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 remains at large.

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

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France freezes assets of Iranian spies in response to foiled terror attack in Paris

French Ministry for the EconomyFrance has seized the financial assets of two Iranian spies and frozen all assets belonging to the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence, in response to a foiled bomb attack in Paris, which the French government has blamed on Tehran. The alleged bomb attack was uncovered on June 30 of this year, when members of Belgium’s Special Forces Group arrested a married Belgian couple of Iranian descent in Brussels. The couple were found to be carrying explosives and a detonator. On the following day, German police arrested an Iranian diplomat stationed in Iran’s embassy in Vienna, Austria, while another Iranian man was arrested by authorities in France, reportedly in connection with the three other arrests.

All four individuals were charged with a foiled plot to bomb the annual conference of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) that took place on June 30 in Paris. The NCRI is led by Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a militant group with roots in radical Islam and Marxism. The MEK was designated as a terrorist group by the European Union and the United States until 2009 and 2012 respectively. But it has since been reinstated in both Brussels and Washington, reportedly because it provides the West with a vehicle to subvert the Iranian government. France, Germany and Belgium allege that the aborted bombing plot was an attempt by Iran to disrupt the close relations between the MEK and Western governments.

On Tuesday, Paris announced the seizure of assets of two of the men who were arrested in June and July. One is an accredited Iranian diplomat identified as Assadollah Asadi, who is believed to be an official-cover intelligence officer. The other man is Saeid Hashemi Moghadam, who was arrested by French authorities. He is believed to be an Iranian sleeper agent. All assets belonging to the Islamic Republic’s Ministry of Intelligence were also been frozen, effective immediately, it was announced. In a joint statement, the French ministers of foreign affairs, economics and the interior said that the move reflected the France’s “commitment to fight terrorism, in all its manifestations […], especially on its territory”. The statement added that “the extremely heinous act envisaged on our territory could not go without a response”.

The Iranian government has denied all connection to the alleged plot in Paris and has dismissed the incident a “false flag” operation staged by MEK in cooperation with Tehran’s “enemies at home and abroad”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 October 2018 | Permalink

Radioactive device goes missing in Malaysia, prompting security fears

Malaysia’s Atomic Energy Licensing BoardA highly radioactive device used by an energy company has gone missing in Malaysia, sparking a nationwide emergency for fear that it might have been stolen by a militant group. According to Malaysia’s Straits Times newspaper, a radioactive dispersal device (RDD), which is used for the industrial radiography of oil and gas supplies, disappeared during transit on August 10. The device, which weighs approximately 50 pounds, or 23 kilograms, disappeared from the back of a company truck in the early hours of the morning while it was being transported by two technicians. They were reportedly transporting the RDD from Kuala Lumpur to Seremban, an industrial town with a population of approximately 600,000, located 40 miles south of the Malaysian capital.

The technicians told the police that they placed the RDD onto the back of a company truck for the routine transport, at approximately 2:00 a.m. Upon arriving in Seremban at 3:00 a.m. that night, they realized that the device had “simply disappeared” from the truck. The Straits Times said that both men were immediately arrested, but were released last Friday, August 17, after the authorities determined that they were not implicated in sabotaging or stealing the radioactive device. On Monday, August 20, the Reuters news agency contacted Mazlan Mansor, police chief of Selangor, the federal province that includes both Kuala Lumpur and Seremban. He told the news agency that “yes, there is a report and we are investigating”. However, he refused to elaborate on the missing RDD, according to Reuters.

A major question regarding the missing device concerns the amount of iridium that is inside it. Iridium is a radioactive substance that is used for the non-destructive testing (known as industrial radiography) of oil and gas supplies. Some experts have expressed concerns that the radioactive substance inside the missing RDD could be combined with conventional explosives and be used as a ‘dirty bomb’ in order to contaminate a highly populated area with radiation. The New Straits Times quoted an unnamed official at Malaysia’s Atomic Energy Licensing Board as saying that the RDD “cannot fall into the wrong hands, as the consequences can be deadly”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 July 2018 | Research credit: A.G.B. | Permalink

Man who attended Charlottesville far-right rally tried to derail passenger train

Amtrak trainA man who attended the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, with members of a neo-Nazi organization, has been charged with terrorism offences after he tried to derail a passenger train. Taylor M. Wilson, of St. Charles, Missouri, was arrested by federal law enforcement officials on October 22, after he attempted to sabotage a passenger train with 175 people aboard in rural Nebraska. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Wilson entered the train’s engine room and pulled the emergency brakes, thus bringing the train to a sudden halt. He was eventually subdued by a train conductor and other railway employees, who successfully prevented him from reaching for a loaded revolver that he had with him. Following his arrest, police found in his backpack a box of ammunition, a knife, a hammer, and a full-face respirator mask with a filter.

Now the FBI says that Wilson boarded the train intent on carrying out a terrorist assault, and that he pulled the train’s breaks “with intent to harm those aboard”. In court documents that were unsealed last week, FBI agents state that a search of Wilson’s property in Missouri uncovered a large weapons cache consisting of fifteen firearms, some of which were automatic. Nearly 1,000 rounds of ammunition were also confiscated from Wilson’s house, where federal officers also found literature published by American white supremacist organizations like the National Socialist Movement. According to the indictment, some of the weapons and white nationalist literature had been hidden inside a concealed compartment located behind a refrigerator unit.

It appears that Wilson obtained most of his firearms legally and that he had been issued a concealed carry permit. However, the FBI claims that Wilson’s firearms “have been used for, or obtained in anticipation of engaging in, or planning to engage in, criminal offenses against the United States”. In addition to this claim, the FBI indictment states that Wilson traveled to Charlottesville, Virginia, in August of last year to attend the “Unite the Right” rally, which was organized by various white supremacist, white nationalist, neo-Nazi and militia groups. The FBI says that it has statements from Wilson’s associates and at least one family member, who claim that the accused traveled to Charlottesville as part of a contingent of a neo-Nazi group.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 08 January 2018 | Permalink

Analysis: Despite tragic deaths, New York attack reveals a weakened ISIS

Lower Manhattan attackNews reports hastened to describe Tuesday’s atrocity in Lower Manhattan as “the worst terror attack in New York since September 11, 2001”. The comparison may be numerically accurate. Moreover, the deaths caused by the attack are nothing short of tragic. But if the Islamic State’s deadliest response to its retreat in the Middle East is a clumsy truck driver armed with a pellet gun, then Americans have little to fear from the terrorist group.

For months now, Western counter-terrorism experts have been bracing for a change of tactics by the Sunni group, which in 2014 controlled territory in Iraq and Syria equal to the size of England. The prevailing theory in security circles is that, as the Islamic State is forced to retreat in the Middle East, it will unleash waves of sleeper cells against Western targets abroad. This concern is logical, given the militant group’s obsession with its public image. At every turn since its dramatic rise in 2013, the Islamic State has consciously tried to project an appearance of strength that is far greater than its actual capabilities. In its public statements, the group has consistently extolled its ability to strike at distant targets regardless of its territorial strength in the Middle East. This applies especially to attacks by the Islamic State in Europe, which have tended to come in response to intense media speculation that the group’s territorial hold may be weakening.

One presumes that a terrorist attack in New York, a symbolic site in the ‘war on terrorism’, would aim to do just that: namely project an image of continuing strength and convince global audiences that the group remains potent. Yet, despite the tragic loss of eight lives, Tuesday’s attack in Manhattan did nothing of the sort.

To begin with, an attack on cyclists with a rented utility vehicle is hardly ground-breaking at this point. In the past 18 months, we have seen similar types of attacks in London (on two separate occasions), in Barcelona’s Las Ramblas mall, in downtown Berlin, and in Nice, where a 19-ton cargo truck was used to kill 86 people. Terrorist groups are by nature conservative in their operations, preferring to use low-tech, time-tested methods to dispense violence, rather than risk failure by breaking new ground. But at a time like this, when the very existence of the Islamic State hangs in the balance, one would think that the group would consciously try to intimidate its opponents by showing off some kind of revolutionary new weapon. That did not happen on Tuesday.

Additionally, the perpetrator of the attack, Uzbek immigrant Sayfullo Saipov, is hardly an inspiring figure for Islamic State supporters. After running over a group of unsuspecting cyclists, the 29-year-old Florida resident clumsily smashed his rented truck head-on into a vehicle that was far larger and heavier than his own, thus completely destroying his vehicle’s engine and effectively disabling his only weapon. He then jumped out of the truck, apparently wielding a pellet gun and a paintball gun. Mobile phone footage captured from a nearby building shows Saipov walking in a disoriented manner through Manhattan traffic before being shot by police officers. If —as it seems— the Islamic State was behind that attack, it would mean that modern history’s most formidable terrorist group failed to get a pistol in a country where firearms are in some cases easier to secure than nasal decongestant.

Choice of weapon aside, one does not need to be a counter-terrorism expert to conclude that Saipov lacked basic operational and planning skills. His attack behavior shows that he had failed to carry out even rudimentary prior reconnaissance of the area where he launched his attack. He even appears to have failed to read Tuesday’s New York Post. Had he done so, he would have known that the heavily attended annual Village Halloween Parade was scheduled to take place on the very same street, just two hours after he launched his deranged attack.

Once again, the question is: if the Islamic State does not utilize its deadliest and most capable operatives now, when its very existence in its Middle Eastern stronghold is being directly challenged, then when will it do so? By all accounts, the militant group’s leaders are well-read on recent history. They are therefore fully aware that, in the post-9/11 age, clumsy, low-tech, limited terrorist strikes by lone-wolf operatives lack the capacity to intimidate civilian populations, especially in New York.

Western counter-terrorism agencies and citizens alike should remain vigilant; but early evidence shows that the Islamic State is simply too weak to launch sophisticated, large-scale strikes against Western targets abroad. As I have argued before, the threat level would change if the militant group acquires chemical weapons or other tools of mass terrorism. For now, however, it is safe to state that the Islamic State’s capabilities do not pose anything close to an existential threat to the West.

► About the author: Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis is Associate Professor in the Intelligence and National Security Studies program at Coastal Carolina University. Before joining Coastal, Dr. Fitsanakis built the Security and Intelligence Studies program at King University, where he also directed the King Institute for Security and Intelligence Studies. He is also deputy director of the European Intelligence Academy and senior editor at intelNews.org.

CIA warned Barcelona police two months ago about possible Islamist attack

BarcelonaThe United States Central Intelligence Agency recently warned Spanish authorities that the Islamic State planned to attack Barcelona, according to Spanish media. The disclosure follows Thursday’s dramatic events in the Catalan capital, where a white van deliberately drove into a crowd in the pedestrian mall of La Rambla, killing at least 16 people and injuring more than 100. The attack was followed by reports early on Friday that Catalan police had shot dead four suspects who were planning a second strike.

In the hours following the attack, several observers noted that Barcelona was always an obvious target for the Islamic State, given that the group had already perpetrated terrorist attacks in Berlin, London, Paris and Brussels. They also raised questions about the low level of police presence and the absence of anti-vehicle barrier systems in Barcelona —one of Europe’s busiest tourist destinations. Late on Thursday, the Catalan newspaper El Periódico reported that, two months ago, the CIA alerted the Mossos d’Esquadra, the autonomous police and security service of Catalonia, of a possible terrorist attack by the Islamic State. According to the Barcelona-based daily, the CIA even mentioned La Rambla as the main target of Islamist militants.

Even before the CIA issued its warning, the Islamic State had directed several threats against Spain since 2014, when the group first appeared in Syria. As El Periódico said, the group’s followers “consider themselves obligated to re-establish Islam” in areas that were ruled by Muslim leaders in the past. For much of the medieval period, Spain and Portugal were known as Al-Andalus, and were ruled by a succession of Muslim caliphs. The Spanish daily also reported that a Twitter account associated with the Islamic State issued several warnings against Spain two weeks ago. Specifically, on July 30, the account twitted a series of messages that read: “We will implement the caliphate in Spain and will recover our land. Impending attack on Al-Andalus, God willing”. Similar threats had been issued a year ago on social media, but were later disregarded after they failed to materialize, said El Periódico.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 August 2017 | Permalink

Russian spy services raid bomb lab in Moscow, foil large-scale suicide plot

ISIS RussiaRussian intelligence services say they have foiled a large-scale bomb plot, after raiding an explosives laboratory belonging to the Islamic State and arresting four suspects. The four men were allegedly planning to target the Moscow Metro transit system and a busy shopping center in the Russian capital. In a statement released to the media this morning, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) did not specify the intended targets of the plotters. But it said it had arrested four people during an early morning raid at an explosives laboratory located in the Moscow suburbs. The FSB said that its officers confiscated large quantities of peroxide-based explosives that resemble the material used by the Islamic State in the November 2015 attacks in Paris, the March 2016 attacks in Brussels, and last May’s suicide bombing in Manchester.

One of the men arrested has been named by the FSB as Akbarzhon A. Dzhalilov, 22, a Kyrghyz-born Russian citizen. The other three men, who have not yet been named, are all from former Soviet Republics of Central Asia. Russian media reported that the Moscow cell was being commanded and directed by the Islamic State in Syria. Two Russian-speaking men from the Russian Caucasus, who are located in Syria, are thought to have been handling the cell’s activities. Russian intelligence services estimate that at least 2,500 Russian citizens have move to the Middle East to join jihadist groups in the past three years.

Had it been carried out, the attack would have been added to a growing list of terrorist incidents against Russia since 2015, which are related to the Kremlin’s decision to enter the Syrian Civil War. In October of that year, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the bombing of Metrojet Flight 9268, a chartered commercial flight operated by Russian company Kogalymavia. The chartered airliner went down over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, killing all 217 passengers and crew on board —the worst disaster in Russian aviation history. In November of 2016, the FSB reportedly foiled another attack by five members of the Islamic State in Moscow. In February of this year, a seven-member Islamic State cell was busted in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, while it was planning attacks in several metropolitan areas, including Moscow and St. Petersburg. In April, the North Caucasus-based Imam Shamil Battalion claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in the St. Petersburg Metro transit system, which killed 15 train passengers. The group, whose existence was unknown before the St. Petersburgh attack, said it supported al-Qaeda and perpetrated the attack in retaliation for Moscow’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 14 August 2017 | Permalink