Normandy knife attack
Members of French special police forces of Research and Intervention Brigade (BRI) are seen during a raid after a hostage-taking in the church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray near Rouen in Normandy, FrancePascal Rossignol/ Reuters

In a surprising segment of his speech which preceded the recent wave of terror attacks in the US and Europe, Islamic State (Isis) spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani called on supporters to be resilient, and implied that the group was going to outlive the loss of its own so-called 'caliphate'.

These last two months have shown that this speech announced a new, more brutal phase in what the group sees as a global jihad not limited to regions of Iraq and Syria. Just as the jihadist group enters a new era of its 'history', Europe and the US should prepare for a long war that will aim at disrupting the very core of their respective social fabric.

IS is shifting its strategy. After a wave of spectacular and sophisticated attacks with the bloody attack in Paris and Brussels, the group is expanding its geographic reach and hitting Europe with what seems to be a non-stop wave of terror attacks. IS-inspired attacks are moving away from major European cities and toward more outlying areas of the continent such as Bavaria and Normandy.

This is no coincidence, as the group is resorting to less organised attacks by its supporters, wherever they may be. The gruesome murder of a priest in Normandy, a rural area of France, in particular, underscores both IS supporters taste for symbolism along with some understanding of Europe's social and political landscape. Normandy almost fits the stereotype of the peaceful French countryside with a Christian history, the city of Rouen nearby described by the French author Victor Hugo in a poem as the 'hundred bell-towers city', in reference to its Christian heritage.

The brutal slaughter of a priest during mass in a far-flung area of Normandy is meant to shock residents of a region where the far-right National Front is growing. Similarities can be drawn with the German federal state of Bavaria, where two IS-claimed attack this month rattled a region with rich European history in two relatively rural area.

These attacks echo al-Adnani's depiction of the defeat of the then al-Qaeda-led insurgency in Iraq at the hands of Iraqi forces and Sunni tribesmen in 2008, as the ISIS spokesperson asked "Were we defeated when we lost the cities in Iraq and were in the desert without any city or land?". IS's predecessor indeed moved to outlying areas of the country to avoid a full-scale defeat, and waited for the opportunity to make a comeback.

Similarly, as the group is planning the day after the end of its 'caliphate', it seeks to turn the threat it represents into a more diffuse menace, which is proving to be harder to mitigate, while keeping its enormous psychological and social impact. Instead of planning 'riskier' sophisticated attacks in major cities, individuals with loose ties to the group can fly under the radar of European security agencies and police forces to carry out attacks right where they live.

Europe is the home front of a long war against ISIS.

A year ago being an IS supporter devoted to the cause of the 'caliphate' required them to travel hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometres to reach the heartland of the group along Euphrates. Today, IS sympathisers 'simply' need to go to the nearby church, train station or promenade, a few kilometres from where they live.

IS's ability to encourage attacks is here to stay. The group sees the fight in Iraq and Syria not as the end, but as the beginning and the trigger of a long fight against the 'crusader' and the Muslim populations living in what ISIS calls the 'grey zone' – the vast majority of Muslims who fail to fall into IS's binary divide between the apostate and the 'believers'. From the beginning, IS's success in Iraq and Syria were meant to 'inspire' those not adhering to its radical ideology to join its ranks.

Adel Kermiche
The attacker who tried and failed to travel to Syria last year has been identified as 19-year-old Adel KermicheFacebook

This strategy is rooted in the 'success' of the jihadist movement, after the decades of insurgency in Afghanistan and initial defeat of the Taliban at the hands of the NATO-led coalition. The group does not fight for more territory, it fights for more souls. In that sense, the attacks in Europe are also meant to 'inspire' IS's audience, and maintain the group's image of invincibility. By carrying out these attacks outside of major urban centres, the group continues to portray itself as an all-powerful entity that can strike the West where it least expects it, despite the fact that it is slowly failing to 'remain' in its initial stronghold.

Faced with this wave of attacks, European leaders have tried to prepare the public for a lasting war with ISIS. In the aftermath of the Nice attack that killed more than 80 people, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls highlighted in an interview that while "everything is done to fight against terrorism, the truth, which I owe to the French people, is that this is a long-term war, both abroad, but also on our own soil".

This should not be taken as an admittance of weakness, or a lack of political will. Politicians may often be seen as refraining from telling harsh truth to their constituencies, for fear of eroding their support, yet in this case Valls isn't. The image Manuel Valls is painting of the fight against IS is a harsh truth. Europe is the home front of a long war against IS.

As a home front, it needs to be both aware of the threat and resilient. Its social resilience, meaning the ability to bring back life where gruesome attacks have been carried out, react proportionally to the threat, and refrain from grand gesture that are often superficial, counter-productive and ineffective. Unfortunately, this seems to be where the French leadership is headed, with Francois Hollande's decision to call on the 'operational reserve', a force of volunteer citizens and former security officers.

These 'feel-good' measures are preventing the fostering of a critical debate on the relevance of the deployment of military patrols in civilian area, where they are inadequate and costly. Precious resources are wasted in attempts to create a temporary feeling of security, instead of creating security. These resources need to be invested in the expansion and reform of Europe's intelligence and security apparatus, in fostering a broader coordination between police forces and security agencies, between internal and external security services and the ability to efficiently exchange information between foreign intelligence agencies.

In this long war, IS may have made its first mistake by increasing the pace of its attacks to a level that will not be sustainable in the long run. Al-Adnani called for ISIS supporters to carry out attacks during the month-long Ramadan holiday, an efficient way to maximise the psychological impact of these attacks while limiting the time frame of this 'effort'.

Yet attacks have continued and their number even increase after the holiday. This frequency is only sustainable if it creates a backlash and is blown out of proportion in the media. In the face of this fanatic sprint runner exhausting its resources in the first minutes of the race, we should be aware that we are running a marathon where our ability to remain steadfast is essential.


Michael Horowitz is a security analyst and head of business development for the Levantine Group.