On 26 June, Tunisia's interior ministry reported that at least 28 people had been killed in an attack on a beach near two tourist hotels in the Tunisian town of Sousse. The attackers, as yet unidentified, appeared to have targeted foreign tourists. Victims include British, German and Belgian nationals.
Although no claim of responsibility was made immediately following the attack, the assumption will be that the operation was carried out by individuals sympathetic to, or actively aligned with, ISIL. If this assumption turns out to be true, there are three key implications that need to be considered: the international focus of ISIL-linked extremists; the real risks posed by ISIL 'wilayats'; and, the evolving threat picture in Tunisia.
A debate is raging over whether governments should think of ISIL as a terrorist organisation or a state, which is important because how we think about ISIL determines how we respond to it. An increasing number of experts are inclined to think of ISIL in terms of its 'Islamic State' creation and, accordingly, are advocating the development and delivery of COIN (counter-insurgency) strategies to deal with it effectively.
A major pillar of the argument advanced by these experts is that ISIL doesn't think or behave like a terrorist organisation - it is interested in seizing and holding territory, using terror tactics to impose governance on populations and focusing internally on the region in which it operates (namely Iraq and Syria). ISIL, they say, is not like al-Qaida, which was (as still is) focused on the 'far enemy', and interested in planning and prosecuting international attacks that target the West directly and Western interests around the world.
My take on ISIL is different. Instead of being a state using terror tactics to impose governance, I prefer to think of ISIL as a terrorist organisation that is using state-building to advance global jihadism. I agree that ISIL is different from al-Qaida, but we must remember that AQ's global jihadist campaign of conducting spectacular attacks on the West was very much Usama bin Laden's project. Others in AQ - including its current head Aymann al Zawahiri - preferred exploiting regional tensions and co-opting regional struggles to promote the global jihadist cause. ISIL are simply better at it than AQ ever was and, probably, ever will be.
But the biggest mistake to make when it comes to assessing the threat posed by ISIL, and those that aligned themselves with their campaign, is to dismiss the international terrorism risks it presents. Yes, ISIL does prioritise regional state-building and stoking sectarian conflict in a way that AQ didn't. However, the international reach of ISIL's network of networks provides the group with a capability to inspire attacks (and direct them if they so intend) in many parts of the world, and it is safe to assume that Western interests remain attractive targets for ISIL-aligned extremists.
Another common misconception is that ISIL 'wilayats' (provinces) are simply sophisticated propaganda creations rather than anything more tangible to worry about. Again, it is true that ISIL is not operating as a coherent machine in a dozen countries and we must resist with all our strength reporting on ISIL in a way that does their PR for them. However, much like AQ's franchises in Yemen and Algeria, groups with their own regional agendas are in a position to use ISIL's ideology and narratives to influence and recruit others for their own purposes, some of which may be in tune with the global jihadist aim of attacking apostates and infidels, including Western interests within their areas of operation and through external attacks beyond them.
Finally, fears that Tunisia is not immune to the growing strength of jihadist militancy in north Africa are becoming increasingly well-founded, as today's attack demonstrates. With Libya fast become a prominent jihadist front with an ever-expanding ISIL footprint, terrorism risks in the region will only escalate.
By Chris Mackmurdo Founding Director of Contest Global www.contestglobal.com