The suicide attack by Salman Abedi outside the Manchester arena that killed 22 young people out on a fun evening on the town was claimed by ISIS to be one of its actions. On the other hand, the terrorist movement of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria seems to claim credit for anything violent these days, and it is not yet clear whether Abedi was directed to carry out this mission by ISIS leaders in Syria or whether it was simply branded that way. Abedi may have just been sympathetic with their ideas and carried out the attack on his own.
Either way it may give the impression that ISIS is still in the game. By being connected with such a hideous act of carnage, the movement may seem to be a global player, a force to be reckoned with, and an organization worthy of recruiting new volunteers.
But appearances can be deceiving. The area controlled by ISIS is shrinking daily. The main cities of Fallujah and Ramadi have been liberated from ISIS, and most of Mosul is now free from ISIS control. Only the northern sections of the city are still dominated by ISIS holdouts and their area dwindles almost daily in house-to-house combat. The northern portion of Syria, near the Turkish border, has been freed by Syrian Kurdish forces, and a combination of military forces is closing in on the capital city of the ISIS caliphate, Rakka.
Perhaps more important, the ISIS troops have become demoralized in these military failures. The wages paid to its soldiers have shrunk to a fraction of what they were receiving just a year ago, and the once-steady stream of volunteers from expatriate Muslim communities around the world has decreased to a trickle. ISIS is no longer as cool as it once appeared to be.
So although the Manchester attack may have appeared to put ISIS back into the headlines and back into the terrorist limelight, the movement is floundering. One tragically dedicated person with a suicide belt is not the same as a flourishing militant organization.
But that raises the question of why someone like Salman Abedi would do such a thing. Was he motivated by a deep hatred of the Western culture that surrounded him as he grew up in Manchester? Was he brain washed into a religious ideology that made him think that his act would bring him instant salvation? Or was his motivation more personal, simply a longing to prove himself, to make a mark on history?
The motivations for Abedi are not yet clear. In my monitoring of on-line Twitter chats among young ISIS supporters, however, I have found a consistent theme, a longing for community. This idea of being part of a family is not just a feature of ordinary tweets, it is prominent in the memorial sites set up on line and included as tweet attachments. These commemorative sites that appear on the web-based magazines such as the former Dabiq, now renamed Rumiyah, talk about the dead soldier’s devotion to their comrades as much or more than it cites their devotion to their faith. In fact, the two seem to be intertwined.
It is understandable that a young person who felt alienated from the society in which was raised–perhaps feeling shunned from the kind of sociable crowd that would attend an Ariana Grande concert in the Manchester Arena—might take out his resentment in a violent way. It is a common element in youth rampages from Columbine to Sandy Hook. But as much as ISIS might claim this one as an example of its vitality, the sad fact is that a single tragically misguided suicide attacker cannot rescue a failing movement in its persistently downward spiral to oblivion.