Following a radical Islamic terrorist attack in London that killed seven and injured dozens more, experts say such attacks in the West could increase in the near future.
One reason, they say, is that terrorists are encouraged to conduct more attacks during the holy month of Ramadan, which started on May 26 and lasts through June 24.
“During Ramadan, [terrorists] believe they are under a heavier obligation to carry out jihad, and they believe the reward is multiplied if they die during jihad in Ramadan,” said Ryan Mauro, national security analyst at the Clarion Project.
“And so from their perspective, they are willing to kill a lot of people – in their minds, send them to hell – to maximize their own chances to get to paradise,” Mauro said.
On Monday, United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May said the national threat level remained at “severe,” meaning that another terrorist attack is “highly likely.”
Back in Iraq, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has already targeted an ice cream shop in Baghdad, killing 14 and injuring at least 37, including women and children who were celebrating Ramadan after fasting all day.
“We have seen, and this is relatively common, to see an uptick of attacks by ISIS during Ramadan,” U.S. Army Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesman for anti-ISIS coalition, said during a Pentagon briefing on Thursday.
“An ice cream parlor is certainly going to attract civilians… it’s definitely about civilians,” said Mia Bloom, a professor at Georgia State University who monitors terrorists’ propaganda and their recruitment of children.
Experts say terrorist attacks in the West are expected to rise as U.S.-led coalition and local forces close in on ISIS’s strongholds of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria.
Mauro said, “They view the caliphate as the ‘Jihadi Disney World,’ but with that collapsing, and an increased risk that they’ll be arrested – so, won’t die in jihad and get the reward that they’re seeking, the calculation is going to be that it’s smarter to carry out an attack at home, and that’s what ISIS has told them.”
Indeed, the number of foreign fighters attempting to go to Iraq and Syria has dropped, from about 1,500 per month to fewer than 100 per month currently, according to U.S. defense officials.
Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre (JTIC) said in an analysis published Monday that the increased frequency and intensity of recent attacks in the U.K. indicates a “substantial increase in the pool of potential attackers.”
Western officials are also worried about foreign fighters who made it to Iraq and Syria returning home and conducting attacks.
European Union Counter-Terrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove last October warned that between 1,500 to 2,000 foreign fighters might return to Europe if they were driven out of Mosul and Raqqa.
The concern has altered the U.S.-led strategy against ISIS. U.S. defense officials announced last month the strategy is now an “annihilation” one in which ISIS fighters are surrounded in areas they occupy, versus allowed to leave to another location.
“The intent,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters at a Pentagon press conference last month, “is to prevent the return home of escaped foreign fighters.”
Experts say there is no call to specifically target Western children, despite some speculation after an attack on an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester last month that killed and injured girls and young women.
However, Bloom said, Western children are not off limits, as ISIS tries to push boundaries and increase shock value.
“They justify the killing of children, where, ‘Our kids are not sacrosanct, neither are theirs’… the idea being that Syrian children and Iraqi children, Rohingya children, Yemeni children — all children of the Middle East are being killed everyday, and nobody gives a hoot,” Bloom said.
“And so there’s this really weird moral equivalency that they use to justify not just targeting the civilians, but targeting the children,” she added.
Mauro warned the threat will continue even after ISIS is defeated and urged Western governments to take steps to tighten their borders.
“As ISIS dies, another group is going to take its place… Everyone is focused on ISIS, but al Qaeda has an army of 10,000 to 20,000 people in Syria alone,” Mauro said.
“The measures that we should have taken to curtail ISIS are similar to measures that we should take now to curtail other groups that are emerging,” he said.
“That means travel restrictions, extreme vetting, treating all the jihadists as one… there’s no difference between ISIS and al Qaeda.”