Jihad in Ramadan: Terror attacks in Kuwait, Tunisia, and France as ISIS launches a new Syrian offensive

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

While jihadist militants have often sought to escalate attacks during the month of Ramadan, events today in Kuwait, France, Syria, and Tunisia have served to underline the especially violent times we now live in. 

The so-called Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility earlier today for an attack on one of Kuwait’s largest Shia mosques. Twenty-eight people were killed and over 200 wounded in the Al-Sadiq Mosque during Friday prayers, when a Saudi Arabian IS suicide bomber detonated his explosives. Whilst a clearly sectarian act, the attack itself also appears more broadly to be an attempt by the group to force Kuwait’s largely conservative Sunni political and religious establishment to express support for the country’s Shia community — something IS can then use to claim as evidence of Islamic illegitimacy and ‘hypocrisy.’ A similar strategy has been employed by IS in Saudi Arabia. 

Despite this political maneuvering, it was heartening to see Kuwait’s emir visit the scene so quickly after the attack, while other religious leaders similarly expressed their condemnation of the bombing. 

In Syria meanwhile, IS has been engaged in a classic game of diversion. On Wednesday, the group’s long-time position of power in northern Syria found itself defiantly challenged by Kurdish militia forces and their coalition partners in the air. Following the loss of the strategic crossing with Turkey at Tel Abyad on June 15, IS ceded control of the valuable 93rd Brigade base and the nearby town of Ayn Eissa a week later. Suddenly, the de facto IS capital of Raqqa looked dangerously under threat. 

In response, IS launched a two-pronged diversionary offensive yesterday morning — to the west, on the town of Kobane and to the east, on the city of Hasakah. In attacking Kurdish-controlled Kobane, IS employed Kurdish fighters — many from Iraq — who were dressed in the uniforms of the Kurdish YPG militia and their Free Syrian Army (FSA) allies. Thirty-six hours and three suicide car bombs later, at least 146 people have been counted as dead. The attack on Hasakah — a city controlled by Assad regime forces in the south and the Kurdish YPG in the north — comes after days of IS probing attacks on the city’s southern periphery. Thirty-six hours later, dozens of people had been reported killed and IS militants had captured several of the city’s southern districts, including a security headquarters and the city’s prison, reportedly releasing its detainees. Literally overnight, the potential consequences of recent IS losses only a few miles away were forgotten. At least for now. 

While there has not yet been a claim of responsibility for today’s attack in Tunisia’s coastal city of Sousse, it represents the most deadly terrorist incident ever to hit the country. Thirty-seven people were reportedly shot dead by one or possibly two gunmen, who fired their assault rifles at foreign tourists along a stretch of beach outside two adjacent hotels. Coming in the middle of the day during Ramadan, the gunmen would have known the beaches would have been primarily being used by non-fasting foreign tourists. As was the case with the attack on Tunis’ Bardo Museum in March, the targeting of tourists in a country like Tunisia would have been aimed not only simply to damage the valuable tourism industry, but perhaps also to divert security forces and government resources away from other targets with a more long-term value. Moreover, IS supporters in particular have recently singled out the likelihood of attacks on Tunisia’s tourism industry during the summer months, using the #IWillComeToTunisiaThisSummer hashtag, for example.

Meanwhile, the exact motives behind this morning’s attack in southern France remain unclear. Authorities have admitted their prior awareness of the individual suspect as “somebody who was in touch with Salafists” and who had been placed under surveillance, while President Francois Hollande was quick to assert: “it is a terrorist attack, there is not doubt about that.” Nevertheless, little information has been revealed regarding whether the suspect — named as Yassin Salhi — was acting alone or as part of a broader group. What the attack in Saint-Quentin-Fallavier has shown however, is the continued danger seemingly posed by so-called ‘lone wolves.’ 

In that regard, the unparalleled reach and influencing power of IS’ propaganda must continue to be borne in mind, with utmost urgency, especially as it relates to direct calls for ‘lone wolves’ to commit attacks at home in support of its global cause. Take for example, the words of chief IS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani in a speech released only three days ago to mark Ramadan: 

“So the wise and intelligent is the one who aspires to jihad and battling in Ramadan. No acts of worship are equal to jihad. And jihad in Ramadan is not matched by jihad in other months. So glad tidings to the one who spends Ramadan as a fighter for the cause of Allah, and glad tidings to the one whom Allah selects in this blessed month and accepts as a martyr. Allah may increase the reward of martyrdom tenfold in Ramadan in comparison to other months. So, O Muslims embark and hasten towards jihad. And O mujahideen everywhere, rush and move to make Ramadan a month of disasters for the kuffar.”