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Three Terror Attacks Raise The Spector Of A ISIS's Growing Reach


Suicide bombers struck three cities in Saudi Arabia today. One blasted detonated in Medina near one of the holiest sites in the world for Muslims, another near the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah. According to Saudi state TV, four members of the Saudi security forces have been killed. So far no group has claimed responsibility for the bombings.

The threat of terrorism was already heightened by three major attacks in the span of a week in Istanbul, Turkey; Dhaka, Bangladesh and just yesterday in Baghdad, Iraq. All of those attacks have been linked to ISIS.

Earlier I talked with Scott Atran. He's with France's National Center for Scientific Research, and I asked him about the connection between these recent attacks and the Islamic State's losses on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria.

SCOTT ATRAN: The more the Islamic State is contained and even degraded in its heartland, there's a - more it is required to go into a sort of global guerilla insurgency to realize its ambitions. And then the fact that they've been defeated in Fallujah...

SHAPIRO: The city of Fallujah in Iraq, you mean.

ATRAN: Yes. The last three attacks in Turkey, Bangladesh and Iraq were clearly a response to this defeat to show, again, that they've not been defeated in terms of their primary goal, which is to show that they're enduring and expanding across the world.

SHAPIRO: The nature of these ISIS or ISIS-inspired attacks all over the world while the actual territory shrinks makes it sound more like the al-Qaida threat from a decade ago. How would you compare these two groups?

ATRAN: Well, I think that very much they're adopting an al-Qaida-like strategy. But the difference of course is they have a much more positive and festive message, more joyful and glorious than al-Qaida ever had, and that is represented in the notion of the caliphate.

And they also have a much more apocalyptic vision. That is, they're willing, as they say, to destroy the world to save it. And so they're willing to be much more brutal in their methods than even al-Qaida was.

SHAPIRO: When you say the message of the Islamic State is much more joyful, I think many people might be surprised to hear you use that word. Explain what you mean by that.

ATRAN: I know. But we actually show - you know, we go out to these places like Iraq and Syria, interview the people, both al-Nusra and al-Qaida and ISIS and the people fighting against it, and it's quite clear that the spirit of camaraderie, adventure, revolutionary fervor, hope, even, is much higher among Islamic State fighters than it is among all their adversaries except perhaps some of the Kurds.

We find an incredible level of commitment, and the only reason they're being defeated of course is because for their being outnumbered 10 to 1 or more in places they're losing. Otherwise they win.

SHAPIRO: Are they attracting a different kind of recruit now than in the early days of the group?

ATRAN: Yes, they are. Most interesting - they're attracting women. At the very beginning, there were very few women. When they declared the caliphate, about 1 out of every 7 were women. And today in places like France and other places in Western Europe, it's 1 out of every 3.


ATRAN: These women tend to be younger - 12 to 17 - and from a higher socioeconomic background because for the women, we find when we interview the women, they're appealing to something quite different. They accuse the West of being nihilist without any kind of moral or cultural center. And they're arguing that women want to be women, and they're different from men. And they want clear red lines, and the Islamic State provides them in ways that no other group can.

SHAPIRO: And would that also explain why, for example, in Bangladesh, we understand the attackers came from higher socioeconomic classes, were more well-educated?

ATRAN: Yes. In fact, I find that although in places like France or Belgium, they tend to be from marginalized elements of society, it certainly isn't the case worldwide. It's not even the case in England where there tend to be more university students involved.

But we find across North Africa and much of Asia, they tend to be often from higher socioeconomic status. And when I talk to others who joined the Islamic State - computer engineers, experts in finance - they say that they joined simply because they wanted their skills to be put to a great and glorious use.

SHAPIRO: Scott Atran of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, thank you for speaking with us.

ATRAN: Sure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.