.
Ms. Katz said the Islamic State “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, when the terror group last month claimed its first bombing in Jordan, it made sure to identify its target as an American-Jordanian military base. In May, the Islamic State carried out a bombing on a Shiite mosque in Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia. And in January, when it struck in Jakarta, Indonesia, the group took pains to frame the attack as one against tourists, not locals, Ms. Katz wrote.
That kind of hedging is more typical of Al Qaeda, which has called on its fighters to avoid operations that would cause mass casualties among Muslim civilians.
In reality, though, Al Qaeda, like ISIS, continues to kill large numbers of Muslims in its attacks. But that has not stopped the two groups from arguing about it.
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.
In the years since the letter to Mr. Zarqawi, Al Qaeda went further. In one speech, Mr. Zawahri advised Qaeda fighters across the world to avoid killing religious minorities, including Christians, and to design operations that minimized Muslim casualties.
In 2013, when Al Qaeda loyalists stormed a BP-operated gas plant in southern Algeria, they separated their hostages by faith, releasing hundreds of Muslim workers while holding and killing the plant’s Western employees, a fact they touted in an after-action report sent to a senior Qaeda leader.
These tactics were far from perfect: Muslims still died in the Algeria attack, and in numerous others by Al Qaeda, including in their siege that same year at a mall in Kenya, where they asked shoppers to recite Quranic scripture in an effort to separate Muslims from non-Muslims.
“It’s a very stark difference in approach,” says Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who studies jihadist groups. “Al Qaeda wants Muslims to believe that its terrorism is morally justifiable, whereas the Islamic State argues that only its followers have moral legitimacy.”
In the most recent attack attributed to the Islamic State, on the Holey Artisan Bakery in Bangladesh’s diplomatic quarter, the attackers were more selective about their target than the Islamic State tends to be.
The bakery is in what expatriates affectionately call the “Tri-State” area of Dhaka, referring to the intersection of three exclusive neighborhoods — Gulshan I, Baridhara and Banani — that are popular with foreigners, said Lori Ann Walsh Imdad, a 45-year-old United States citizen who lives a block and a half from the scene of Friday’s standoff. “When you walked by, you would always see someone you recognized,” she said, adding that it was founded to provide expatriates with the comfort foods they missed, including American-style bagels and cream cheese.
On Saturday, the Islamic State released images of the attackers, describing them as having “charged into the middle of the gathering of nationals from Crusader nations in Bangladesh.” While the casualty breakdown is not yet known and it is unclear how many Muslims were killed in the attack, the group’s description suggested it was eager to pass off the slaughter as aimed exclusively at non-Muslims.
Accounts from witnesses said that some of the attackers sought calm their hostages, calling for Bengalis to come out from hiding and explaining they were only seeking foreigners to kill. Hours later, the gunmen released a group of women who wore hijabs.
Though ISIS may have been trying to signal restraint with its attacks in Bangladesh, their tactics are still less targeted than those of Al Qaeda, said Amarnath Amarasingham, a fellow at the George Washington University Program on Extremism.
Al Qaeda’s branch in the Indian subcontinent has focused on killing those they claim have insulted Islam, including secular bloggers.
For his research, Mr. Amarasingham interviewed a man he said was a member of Al Qaeda’s branch in the region who derisively compared the group’s handiwork to that of ISIS. “AQ is targeting the best from the best. but isis guys killing in jungle, in village, innocent hindu old guy etc, just to increase the number of claim,” read one private message from the Qaeda member that was shared by Mr. Amarasingham.



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