On Dec. 7, the Islamic State released a video in which John Maguire, a Canadian citizen who uses the nom de guerre Abu Anwar al-Canadi, threatened more terrorist attacks in Canada in response to the Canadian government's continuing participation in the international coalition conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. In the video, al-Canadi urged Canadian Muslims to either migrate to the Islamic State or conduct terrorist attacks in Canada, following the examples of Martin Rouleau, who ran over and killed a Canadian soldier with his vehicle on Oct. 20, and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who shot and killed a soldier at the Canadian National War Memorial before being shot and killed himself by the authorities inside the Canadian Parliament building on Oct. 22. In the video, al-Canadi said, "You either pack your bags, or you prepare your explosive devices. You either purchase your airline ticket, or you sharpen your knife." While the al-Canadi video is certain to create a stir in Canada, where people and authorities are still on edge following the two grassroots jihadist attacks in October, the fact that the Islamic State released such a video is actually more of an admission of weakness than a sign of strength.
Those Who Can, Do
The fact that al-Canadi asked Canadian Muslims to conduct additional attacks is an admission that the group does not have the ability to conduct such attacks itself. Now, some may argue that as the self-proclaimed leader of Muslims worldwide, Islamic State leader Caliph Ibrahim is within his rights to order Muslims living in the West to conduct attacks, but that is a cop-out. Groups that can conduct attacks do not ask outsiders for help — they just attack. When a group asks outsiders to attack on its behalf, it is a clear admission that it does not possess that capability on its own and is therefore a sign of weakness.
As we have previously noted, the Islamic State and its predecessor organizations have never conducted terrorist attacks outside of their region of operations, and even their efforts to launch attacks in neighboring Jordan have not been successful compared to their terrorist operations in Iraq and Syria. This lack of success stems from operating remotely in hostile territory, a far more difficult task than operating locally and using internal communication lines. Projection of terrorist capabilities at the transnational level requires different elements of terrorist tradecraft than attacking locally, and the Islamic State has not yet exhibited the capabilities required to do so.
If the Islamic State were working to develop the tradecraft capabilities required for transnational terrorist operations, we would expect to first see them display a greater ability to project force within their region before we would see them attempt to project force half a world away. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula exhibited such a progression in capabilities in 2009 when it attempted to assassinate Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in Saudi Arabia and then attempted to bomb a trans-Atlantic aircraft over Detroit.
Furthermore, if the group were actually in the process of planning and executing an attack on Canadian soil, it would be foolish to raise alert levels. There are few terrorist organizations that possess the skill and moxie required to attack during times of heightened alert. Most terrorist operatives prefer to have both strategic and tactical surprise on their side while executing the terrorist attack cycle. Groups already have a hard enough time carrying out attacks without increasing scrutiny on their operations.
This difficulty does not just go for operations conducted by the organization itself. If Islamic State leaders knew of pending plots inside Canada by grassroots jihadists, they would have held onto the message rather than release it. Therefore, this video is an indicator that the Islamic State not only lacks the capability to conduct attacks in Canada, but that it also does not know of any planned attacks.
In the past we have seen cases like that of Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Hasan, where the lone wolf was in contact with a jihadist group — in his case, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — and they knew he was planning an attack. Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda core also reportedly squelched a terrorist attack in Asia in 2001 prior to the 9/11 attacks because they did not want to raise alert levels and jeopardize their operation, which was already underway inside the United States at that time.
The video was more than just an admission that the Islamic State does not have the capability to conduct attacks in Canada or the West. It is also an acknowledgement that the group's previous calls for grassroots jihadists to rise up have fallen flat after an initial burst of activity. After the two attacks in Canada and a hatchet attack against New York police officers — all which occurred within three days in October — we were forced to wonder whether the unprecedented rash of Islamic State-inspired grassroots attacks was a new trend or a temporary anomaly. After several weeks of silence, we can now see that the burst of attacks was anomalous and was not the beginning of a sustained period of high tempo grassroots attacks in the West.
Certainly, the danger of attacks by grassroots jihadists remains, and there is a higher probability of such an attack in the West than of an attack by the al Qaeda core or the Islamic State. Simple grassroots attacks are quite easy to conduct, especially if the assailant uses readily available weapons like in the October attacks rather than attempting more aspirational operations involving weapons beyond the attacker's immediate grasp. Such ambitious assaults have led to the arrests of a number of would-be grassroots attackers in sting operations. However, while simple attacks are quite easy to conduct, they tend to be far less deadly than those conducted by more sophisticated terrorist groups. Moreover, we have not seen a sustained wave of such attacks, despite their simplicity.
The Islamic State also noticed that the spark it attempted to light had not become a conflagration and that it needed to make another effort to start one with al-Canadi's videos. However, it continues to be clear that while the grassroots threat is a chronic problem, it is not an existential threat to the United States or the West.