Documents show ISIS plans sleeper cell attacks in Middle East, Europe

Islamic State - IADocuments acquired from retreating Islamic State fighters in Syria appear to show that the militant group is planning a series of high-profile attacks in Europe and the Middle East, using newly formed sleeper cell units. The information was revealed over the weekend by the British newspaper The Sunday Times. The London-based broadsheet said that the information was found last month in flash drive, which was left behind by retreating Islamic State forces in Syria, and acquired by Kurdish militia forces. The flash drive was found to contain dozens of internal documents belonging the militant group, which is also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Among them, said The Times, are several memoranda authored by an ISIS leader and operations planner known as Abu Taher al-Tajiki. In his memoranda, al-Tajiki informs the group’s senior leadership that he commands numerous fighters who are willing and able to carry out strikes “far away” from the Islamic State’s strongholds in the Middle East and Africa. He states that he is in regular communication with them and that they are awaiting instructions to “undertake the operations”. Al-Tajiki then calls for the creation of a Foreign Relations Office under the Islamic State’s Department of Operations, which would be tasked with launching attacks throughout Europe. He adds that the new Office can also count on the assistance of computer hackers and other technically literate Islamic State members. In another memorandum, al-Tajiki suggests the creation of what he calls “crocodile cells” in Syria and Iraq. These cells will “lurk beneath the surface” and “attack at the right moment to assassinate the enemies of Allah”, says al-Tajiki.

The Times report comes as experts warn that the Islamic State retains significant financial power, despite the loss of its territories in the Middle East. In a well-informed article in The Atlantic, David Kenner reports from Beirut that the Islamic State without its territories is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the group cannot rely on taxation and oil revenues that used to enrich its coffers by $1 million per day during the height of its power. On the other hand, argues Kenner, the loss of its territory has freed the Islamic State from the costs associated with state-running and allows it to devote its financial resources “exclusively to terrorist activity”. These resources —cash and other assets— are formidable, says Kenner. In the words of Howard Shatz, senior economist at the Rand Corporation and an expert on ISIS’ finances, we “don’t know where it all went” after ISIS lost its territory. We do know that much of it has been invested in “legitimate commercial enterprises”, says Shatz, with the help of profit-oriented middlemen with access to markets that are as far away as Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. A lot of it is hidden in suitcases and boxes throughout Iraq, Syria and Turkey. All of it is intended to be used to fund terrorist attacks, warns Kenner.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 25 March 2019 | Permalink

Dutch counterterrorism report sees rise in Islamist recruitment in the West

NCTV HollandHolland’s chief counterterrorism agency has warned that, despite losing its territories in the Middle East, the Islamic State continues to recruit operatives and is ready to launch attacks in the West “at a moment’s notice”. The warning is contained in a report published last week by the Dutch National Coordinator of Counterterrorism and Security (NCTV). Established in 2005 as the Dutch National Coordinator for Counterterrorism, and renamed in 2012, the NCTV works under Holland’s Justice and Security Minister. It is responsible for analyzing terrorism threats and assessing the country’s domestic terrorism threat level.

In its most recent report (.pdf), entitled Terrorist Threat Assessment Netherlands, the NCTV warns that it is not only the Islamic State (known also as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) that remains highly active, but also al-Qaeda. The two groups are riding a wave of Salafist Muslim extremism that appears to be on the rise throughout Europe, says the report. ISIS, in particular, continues to engage in extensive recruitment drives in the West, which take place mostly through the dissemination of propaganda material online. There is also a proliferation of an underground recruitment movement in conservative Muslim schools and mosques across the West, says the report (.pdf).

But the most serious short-term threat to European and North American security, according to the NCTV document, comes from so-called returnees, citizens of European countries who joined the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and are now returning —or trying to return— to their home states in the West. The majority of these men and women remain faithful to the idea of the caliphate despite the failure of their efforts in the Middle East. There is a risk that, upon their return to the West, they will connect with existing —and growing— Salafist underground networks there, and remain active in radical circles. The report also notes that both ISIS and al-Qaeda are showing increasing interest in developing chemical and biological weapons for use against civilian and military targets.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 March 2019 | Permalink

Analysis: Women becoming growing force inside Islamic State, says expert

Islamic State womenThe role of women inside the Islamic State is growing, as the Sunni militant group is transmuting into an underground organization, according to a Harvard University terrorism expert. Since its meteoric rise in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has been known for advocating for strict segregation between men and women. In the early stages of the group’s emergence, combat roles were exclusively performed by men, while women’s roles were limited to childbearing and housework. But according to Vera Mironova, Visiting Scholar in the Economics Department at Harvard University, and former Associate of the International Security Program at Harvard’s Belfer Center, the Islamic State’s policy on gender roles is shifting rapidly.

Mironova, who has carried out research in Iraq while embedded with the country’s Special Operations Forces, argues that the Islamic State has been “quietly shifting its insistence of strict gender hierarchy” and is now “allowing, even celebrating, female participation in military roles”. In an article published earlier this week in The New York Times, Mironova states that early indications of this shift were visible as early as 2017. In October of that year, ISIS publications issued calls for “women to prepare for battle”. Within a year, the group was publicly praising its women fighters and even published a video showing veiled Islamic State female fighters firing AK-47 assault rifles. The video praised women fighters for “seeking revenge for [their] religion and for the honor of [their] sisters”.

In her article, the Harvard terrorism expert says that it is not possible to estimate with accuracy the number of women who have picked up arms on behalf of the Islamic State. But she adds that interviews with Iraqi military and police officials suggest that female Islamic State fighters are now “a regular presence that no longer surprises, as it did a few years ago”. There is a tradition of fervent women supporters of the militant group that dates from its very beginning, claims Mironova. She gives the example of female radicals who insisted that their husbands or sons join the Islamic State, or who sought to marry Islamic State combatants in order to be part of “mujahedeen families”. Recently, however, the relative scarcity of male fighters in the ranks of the militant group has led to calls for females to take their place in the front lines. As the Islamic State is transmuting into an underground organization, women are also becoming more useful as covert operatives because they attract less attention by Iraqi or Syrian government troops.

In many cases, women supporters of the Islamic State who lost male family members in the ongoing war pick up arms or put on suicide vests in order to extract revenge. In other cases they do in order to secure protection, favors or money for their families from the insurgents. The fact is, says Mironova, that women fighters are becoming more prominent in the Islamic State’s combat lines and are even participating in the group’s suicide bombing campaign. The latter continues unabated in Iraq and Syria, despite the near-complete loss of the Islamic State’s territorial control, says Mironova.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 February 2019 | Permalink

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

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