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.

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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

Rare case of female lone-wolf dissident republican ends in conviction in N. Ireland

Christine ConnorA British court has convicted a lone-wolf female dissident Irish republican, who plotted attacks against police officers after using Facebook to lure two men into joining a fictitious militant organization. Her two male accomplices took their own lives in recent months. The rare case centers on Christine Connor, a 31-year-old resident of Northern Ireland and self-described dissident republican.

The term ‘dissident republican’ refers to secessionist militants who campaign for the union between Northern Ireland —which currently belongs to the United Kingdom— and the Republic of Ireland, which gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1922. In 1998, after a decades-long armed campaign, the majority of Irish republicans surrendered their weapons and accepted the terms of the Good Friday agreement, which outlines a peaceful resolution to the problem of Northern Ireland’s status. But some republican activists rejected the agreement and vowed to continue to use violence to achieve the union of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland. These are known as dissident republicans and typically support a number of paramilitary secessionist groups, such as the Continuity Irish Republican Army and the Real Irish Republican Army.

But Christine Connor did not belong to any of these groups. Instead, she used Facebook to create a fictitious dissident republican organization called ‘United Struggle’, and declared war on the Police Service of Northern Ireland. She then created another fictitious social media account using the image of Sanne Alexandra Andersson, a Swedish model and fashion personality. Connor then used her fake online persona to lure two men into joining the militant organization that she claimed to lead. One of them was Stuart Downes, an Englishman from the town of Shrewsbury, near the Welsh-English border. She convinced him to build explosive devices, which the police described as “sophisticated, fully functioning bombs”. In May of 2003, Connor used the devices in an unsuccessful attempt to kill two police officers in north Belfast.

The lone-wolf militant used her fake social media accounts to lure another man, an American called Zachary Gelvinger, into joining ‘United Struggle’. Gelvinger, who sent hundreds of dollars to Connor’s organization, had his home searched by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and was arrested in the United Kingdom while attempting to visit Connor in prison, in July of 2013. Downes, the Englishman, was arrested by police in Shrewsbury shortly after making a phone call from a public phone box to claim responsibility on behalf of ‘United Struggle’ for Connor’s failed attempt to kill the police officers in Belfast. Tragically, Downes killed himself in June of 2016. Gelvinger, the American member of ‘United Struggle’, killed himself in May of this year.

Remarkably, neither of the two men had any connection to Northern Ireland or any previous involvement in republican politics in or out of the United Kingdom. Last month, Connor pleaded guilty to a score of offenses, including terrorism. Last Tuesday, she was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 22 June 2017 | Permalink

Opinion: Trump’s silence over Tehran attacks exposes US policy conundrums

IranThe security map of the Middle East changed within a few hours on Wednesday, when the Islamic State managed to strike Iran for the first time. Six assailants —five men and a woman— stormed the Islamic Consultative Assembly, which serves as the parliament of Iran, and the mausoleum of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini. By the time they killed themselves, or were killed by security forces, the six had murdered 12 people and injured over 60. The Islamic State, which carried out the attack, had warned for several months that it would launch a direct assault at the heart of the world’s largest Shiite state. It tried to do so before, several times, and failed. But Wednesday’s attack was the first time it managed to do so successfully.

It is certainly ironic that Iran, one of the world’s most prolific sponsors of terrorism, boasts of being one of the most terrorism-free countries in the Middle East. Indeed, Wednesday’s bloody strike was the largest terrorist attack in Tehran’s history after the early years of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. It is a remarkable record that many of Iran’s neighbors, such as Iraq or Syria, can only dream of. Moreover, Iran’s claim that its regional rival Saudi Arabia is responsible for Wednesday’s attack is both outlandish and absurd. It is true that militant Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia’s state religion, is at the root of the Islamic State’s doctrine. But the fanatics of the Islamic State direct as much ire against Saudi Arabia as they do against Iran. They accuse the former of being apostates —Muslim traitors who side with infidels— and the latter of being heretics that must be annihilated. Read more of this post

Islamic State faces imminent financial collapse, claims new study

ISIS meetingThe Islamic State is facing imminent financial collapse, according to a new study conducted by a London-based research group in association with one of the world’s leading international accounting firms. The recently launched report is entitled Caliphate in Decline: An Estimate of Islamic State’s Financial Fortunes. The analysis that forms the basis of the report was conducted by scholars at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization, a research center that operates out of the Department of War Studies at King’s College in London. The report’s authors were joined by financial analysts at Ernst & Young, a British-based company that is often referred to as one of the world’s ‘big four’ accounting firms.

The report challenges the widely accepted claim that the Islamic State is the wealthiest terrorist organization in history. Its authors argue that the organization’s wealth is connected to its function as “a quasi-state”, with a geographical territory under its control and a subject population that lives in it. Territorial control, say the report’s authors, allows the Islamic State to amass significant revenue from sources like direct and indirect taxation, extraction of natural resources, and confiscation of property from citizens, among others. Even though much of the Islamic State’s financial activity is hidden, the study uses open sources to make the claim that the group’s income in 2014 was close to $2 billion. Last year, however, the overall income amassed from all sources dropped to less than $900 million, an estimated reduction of 45 percent, say the researchers.

The reason for the drop is that the financial revenue model of the Islamic State is directly linked to its territorial control. In comparison to the peak of its power in the spring of 2014, the Islamic State has today lost control of over 60 percent of its territory in Iraq and nearly a third of its territory in neighboring Syria. As coalition forces are beginning to retake Mosul, the Islamic State is facing the potential loss of the caliphate’s commercial capital. These developments will continue to seriously erode the group’s tax base and severely limit its revenue streams. There are no signs, say the researchers, that the Islamic State has been able to devise new forms of revenue streams that are not connected to direct territorial control. However, the authors of the study warn that a potential financial collapse of the Islamic State will not prevent the organization from carrying out terrorist activities in the Middle East and beyond.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 March 2017 | Permalink

German security agencies had watched Berlin market attacker for a year

Berlin Christmas market attackThe central suspect in the Berlin Christmas market attack had been on the radar of German security agencies since January of this year, because he had links with radical Islamists and sought to buy guns for a terrorist attack. Anis Amiri, 23, left his native Tunisia in 2011, soon after the outbreak of the so-called Arab Spring there. He lived in Italy for three years before arriving in Germany in July 2015. In April of this year, he applied for an asylum in Germany. According to German authorities, Amiri was arrested multiple times in Tunisia for drug-related offenses. He is also believed to have used at least six different aliases since moving to Europe, and to have claimed to be a citizen of Lebanon and Egypt at different times.

On Wednesday, German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung revealed that Amiri’s cell phone and email accounts had been monitored by German security agencies at least since January of this year. The decision to monitor his telecommunications was reportedly taken by officials at Germany’s Center for Terrorism Defense (GTAZ). The agency functions as a fusion center for intelligence cooperation between German police and spy services. The newspaper said that Amiri was deemed suspicious because of his connections with several radical Islamists, who were arrested in Germany in recent months. They include Abu Walaa, a vocal supporter of the Islamic State who was captured in Northern Germany in November. According to anonymous German officials, Amiri had also told friends that he was seeking people to help him purchase weapons and use them to carry out attacks on civilians in Europe.

Last summer, Amiri was involved in a scuffle between rival drug gangs in Berlin, in which at least one knife was used. But he disappeared for several weeks when police tried to question him about it. He was eventually arrested and questioned by police in Berlin. It was discovered that, according to one German official, Amiri “was highly mobile”, moving between Berlin and northern Germany every few weeks. But, according to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, German authorities did not have enough evidence against him to keep him in detention. Shortly after Amiri’s arrest and subsequent release, German authorities decided to turn down his application for asylum due to security concerns. He was due to be deported from Germany before December 31. The German police is now offering up to €100,000 for Amiri’s capture.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 22 December 2016 | Permalink