Air strikes and terror attacks examined

ISIS, air-strikes and the language of retaliation

The fight against Salafi-jihadist terrorism in the 21st century has been characterised by a reliance on aerial warfare. Drone strikes and precision-guided missiles have been launched in their thousands, targeting terror cells in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. And aerial warfare has been presented, and praised, as the most efficient, precise and discriminate way to fight extremist terrorists. Yet, despite such claims, we also know that civilians continue to be killed in such attacks.

On the other side, suicide attacks are being waged on a global scale. Since 9/11, at least 115 militant groups have conducted suicide attacks in 51 countries. The overwhelming majority of these have been Salafi-jihadist groups. The leading six perpetrators of those attacks – ISIS, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab and Jabhat al-Nusrah – are, today, common names on front-pages the world over. Their violence has been a rise so extreme that, today, the suicide bomb has become a metonym for Sunni Islamist terror: a dark icon for the 21st century. In the minds of many, an entire religion has been tainted by a small sector of a small group of one radical strand of Islam.

But what has been behind this marked rise in Salafi-jihadist suicide bombings? In large part it is a reaction against what is perceived as Western imperialistic behaviour in the Muslim world. By the late 1990s, Osama bin Laden, who was leading the rising anti-Western movement, declared all US citizens legitimate targets of attack. These ultraconservative religious ideas among Sunni Muslims, driven by the need to defend the Muslim Ummah (i.e. ‘the Islamic community’), were framed through the prism of a global jihad – calling Muslims to fight non-Muslims around the world. The sense of global persecution among many Muslims was further fuelled by the United States-led military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond; a belief that has led a vocal and deadly minority of Muslims to want to defeat ‘crusaders’ on the Prophet’s lands.

Other factors have also played a role. A rise in social media and Internet access has meant new networks have been created and exploited by militant recruiters. On top of this, there have been power grabs for political supremacy by numerous religious jihadists, with suicide attacks used as a strategic weapon. Meanwhile, poverty, discontentment with globalisation, despair at political corruption, depression, sectarianism and coercion also contribute to this surge in suicide attacks which thus have its roots deep in the chaotic social fabric of modernity.

Experts in terrorism struggle to keep track of this evolution of terror. Over time, the number of militant groups has, like mushrooms in a forest, multiplied. One estimate says there are 36 active terror groups in Pakistan alone.  On the eve of 9/11 there were about 400 men who pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda. Today, that group has a hundred times that number, with as many as 20,000 followers in Syria, close to 10,000 in Somalia, up to 5,000 in Libya and Yemen and yet more spread across the Sahel, Maghreb, Indonesia and South Asia.

Faced with this reality, this paper seeks to examine one particular aspect of the rise of the suicide bomber – namely, the role of air-strikes by international forces in fuelling calls for vengeance (particularly in the form of suicide attacks), and the way that civilians killed by the use of air strikes in over-populated areas have reinforced the notion amongst jihadists that Islam is a people under attack.

In order to investigate this, Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) conducted an in-depth study of ISIS’ publications. We obtained copies of 28 magazines that had been produced by ISIS – 15 called ‘Dabiq’ and 13 called ‘Rumiyah’ – which were published by the terror group between June 2014 and October 2017. In addition, a further 30 publications of the shorter Nabaa magazines, published between September 2017 and April 2018, were also analysed.

In particular, we looked at the tone of the publications and the recurrence of specific words that might indicate the impact of air-strikes on jihadist narratives: in this way, words such as ‘revenge’, ‘retaliation’ and ‘airstrikes’ were identified and noted.

ISIS messaging, air-strikes and calls for vengeance
This analysis of the texts of ISIS’s manuals displayed a strong relationship between the use of the word ‘revenge’ and that of the word ‘airstrike(s)’.

Of note was the fact the word ‘airstrike(s)’ dominated in 2014 with 31 mentions, while the word ‘revenge’ saw a significant rise in the following years 2015 and 2016, with 19 and 25 mentions apiece. Over this time, ‘airstrikes’ also persisted in the Islamist rhetoric.

On first appearances, then, it would suggest that a rise in commentary about air-strikes transforms into a rise in calls for revenge.

To say that this is a clear indication of cause and effect, however, would be too much. During the ‘Battle for Raqqa’ for instance, there was no spike in calls for revenge, despite the fact that civilian harm caused by airstrikes was at a significant high. Likewise, the very high number of civilians killed by airstrikes in 2017 in both Syria and Iraq does not translate into rhetoric, as there were only 9 calls for revenge during that year.

Recurrent language in ISIS’s magazines


Civilian casualties by airstrikes in Syria and Iraq



 An in-depth reading of ISIS’ magazines

  1. Outrage at civilian harm caused by airstrikes clearly fuels – and justifies – acts of retaliation.

There are several examples where the call for retaliation by ISIS is directly linked to airstrikes. While no examples were found where one specific airstrike leading to civilian harm was directly used to justify a counterattack, it was the aerial campaign as a whole that was used to justify attacks against the West.

Within this, revenge against a ‘Crusaders’ war’ was a recurring theme. In Rumiyah Issue 9, p. 46, for instance, the call to retaliate against the Coalition was clear: ‘their howitzers, Tomahawks, white phosphorus bombs, and MOABs, which they rain over the heads of the Mus­lims and their homes, will be met with blades that plunge into their bodies, vehicles that unexpectedly mount their busy sidewalks, smashing into crowds, crushing bones, and severing limbs, and bullets that pierce their filthy bodies while they are in the midst of their foul enjoyment.’

While in Dabiq issue 15, p. 31, the grounds for revenge was explicitly stated: ‘we hate you for your crimes against the Mus­lims; your drones and fighter jets bomb, kill, and maim our people around the world, and your puppets in the usurped lands of the Muslims oppress, torture, and wage war against anyone who calls to the truth. As such, we fight you to stop you from killing our men, women, and children, to liberate those of them whom you imprison and torture, and to take revenge for the countless Muslims who’ve suffered as a result of your deeds.’

  1. A lack of boots on the ground and precision bombing

To what extent, though, are ISIS’ calls for revenge directly triggered by airstrikes?  Or are they just a response to the general campaign against them, airstrikes or not?

In the source material, calls for retaliation are on several occasions merely put forward in the context of ‘‘the crusaders war against the Muslim community’ without reference to airpower at all. While countries supporting the coalition without providing air-power have been subject to attacks solely for participating in the fight against ISIS (for example, an attack in Sweden, as referenced in the Al-Nabaa newsletter no. 120, March/April 2018).

There are, however, numerous examples where ISIS states its discontent for ‘the crusaders’ refusal to put boots on the ground’ (Dabiq, Issue 13, p. 30). Again and again, this frustration is felt.  The deliberate strategy by the US for not putting boots on the ground (at least in comparison to troop deployment in Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s) causes profound frustration on the part of the terror group.

This frustration is seen in ISIS attacking the term ‘precision bombing’. In Dabiq, Issue 8, p. 67, it reads: ‘There was a heavy airstrike some time ago in the dead of night and … as the doors shake on their hinges and the walls bulge momentarily inward from the shockwaves, you become incandescent with fury. For 20 minutes afterwards, there are the sounds of babies crying in fear, mothers trying to soothe their children, and sirens as casualties are taken to hospital. It’s a side to ‘precision’ bombing that you never see back in the West.’

Again, in Dabiq, Issue 4, p. 48, it is asked if ‘US airstrikes differentiate between those who are armed and those who are unarmed?’ The answer that follows is ‘no’.

This asymmetry, and the perceived lack of equality between belligerents, is also addressed in Dabiq, Issue 3, p. 3: ‘Muslim families were killed under the broad definition of ‘collateral damage,’ which the US grants itself alone the right to apply. Therefore, if a mujāhid kills a single man with a knife, it is the barbaric killing of the ‘innocent.’ However, if Americans kill thousands of Muslim families all over the world by pressing missile fire buttons, it is merely ‘collateral damage.

Such frustration transforms into the justification for terror. ISIS justified the 2016 Paris attacks with explicit reference to France’s contribution to aerial warfare over Syria and Iraq. In Dabiq, Issue 12, p.2, the asymmetric nature of the conflict, with land-locked jihadists fighting remote air-strength, at the heart of that justification: ‘France haughtily began executing airstrikes against the Khilāfah. Like Russia, it was blinded by hubris, thinking that its geographical distance from the lands of the Khilāfah would protect it from the justice of the mujāhidīn (…) Thus, the Islamic State dispatched its brave knights to wage war in the homelands of the wicked crusaders, leaving Paris and its residents ‘shocked and awed.’ (…) A nationwide state of emergency was declared as a result of the actions of eight men armed only with assault rifles and explosive belts. And so, revenge was exacted upon those who felt safe in the cockpits of their jets.’

In fact, every magazine has a section that lists and praises suicide attacks and other forms of terror, framed eternally by the notion that retaliation was fundamental to the justification. The acts, for instance, of beheading Steven Sotloff and James Foley were framed in Dabiq, Issue 4, p. 51, as a response to ‘the numerous Muslims killed in Iraq by American airstrikes.’

While in Dabiq, Issue 3, p. 38, the killing of American journalist James Foley was framed accordingly: ‘the Obama administration ultimately hit the last nail in James’s coffin and killed him by bombing Iraq. A message was sent two days before James’s execution, warning of his demise as a result of the US airstrikes in Iraq. The solution was easy… Stop the airstrikes!

The list of suicide attacks justified by referring to the Coalition’s airstrikes is long. In July 2016, for instance, five militants carried out an attack in the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka, killing 24 people, 18 of whom were foreigners. ISIS later claimed responsibility for what was to be called the Dhaka café attack, and those murders were to be a point of focus in ISIS’ magazine Rumiyah, Issue 2, released in October 2016. There the justification for the killing of civilians was framed by the notion that they were as responsible for the airstrikes as politicians:

‘As the aircrafts and drones of the Crusader coalition continue to bomb and terrorize the Muslims of Iraq, Sham, Libya, and other wilayat of the Khilafah, their Muslim brothers and sisters all over the world read the news with aching pain (…) These Muslims realize that the Crusader leaders who give the orders to brutally bomb the Muslims don’t come from an abstract vacuum; rather, they come into power via the blessings of the constituency of their citizenry, those who partake in their democratic system or accept its results. These Muslims also realize that the huge costs associated with bombs dropped by these aircrafts and drones are largely financed through the tax money generated from the so-called ‘innocent civilians’ of these democratic nations (…) Thus, there remains no doubt in the hearts of these Muslims that the destruction of lives and property in the wilayat of the Khilafah by Crusader jets and drones is to be directly blamed on the purported ‘power of the people,’ i.e. the power of the socalled ‘innocent civilians’ of the Crusader nations (…) Thus, on the night of the 27th of Ramadan 1437 (June/July 2016, ed.), the Soldiers of the Khilafah in Bengal decided to send an inghimasi (suicide, ed.) team of five shahadah knights to the Holey Artisan Bakery restaurant in Gulshan, Dhaka, in order to give the Crusaders a taste of their own medicine. (p. 9)

In addition, the ISIS-supportive media ‘Amaq’’ released the following tweet after the attack: Citizens Of Crusader Countries Will Not Feel Safe As Long As Their Planes Bomb Muslims.’

The Dhaka attack was just one of a number of ISIS suicide or terror attacks that were justified as an act of retaliation against either the US-led coalition as a whole or their airstrikes in particular.

  • In 2016, an Afghan refugee attacked multiple people with an axe on the night of July 18 in Würzburg-Heidingsfeld, Germany, around 70 miles north-east of Nuremberg. In Dabiq, Issue 15, p. 45, ISIS stated the attack by ‘our brother Muhammad Riyad’ was ‘in response to the Islamic State’s calls to target the citizens of nations participating in the Crusader coalition fighting the Caliphate.’
  • In 2016, Anis Amri, a Tunisian failed asylum seeker drove a truck into a crowd into a Christmas market, next to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church at Breitscheidplatz in Berlin, leaving 12 people dead and 56 others injured. In Rumiyah, Issue 5, p 41, the caliphate announced that ‘Abul-Bara at-Tunisi carried out an operation in which he ran over several people in the heart of the German capital, Berlin, in response to the Islam­ic State’s call to target the citizens of nations involved in the Crusader coalition, which is killing Muslims’.
  • In an attack on Westminster Bridge, on March 22nd, 2017, Khalid Masood drove a car into pedestrians killing five and injuring more than 50 in the UK’s capital, London. The attacker said he was waging jihad in revenge against Western military action in Muslim countries in the Middle East. ISIS was to justify the attack as revenge for the intense shelling of Mosul, especially a ‘March 17th event’ that had killed scores of civilians. The US military acknowledged it had launched an airstrike on Mosul on that day.
  • On November 28, 2016, a vehicle-ramming and stabbing attack occurred at Ohio State University’s Watts Hall in Columbus, USA. The attacker, Somali refugee Abdul Razak Ali Artan, was shot and killed by the first responding police officer, and 13 people were hospitalized for injuries. In Rumiyah, Issue 4, p. 37, the terrorist network stated that ‘the attack was carried out in response to the Islamic State’s call to target the citizens of the nations involved in the Crusader coalition.’
  • On September 17, 2016, a terrorist mass stabbing occurred at the Crossroads Center shopping mall in St. Cloud, Minnesota, USA. Ten people were injured, and the attacker was shot dead inside the mall by an off-duty law enforcement officer. In Rumiyah, Issue 2, p. 34, ISIS stated ‘our brother Dahir Adan – stabbed 10 kuffar in the state of Minnesota in response to the calls to target the citizens of the nations involved in the Crusader coalition.’
  • In Rumiyah, Issue 6, p. 27, the magazine stated that ‘the istishhadi Abu Hassan al-‘Iraqi carried out an attack targeting Rafidi murtaddin in Sadr City towards the east of Baghdad in revenge for the Rafidi-Crusader coalition’s repeated targeting of health institutions in Ninawa Wilayah. He set out and detonated his explosive vehi­cle on their dens, killing and injuring approximately 150 murtaddin.’
  • While on June 12, 2016, when Omar Mir Seddique (also known as Omar Mateen) killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in a mass shooting at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, before he was killed in a shootout with the local police, ISIS claimed responsibility. In Dabiq, Issue 15, p. 30, they argued that it was a natural act of revenge in response to ‘crimes of the West’

Other reasons
When reading through the magazines, one clear fact, though, is that ever-present articulation that religion is the main driving force behind the attacks.  As Dabiq, Issue 15, p. 33 states: ‘What’s important to understand here is that al­though some might argue that your foreign policies are the extent of what drives our hatred, this parti­cular reason for hating you is secondary, hence the reason we addressed it at the end of the above list. The fact is, even if you were to stop bombing us, impriso­ning us, torturing us, vilifying us, and usurping our lands, we would continue to hate you because our pri­mary reason for hating you will not cease to exist until you embrace Islam’.

In addition to this theological justification, it is also important to note that ISIS considers suicide attacks as a vital weapon in their arsenal. In Rumiyah, Issue 6, p. 36, the terror group states that ‘on the third day of battle, the decisive weapon – after the success granted by Allah – was the istishhadi operation, the fatal weapon against the kuf­far and their perpetual terror’.

While on p. 38, it stated that: ‘we saw how Allah’s support became apparent when an istishhadi named Abu Bakr al-Khayr advanced in a tank rigged with explosives towards the city of Tadmur’s silos, the kuf­far’s strongest lines of defense for the city of Tadmur. He continued advancing for 15 minutes, passing one barrier after another’

Therefore, before concluding that all suicide attacks are linked to calls for revenge, one should note that they are also used for strategic ends. This is important to remember as these kinds of attacks are also among the ones counted in the statistics but should not be considered in a potential correlation-analysis.


ISIS dictionary
Crusaders: The West/the Coalition/Christians
Istishhadi operation: Suicide operation
Mujahidin: Muslims who carry out jihad, what ISIS calls its fighters.
Murtadin: Those who have abandoned Islam, apostasy
Mushrikīn: Those who worship other gods than Allah
Shahid (sing)/Shuhada (pl): Literally means ‘witness’ (witness to God), used for those who die in the battle against the non-believers, can be anything from fighters committing suicide attacks or civilians killed by airstrikes.
Rafidi: Iranian Shia Muslims