In a directive that preceded a Saturday of attacks across three states, ISIS gave its followers a broader, more chilling definition of soft targets—telling Muslims in the West to just kill anyone they want, even kids playing on a basketball court, and justify it as jihad.
It answers the question of why someone would leave a pressure-cooker device on a random Manhattan sidewalk, why a bomb was detonated on an otherwise unremarkable block of Chelsea, and why an attacker claimed by ISIS stabbed random victims enjoying Saturday night at a Minnesota mall.
There was likely a nod to historical precedence—remembering the devastation of the Boston Marathon attack and how the Tsarnaev brothers are lauded as heroes among jihadists—by whoever planted the pipe bomb that went off at a charity race in New Jersey on Saturday morning.
But the message of all attacks is the same: Softer and softer targets are the new norm.
At the beginning of the month, ISIS released a new magazine named Rumiyah (Rome, in a nod to their apocalyptic goals) in several languages. In an article extensively outlining Quranic verses and scholars’ interpretations, ISIS stated that disbelievers—non-Muslims or Muslims not adhering to their “standards”—should “be slain wherever they may be—on or off the battlefield” as their blood “is cheap, filthy, and permissible to shed.
“This includes the businessman riding to work in a taxicab, the young adults (post-pubescent ‘children’) engaged in sports activities in the park, and the old man waiting in line to buy a sandwich,” the article suggested. “Indeed, even the blood of the kafir [disbeliever] street vendor selling flowers to those passing by is halal to shed—and striking terror into the hearts of all disbelievers is a Muslim’s duty.”
There is, the ISIS magazine stressed, no “requirement to target soldiers and policemen nor judges and politicians.”
Of course, part of the strategy in declaring the most innocent fair game is to catch people off guard. September 11, 2001, trained the terror consciousness of many Americans to gauge whether terrorists are succeeding based on the catastrophic toll of a single, symbolic attack. Terrorists today, though, are going for death by a thousand cuts. As much as terror groups would enjoy another World Trade Center attack, they see operational and recruitment value in the smaller attacks that are replaced in the news cycle by a fresh attack.
And, importantly, they want to turn anyone into a jihadist. ISIS is renowned for attracting some of the dimmer bulbs in the shop, and they figure they can attract more by telling inspired would-be jihadis that they don’t need to map out some ingenious, multifaceted plan to kills souls and please the self-proclaimed caliph. Indeed, the pipe bombs in New Jersey appeared to not be well-constructed. They want the timid or marginally trained, who don’t think they would make it five feet into the outer perimeter of airport security or a statehouse, to have their place in jihad. They want those with no connections of importance to feel that just because they can’t get near a legislator doesn’t mean they can’t strike.
But is the trend of everything being a soft target an ISIS phenomenon alone? They want to own it, for sure, but it’s been a trend in the making since 9/11.
After the Orlando nightclub attack, Al Qaeda released a special Inspire magazine supplemental noting that it’s not so important which group takes the credit as the fact that lone jihadists are answering the call.
They classified the operation as “targeting general gatherings,” something “sending a message to the public that elects, supports and pays taxes to their criminal governments,” so they will “eventually pressure their government to stop and prevent the oppressive polices against Muslims everywhere.
“When we talk of the population being at war (the combatant public), this mean that we no longer view them as civilians in America,” Al Qaeda said. They stressed that Omar Mateen “capitalized on the means available at his reach” and inspired “every new lone mujahid [to] try to do his best to realize and attain similar or more fatalities in his operation…especially when they see how easy it is to execute an operation.”
It’s impossible to utilize counterterrorism security measures to protect every individual soft target. This is why interdiction, particularly of the favored native-born jihadist, is so critical.
People shouldn’t live in fear of going to the mall or walking in Manhattan, but the process of spotting and identifying potential terrorists, from the tipster level through law enforcement, must heed the warnings that lone attackers like the Orlando shooter or larger cells betray in their words and deeds.
Bridget Johnson is a fellow with the Haym Salomon Center. A veteran journalist, is a contributor at NPR and serves as D.C. bureau chief for PJ Media.