Islamic State Employs New Tactics to Plot Attacks

Terrorist group thwarting Western intelligence, militaries through encrypted communications, control of Middle East resources

Smoke rises behind an Islamic State flag / Reuters

The Islamic State is using a variety of new tactics, including encryption and control of local resources in Iraq and Syria, that make it more difficult to defeat without a greater U.S. presence in the Middle East, analysts said on Friday.

The terrorist attacks in Paris in last week, which were carried out by Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, militants who killed 129 people, encapsulate the increasingly successful and lethal methods used by the group to plot operations.

French and U.S. intelligence agencies had been tracking Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected mastermind behind the Paris attacks, this summer in Iraq and Syria before he went dark. Investigators now say he traveled to back to his home in Belgium to lead the series of assaults and bombings. French police killed Abaaoud during a raid on Wednesday.

Abaaoud’s case suggests that the Islamic State, which has previously focused on inspiring "lone wolves" to launch attacks in Western nations, now appears to be dispatching "external operations" men such as Abaaoud to oversee the plots abroad—a tactic that has been used by al Qaeda.

The difficulty of following Abaaoud’s movements also reveals the struggles of Western intelligence agencies to intercept the Islamic State’s communications and track the movement of militants. An FBI assessment earlier this year found that about a third of the terrorist group’s communications use encryption mechanisms to evade authorities. Militants also rotate among multiple communications methods to further mask their conversations.

Gary Schmitt, an expert on intelligence and European security at the American Enterprise Institute, noted that France is currently mobilizing more domestic counterterrorism assets than the United States, including detention without trial and broader surveillance methods. Still, the Paris attacks demonstrated that French authorities are overwhelmed.

"Even their capabilities are being outmatched by just the sheer number of problems they are facing," he said on a conference call organized by the Foreign Policy Initiative.

After intelligence disclosures by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, terrorist groups such as the Islamic State discovered more ways to conceal their communications from intelligence agencies, he said.

"Post-Snowden, the jihadists are just much more careful about electronic security when it comes to electronic communications," he said. "It’s going to make our security folks much more nervous about whether they can provide the security that we're hoping they can do."

Thomas Sanderson, a counterterrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Islamic State’s encryption techniques are a "big advantage" for them, requiring U.S. forces to establish better intelligence sources on the ground. He recommended that President Obama send more special operations forces into Iraq and Syria to gather intelligence, as well as to assist partner forces with planning operations and calling in airstrikes. A greater commitment from the United States would also encourage Jordan and other Arab nations to contribute their special operations capabilities, he said.

Another innovation of the Islamic State involves revenue gathering, Sanderson said. While groups such as al Qaeda have relied on wealthy financiers from Arab nations who can later revoke funding under pressure from their governments, the Islamic State has prioritized local resources that make it more "durable and resilient." The group earns more than $1 million per day from oil sales, and it also collects revenue from kidnapping ransoms, extortion, taxation, and antiquities trafficking.

While U.S. fighter jets have recently escalated their strikes against the Islamic State’s oil assets, including tanker trucks, the United States is wary of completely eliminating the oil infrastructure in Iraq and Syria. Sanderson noted that the oil is refined and then used to support schools, hospitals, and refugee camps.

"We’re reluctant to hit sources of funding that are tied to humanitarian needs," he said.

It remains unclear whether the Islamic State is intentionally selling oil to groups that will use it for humanitarian purposes.

"It’s a brilliant plan, if that’s in fact what they’re doing," he said.

The only way to begin degrading the Islamic State is to deprive it of territory, which the group uses for revenue sources as well as to recruit foreign fighters to its so-called caliphate, Schmitt said.

"It’s one thing to die in the name of success, but it’s another thing to be wiling to die for a losing cause," he said. "We have to make sure that narrative is beginning to look like ISIS is losing, not gaining."