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Assessing the Islamic State’s Commitment to Attacking the West


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htmlPerspectives on Terrorism:

Thomas Hegghammer and Petter Nesser

Aug 2015




How much of a terrorist threat does the Islamic State (IS) pose to Western countries? This article looks at what IS has said and done with regard to attacks in the West. We examine IS statements and take stock of IS-related attack plots in Western Europe, North America, and Australia from January 2011 through June 2015 using a new dataset of jihadi plots and a new typology of links between organizations and attackers. IS appears to have had a decentralized attack strategy based on encouraging sympathiser attacks while not mounting centrally directed operations of their own. There have also been more plots involving only IS sympathisers than plots involving returned foreign fighters. However, the organization’s formidable resources and verbal hints at future attacks give reason for vigilance




How much of a terrorist threat does the Islamic State (IS) pose to Western countries? The group’s spectacular growth and anti-Western rhetoric have raised fears that it might carry out major attacks in Europe, North America, or Australia. The question has implications for Western military strategy against IS, because the higher the transnational threat, the larger the incentive to dismantle the group – as opposed to containing it.


This article aims to bring the debate forward through quantification and specification. It makes two main contributions: The first is to take stock of IS-related operations in the West using a new dataset on jihadi plots from early 2011 to mid-2015. The second is to present a typology that disaggregates the notion of “IS-linked plot” and allows for more fine-grained measurement of regional group involvement in international operations.


Our data suggest that IS so far has had a decentralized attack strategy based on encouraging followers to attack while not mounting many leadership-directed plots. That strategy has produced a substantial number of “sympathiser plots” since September 2014, to the point where IS sympathisers now outnumber returning foreign fighters as plot instigators. We do not make predictions about future changes in IS strategy, but the typology can be used by analysts to measure small variations in the group’s commitment to international operations and potentially allow for early detection of strategic shifts.


The purpose of the article is to assess, based on open-source evidence of past declarations and activities, the extent to which IS has invested itself in a strategy of targeting the West. Our motivation is twofold. For one, policymakers naturally worry that IS will “go global” – that is, embark on a campaign of major attacks in the West – and there has been a great deal of speculation about whether and when they might do so.[1] For another, there is confusion about exactly what, however little, IS has done so far in terms of international operations. While most recognized IS specialists agree that the group’s strategic priorities are local and that almost all of its resources go into operations in Syria and Iraq[2], many media reports have spoken of alleged “IS plots” or “IS-linked plots” in the West over the past year.[3] One recent headline, for example, blared “Islamic State planning sophisticated attacks on the West.”[4] So what exactly has taken place? How many or how few plots are we talking about? What kinds? Is the rate of incidents increasing?






Jihadology Podcast: IS and Attacks in the West with Thomas Hegghammer

August 10, 2015 Karl Morand



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