Washington (AFP) - Increasingly unable to mount centrally planned, big-impact attacks, the ill group now relies on "virtual entrepreneurs" who work independently from the jihadist leadership to cultivate smaller lone-wolf attacks, researchers say.
According to researchers at George Washington University's Program on Extremism, evidence now shows that many so-called lone-wolves are in reality encouraged and directed by IS operatives to undertake attacks for which the group can then claim credit.
"These are guys who take it on themselves to come up with innovative new ways to spread jihadist ideology and encourage attacks," said Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, who with Seamus Hughes authored the research.
What is new, he told AFP, is that these individuals, sometimes also described as "virtual coaches", appear to be developing attack plans without direction or oversight from IS leaders, using social media and encrypted messaging.
"We are under the impression that they are left largely to their own devices. They are using their own innovation to come up with new ways to attract people and encourage them to attack, and also come up with new ways for people to attack the West," he said.
Their study, published in the US Military Academy's counter terrorism journal CTC Sentinel, notes that in the United States, at least eight attack plots since 2014 have involved people being directed by these IS entrepreneurs.
The researchers tapped into closely held evidence used by the US government to prepare legal cases against potential attackers, as well as the information from actual attacks, to show a pattern of IS giving some of its members the freedom to develop their own plots.
The initial conclusions concerning a May 2015 plot by three men to attack an exhibit of pictures of the Prophet Mohammad in Garland, Texas was that it was hatched entirely inside the country, and merely inspired by IS.
But later information showed that a Syria-based IS follower, Junaid Hussain, had given the men direction, including choosing the target, the study noted.
It was the same with another supposed lone wolf, Emanuel Lutchman, arrested plotting a New Year's Eve attack in New York City at the end of 2015.
Lutchman had actually been directed by, and his target selected by, IS operative Abu Saad al-Sudani, who persuaded him to make a video pledging allegiance to IS before the attack was to take place.
- Maintaining IS presence -
The study said around a dozen virtual entrepreneurs had worked out of Raqa, Syria in recent years, systematically reaching out to people in the United States they think might be sympathetic to the jihadist cause.
They coach targets, and often work to convince people hoping to join IS in the Middle East to instead stay in the United States and design an attack there.
Their role has become more important as IS finds it harder and harder to direct major plots against the West and as it has found itself under military assault in its home base in Syria and Iraq.
"As things started getting harder for them, they turned to at least keeping some sort of presence in the West by these sort of lower level attacks," said Meleagrou-Hitchens.