When it comes to the intelligence profession, surprise is the ultimate enemy — and surprise just happens to be the Islamic State’s specialty.
The IS has delivered one after another with wanton brutality, from dramatic, border-busting early successes to urban conquests and the attacks it has planned or inspired around the world. As much as we should resist mongering fear, it behooves us to imagine what surprises are yet to come and whether the IS could take it up yet another notch.
One clue worth pondering comes from U.S. military reports, which show that the IS twice used a chemical agent called sulfur mustard — once against Kurdish forces and another time against rival rebel groups in August. It’s unclear whether the IS was able to manufacture the agent or whether they grabbed Syrian agent at some point. Were the IS to acquire and use unconventional weapons on a broader scale or branch out into biological agents or nukes, it would, of course, be a real game changer.
First, while it remains strong and still draws recruits, its territorial losses have begun to mount, due to coalition bombing and ground operations by the Kurds in Northern Iraq and Syria and by Iraqi forces operating near Baghdad. These ops haven’t turned the tide yet, but the IS is probably experiencing at least some jitters, if not outright desperation. Its increased attacks outside the Middle East serve to keep its image of invulnerability, impress potential recruits and divide our resources. A startling new means of attack that produced even greater and more horrible casualties would serve the same purposes — and at a much more dramatic level.
Another reason for concern stems from the fact that the group operates with fewer restraints than any other terrorists we’ve encountered since 9/11. Al-Qaida leadership in the middle of the last decade scolded the IS predecessor, al-Qaida in Iraq, for killing too many Muslims. The IS seems to have no qualms about killing Muslims. And when it comes to unconventional weapons, even terrorist groups that have sought them may have hesitated because of the certainty that using such weapons would draw sharper retaliation from the U.S. and others. But the IS seems to want nothing more than to pull us into direct confrontation, on the theory that it could draw coalition blood and hasten the violent final confrontation with “infidels” that its bizarre theology predicts and seeks.