- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 4, 2017

Three years ago, Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appeared publicly for the first time in a half-decade to deliver a sermon at a northern Iraqi mosque. His purpose: to herald the start of Ramadan.

Since then, his terrorist army has effectively campaigned to twist the image of Islam’s holiest month of fasting, sacrifice and prayer into a month of Muslim-inspired carnage.

On Saturday night, roughly a week into Ramadan, Britain was the latest target as Islamic State-linked attacks at London Bridge and a nearby market killed seven people and wounded 48 more.

Last week in Kabul, a city hard to shock, life ground to a standstill when a truck bomb rumbled into the Afghan capital’s most secure diplomatic neighborhood during morning rush hour. The blast killed at least 80, injured more than 400 and rattled windows a half-mile away.

The numbers are staggering. Since Ramadan began on May 26, Islamic State-inspired attacks have targeted a marketplace in Jakarta, Indonesia; a casino in the Philippines; and an ice cream shop in Baghdad, Iraq. Including those murdered in London and Kabul, an estimated 149 people have been killed so far.

Counterrorism officials agree the trend of Ramadan violence has escalated since the Islamic State’s formation earlier this decade.

According to the Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute, which monitors Islamist militancy, 2016 set records for deaths. Overall, extremism-affiliated attacks during Ramadan last year killed 420 and wounded 730 more.

“There’s no question, post-9/11, there’s not been a Ramadan with more terrorist attacks across the globe than this one [2016],” Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies was quoted as saying at the end of last year’s Ramadan.

After the terrorist group seized large swaths of northern Iraq and Syria in 2014 and 2015, its leader al-Baghdadi and especially former spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani promoted the idea of spreading Islamic State violence to the West to turn Christians against Islam overall.

But a U.S.-led air campaign, the Iraqi military, U.S.-backed Kurdish militias and others soon had them on the defensive, and they lost territory. To show they remained dangerous, al-Adnani — who the U.S. has since killed — encouraged Islamic State followers to use Ramadan as a stage for violence.

“Get prepared, be ready,” he said before the 2015 holiday, “to make it a month of calamity everywhere for nonbelievers.”

Previously, al-Adnani had encouraged Islamic State followers to kill Western civilians with any weapons available, including rocks, knives and motor vehicles — which have been used multiple times since, including Saturday’s London attack.

Such weapons produce more random violence that intelligence agencies have trouble thwarting.

Last year witnessed a wide variety of attacks, from the Orlando gay nightclub shooting that killed 49 to a massive suicide bombing in Baghdad that killed nearly 300 people to an Istanbul airport attack that killed 45. There was even an attack in Saudi Arabia outside one of Islam’s holiest mosques.

The situation grew so dire that the State Department urged Americans abroad to stay especially aware of such “lone wolf attacks” during Ramadan.

In counterterrorism circles, the actual power of the Islamic State — beyond small headline-grabbing violent acts — is widely debated. Many within the Muslim community note that the current perception of Ramadan as especially violent is inaccurate.

“If we see Ramadan as more violent than other parts of the year, we are falling into the trap of societal divisions — which is precisely what ISIS is shooting for,” said Ibrahim Hooper of the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations. “This violence is occurring all the time, and to pin it to ISIS and Ramadan is inaccurate.”

Some say the Islamic State’s vision of portraying Islam as “hyperviolent” is working. President Trump employed incendiary rhetoric against Muslims to gain support during last year’s campaign.

But others counter that Islam is in an undeniably violent period. They point to the number of figures that keep emerging who advocate violence.

Just last month experts noted the emergence of audio tapes calling for jihadis to “follow in the footsteps of martyrdom-seekers before you.” The tapes were made by the 28-year-old son of Osama bin Laden — Hamza — whom terrorism analysts have started to call the crown prince of al Qaeda.

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