Barcelona on high alert after US State Department terrorism warning

Las Ramblas BarcelonaPolice in Barcelona have intensified security checks in some of the Spanish city’s most recognizable landmarks, following a security warning from the United States Department of State. The surprise warning came in the form of a post on the popular social networking site Twitter on Sunday, December 23. In the tweet, the Department of State advised travelers to “exercise heightened caution around areas of vehicle movement, including buses”. It added that terrorists could “attack with little or no warning, targeting tourist locations, transportation hubs, and other public areas”. It is rare for the Department of State to issue warnings for specific locations, unless the US government is in possession of critical intelligence pointing to the possibility of a terrorist attack.

Hours after the Department of State’s warning, Miquel Buch, Minister of the Interior for Spain’s Catalonia region, told a radio station in Barcelona that local authorities were “engaged in assessing the warning” by the US authorities. Local media reported that increased police presence was visible around bus, minibus, train and metro stations throughout the Catalonian capital. Heavily armed police presence was also notable in Barcelona’s most popular tourist landmarks, including the Sagrada Familia Cathedral, the Gothic Quarter, and the mile-long Las Ramblas pedestrian Boulevard at the city’s center. There was no information about the precise nature of the US warning, but there were reports in Catalonian media on Tuesday that the alert notice involved the possibility of a vehicular attack by Islamists during the Christmas holiday season.

In August of 2017, Younes Abouyaaqoub, a 22-year-old Moroccan-born Islamist drove a van into large crowds of tourists at Las Ramblas, killing 14 and injuring nearly 150 people. Abouyaaqoub’s attack was followed by another assault by five men in Cambrils, a small seaside town south of Barcelona, who drove a car into a crowd of pedestrians, killing one and injuring six more. All six men were members of the Islamic State. They were shot and killed by police and security forces.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 26 December 2018 | Permalink

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Analysis: Strasbourg attack raises serious security concerns in Europe

StrasbourgThe terrorist attack in the French city of Strasbourg on December 11 raises important security concerns for Europe’s ability to defend itself against a rapidly evolving Islamist insurgency. The attack lasted 10 minutes, from 7:50 to 8:00 p.m. on Tuesday evening, and targeted shoppers in Christkindelsmärik, a large Christmas market held annually in Strasbourg. The lone shooter, who has since been identified as Chérif Chekatt, a French citizen, was reportedly heard shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) repeatedly as he opened fire on the unsuspecting shoppers. He also tried to stab some of them using a knife. Chekatt eventually exchanged fire with French soldiers and officers of the National Police before fleeing the scene of the attack in a taxi cab. Three people were declared dead at the scene, while 12 others were urgently transported to nearby hospitals. Six of them remain in critical condition. Chekatt remained at large until Thursday evening, when he was shot dead by police in Strasbourg.

It is important to stress that the choice of Strasbourg as the site of the terrorist strike was not accidental, nor was the attack spontaneous. A city and of nearly 500,000 inhabitants in its greater district, Strasbourg is one of the European Union’s de facto capitals. It hosts several European institutions, including the building of the European Parliament. Its geographical location on the French-German border epitomizes the crossroads of Franco-German cultural traditions. Its distinct character symbolizes the coexistence of Europe’s two leading powers, which forms the cornerstone of the European Union project. The majority of Strasbourg’s residents are bilingual and communicate in Alsacien, a peculiar mixture of French and German. The city also exemplifies a distinctive brand of 21st-century Christian unity through the balanced coexistence of Catholic and Protestant religious cultures. The Christkindelsmärik —the venue that was attacked on Tuesday— is Europe’s largest Christmas market and symbolizes precisely that coexistence. Providing that Tuesday’s attack was sanctioned and/or planned by the Islamic State or one of its affiliate organizations, its strong symbolism is apparent.

As Washington Examiner commentator Tom Rogan noted on Wednesday, it appears that the perpetrator of the attack was able to acquire a semi-automatic weapon, as well as grenades. Unlike the United States, accessing these types of weapons in Western Europe is exceedingly difficult. This is so especially in France, a country that has remained in a perpetual state of heightened security since the Paris attacks of November 2015. It is even more perplexing that Chekatt was able to acquire this type of weaponry, given that his name featured on the terrorism watch lists of France’s security and intelligence services. Additionally, says Rogan, one of the operational trademarks of the Islamic State centers on adhering to a sharp division between its arms procurement networks and the individuals who carry out terrorist attacks. This means that a wider Islamist network in France, Switzerland or Germany, was able to armed and possibly trained Chekatt in Europe, since the attacker is not believed to have visited the Middle East or North Africa.

Rogan also points out that Chekatt —a French-born 29-year-old petty criminal— was radicalized while serving time in prison. This raises important questions about Salafist-Jihadi radicalization networks inside Western European prison systems. The security implications of this realization inevitably widens the security considerations of Europe’s counterterrorism agencies. The latter have so far focused primarily on the danger posed by the return of European Islamic State volunteers from the Middle East. The problem, however, appears to be more complicated.

Ultimately, the Strasbourg attack demonstrates that, despite several years of concerted efforts, the ability of European counterterrorism agencies to prevent strikes by Islamist groups on European soil is limited. Meanwhile, European streets are busy during the Christmas season, with indoor and outdoor markets and festivals, concerts, as well as a host of religious observances taking place in thousands of different locations across the continent. Should Tuesday’s attack in Strasbourg mark the beginning of a sustained terrorism campaign by the Islamic State, December could prove to be a deadly month in Europe.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 December 2018 | Permalink

Four times more Sunni Islamist militants today than on 9/11, study finds

Al-Qaeda in YemenThere are four times as many Sunni Islamist militants today in the world than on September 11, 2001, despite an almost 20 year-long war campaign by the United States and its allies, according to a new report. Washington launched the ‘global war on terrorism’ in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks that were perpetrated by al-Qaeda. In the ensuing years, American and other Western troops have engaged militarily in over a dozen countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, and the Philippines. But a new study by the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) suggests that the West’s efforts to combat Sunni militancy are failing —and may even be making the problem worse. The report by the Washington-based think-tank states that the number of active Sunni Islamist militants today is as much as “270 percent greater than in 2001, when the 9/11 attacks occurred”.

Entitled “The Evolution of the Salafi-Jihadist Threat”, the 71-page report is one of the most extensive ever undertaken on this topic, drawing on information from data sets that date back nearly 40 years. It warns that, despite the rapid loss of territory suffered by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, armed Sunni militancy is “far from defeated”. The number of Salafi-jihadists —active proponents of armed fight against perceived enemies of Islam— has slightly declined in comparison to 2016, but it remains at near-peak levels over a 38-year period, says the CSIS report. It estimates that there are today as many as 230,000 Salafi-jihadists in almost 70 countries. Most of them are based in Syria (as many as 70,500), Afghanistan (as many as 64,000), Pakistan (up to 40,000), and Iraq (up to 15,000). Nearly 30,000 more are in Africa, primarily in Somalia, Nigeria and the Sahel region.

These fighters, and the groups they fight under, are far more resilient than Western antiterrorist strategists tend to assume, claims the report. They are also inadvertently aided by successive policy failures by the US and its closest Western allies. The latter focus primarily on the military aspects of counterterrorism campaigns, while ignoring the importance of improving local governance in territories where Sunni Islamism is rife, argues the report. Therefore, as the US and its allies continue to engage “in a seemingly endless [military] confrontation with a metastasizing set of militant groups”, they face seemingly endless waves of militants, who are becoming increasingly capable of resisting Western conventional military force. The report is available online in .pdf form, here.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 November 2018 | Permalink

ISIS using Turkey as strategic base to reorganize, Dutch intelligence report says

Turkey ISISIslamic State cells are using Turkey as a strategic base in which to recuperate, rebuild, and plan an underground war in Europe, according to a new report by Dutch intelligence. This assessment is featured in a report published on Monday by Holland’s General Intelligence and Security Service, known as AIVD. The document, which is available in the Dutch language on the website of the AIVD, is entitled The Legacy of Syria: Global Jihadism Remains a Threat to Europe.

The 22-page report argues that the government of Turkey does not see Sunni Islamist groups, such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS), as a pressing national security threat. Instead, Turkish security services are far more concerned with the ethnic Kurdish insurgents of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria. Therefore, although Turkish authorities do sometimes take action to combat al-Qaeda and ISIS, “Turkish interests do not always correspond with European priorities on the field of counter-terrorism”, says the report. For that reason, Turkey served as a large transit center of tens of thousands of foreign fighters who poured into Syria to fight for Sunni Islamist groups during the height of the Syrian Civil War. At least 4,000 of those fighters are believed to be Turkish citizens, according to the AIVD report.

Today Turkey is home to tens of thousands of sympathizers of both al-Qaeda and ISIS —two organizations that maintain an active presence throughout the country— claims the report. The hands-off approach of the Turkish government is giving these groups “enough breathing space and freedom of movement” to operate relatively freely on Turkish soil. Additionally, al-Qaeda and ISIS members exploit the relative peace and stability of Turkey to forge plans to attack Western target, claims the AIVD report. It is from Turkey, it argues, that the Islamic State plans to shape and direct its pending underground war on the European continent.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 November 2018 | Permalink

Indian intelligence infiltrated Islamic State in ‘unprecedented operation’

New Dehli IndiaA joint Indian-American counterintelligence operation, described as “unprecedented in its scale and scope”, reportedly foiled a major suicide attack by the Islamic State in New Delhi and helped achieve “a string of victories” against the group in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Citing “top diplomatic and intelligence sources”, the New Delhi-based daily The Indian Express said that the “audacious” operation took place a year ago, but details about it were only made available to its reporters in recent days.

The paper said that the operation lasted 18 months and involved the systematic surveillance of numerous suspects in Dubai, New Delhi and several cities in Afghanistan. It also involved substantial intelligence-sharing between Indian and American security agencies, as well as constant intelligence-gathering by as many as 80 Indian physical-surveillance experts. Intelligence gathered from physical surveillance was reportedly combined with information collected through telephone intercepts. Eventually it became clear that the Islamic State had recruited and trained 12 suicide bombers across several secret camps in Pakistan. The recruits were tasked with carrying out suicide bomb attacks throughout Pakistan, Afghanistan and India.

One such recruit, the 25-year-old “son of a wealthy [Afghan] businessman”, had been sent by the Islamic State to New Delhi to carry out his deadly mission. In order to escape the attention of the authorities, he had enrolled in a private engineering college in New Delhi. But he was arrested by Indian intelligence and quickly transported to Afghanistan, where he was interrogated by American officers. According to The Indian Express, intelligence gathered from these interrogations helped the United States-led coalition in Afghanistan achieve “a string of successes” against former Taliban forces aligned with the Islamic State. The Afghan would-be suicide bomber remains in Afghanistan under US custody, according to the paper.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 July 2018 | Permalink

Germany arrests Tunisian man for producing biological weapon in his apartment

Ricin investigation GermanyGerman authorities have charged a Tunisian citizen with building a biological weapon, after finding significant quantities of the highly toxic substance ricin in his apartment. The 29-year-old man is referred to in public reports only as “Sief Allah H.”, in compliance with German law that forbids the naming of suspects until they are found guilty in court. German officials said last Thursday that the man remains in custody and has been charged with violating Germany’s War Weapons Control Act (known as Kriegswaffenkontrollgesetz) and “preparing a serious act of violence against the state”.

According to reports, German intelligence services received a tip-off last month that the man had made online purchases of a coffee grinder and 1,000 castor seeds. Processing castor seeds creates a ricin byproduct, which can then be weaponized in the form of a powder, a fine mist, or solid pellets of various sizes. The end product is more powerful than many other toxic substances, such as cyanide. Upon entering the human body, ricin can cause multiple organ failure in less than two days. It has no known antidote.

After receiving the tip-off, German authorities began monitoring the suspect’s movements in the western German city of Cologne, near the Belgian and Dutch borders. By June, German police discovered that he had produced enough ricin to dispense as many as 1,000 lethal doses.

German media reported that “Sief Allah H.” is a sympathizer of the Islamic State. However, investigators have found no direct link between him and any militant organizations in Germany or abroad. Additionally, no evidence has yet been presented that he had planned an actual attack —in Germany or elsewhere— at a specific time. However, officials from Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution said it was “very likely” that the arrest of “Sief Allah H.” had averted a terrorist attack. Late last week, German newsmagazine Der Spiegel said that the suspect had made ricin by following instructions posted online by the Islamic State.

Throughout the weekend, several other apartments in Cologne were searched by German authorities. Search parties consisted of members of the local police, intelligence officers and scientists from the Robert Koch Institute, the German government agency tasked with monitoring hazards to public health.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 June 2018 | Research Credit: S.F. | Permalink

US airport screenings failed to detect 70% of hidden weapons in tests

TSA screeningAttempts by undercover investigators to smuggle weapons, explosives and contraband aboard American passenger flights were successful between 70 and 80 percent of the time in the past year, according to reports. The results of the investigations were revealed in Congress behind closed doors on Wednesday of last week, prompting lawmakers to severely criticize the United States Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The TSA was founded in November 2001 in direct response to the tragic events of September 11 of that year. It is primarily concerned with air travel and is responsible for ensuring the safety of the traveling public across the US.

The TSA’s security systems in airports across America are regularly tested by undercover investigators, who are hired to examine and assess the effectiveness of these systems. Last week, several US news media reported that the latest round of tests showed that undercover investigators were more often than not able to sneak dangerous items onboard civilian aircraft. Smuggled items allegedly included guns, explosives and knives, which could be used to carry out hijackings similar to those that brought down four commercial airliners in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001. The precise rate of success of the recent tests has not been confirmed, because it has not been released to the public. ABC News said that the rate was close to 80 percent, while CBS reported that it was closer to 70 percent.

Remarkably, similar tests conducted in 2015 were successful 95 percent of the time, meaning that the TSA did considerably better in this year’s tests, despite its abysmally low rate of detection. On Wednesday, members of the US House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security expressed serious concerns about the TSA’s lack of success. They aired their criticisms in the presence of Vice Admiral Peter Pekoske (ret.) who currently serves as the TSA’s Administrator. Some members of the committee also criticized the insistence of the White House on building a border wall instead of investing in air travel security. On Thursday, the TSA released a statement saying it took the results of the recent tests “very seriously” and that it was already taking active measures to “improve screening effectiveness at [airport] checkpoints” across America.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 13 November 2017 | Permalink | Research credit: C.F.