With attacks like these, the group is seeking to sow fear among its enemies, maintain itself as the forerunner in the global jihadi brand war with al-Qaeda, and maintain the veneer of organisational vigour and vitalism it established with its stunning victories in Syria and Iraq in 2014.
But while the Brussels bombings may have wreaked carnage, they have failed to replicate IS’s triumphalism of 2014. Although not an intuitive conclusion, the attacks are in reality indicative of the group’s growing decline and desperation.
The imperative of now
Motivations behind the bombings are likely to be found in the tactical and strategic strains currently being exerted on IS and its wider global network.
The recent arrest of Paris terror attack suspect Salah Abdeslam in Brussels was likely seen as an existential threat to IS-linked cells inside Belgium. The perception of a breach may have driven planners to accelerate operations, for fear that the European authorities could employ critical intelligence gained from Abdeslam to disrupt future attacks.
Such a ticking clock may explain why the terrorists opted for a crude dual-bombing in place of a more sophisticated and co-ordinated hybrid assault similar to that undertaken in Paris in late 2015.
At a broader level, the attacks may also be linked to the immense pressures placed on IS by an array of local, regional and international actors. Collectively, the actions of Russia, the US, Iran, Turkey and many other players have translated into a loss of around one-quarter of the group’s territory over the last year.
Kurdish and Iranian-backed Shi'a militias have, in many cases, actively routed the group from its territorial holdings over the last year. Thanks to Iranian and Russian backing, the Syrian army is also exerting increasing pressure on IS. The Syrian army has made recent advances in areas such as Tabqa and Palmyra, signalling a significant shift in the regime’s willingness and capacity to combat IS.
All this has served to dispel much of IS’s mystique and the viability of its mission. In 2014, the group’s emir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, could point to IS’s many and exceptional successes to make the case that it was clearly on track to establishing its Islamist utopian ideal. Such apparent evidence in turn allowed the group to garner legitimacy, support, and recruit new members.
Today, such successes are few and far between. Some are now questioning whether IS will even be a significant insurgent player in the Syrian conflict by 2017.
Terror, weakness and desperation
As IS stunned the world with its blitzkrieg across eastern Iraq in 2014, there was little need for it to conduct attacks outside the Middle East. Its apparent success and superiority over its local rivals was more than enough to draw large amounts of external support and recruits for its cause.
But as IS has weakened over the past two years, its popularity and freedom of action have become increasingly constrained within its immediacy. In such circumstances, insurgent groups often seek to strike outside their own borders as both a punitive measure and a demonstration of strength to potential supporters.
This was precisely Somalian terrorist group al-Shabaab’s logic when it assaulted Kenya’s Westgate mall in 2013. This story echoes much of what IS is experiencing now.
Under increasing pressure from an African Union occupation force that included large contingents from the Kenyan army, al-Shabaab found itself pushed from its seat of power in Mogadishu into Somalia’s south. Unable to mount a serious offensive on the occupiers, the group opted to strike in Kenya itself. This sent a message that Kenya could not expect to safeguard its own territory as long as it engaged in such perilous dalliances abroad.
We can only expect more such attacks as IS continues to decline and lash out. Some will invariably foil the various security establishments arrayed against them.
But, it is crucial to remember that this type of terrorism is aimed at sowing discord, chaos, suspicion and divisiveness among the multicultural societies it targets. In doing so, IS is seeking to create the conditions in which its message finds more willing supporters among those disenfranchised by such division.