Published in The TelegraphSince early 2014, at the latest, the Islamic State (IS) has been plotting terrorist attacks in Europe. There has been a tendency, including during the wave of attacks in the last month in Europe, to favour the “lone wolf” explanation for IS-claimed terrorist attacks, where the killer’s only connection to IS is to be “inspired” by their online propaganda, but in reality the institutions of the caliphate stand behind this campaign.
The infiltration of IS’s enemies for the purposes of espionage and terrorism, whether this is government-held areas of Iraq and Syria or Western Europe, is led by Amn al-Kharji, the foreign service within IS’s sophisticated intelligence apparatus, as explained in a new report by The Henry Jackson Society.
IS conceives of its foreign terrorist operations in three broad categories: (1) directed or commanded attacks, where IS operatives trained, instructed, and dispatched from the caliphate conduct operations abroad, sometimes after recruiting local agents; (2) suggested or endorsed attacks, where individuals who have fought in Syria and Iraq return with a broad outline of an attack approved by IS but minimal oversight during their plotting, or else—and more often—individuals have received approval and encouragement via contact with an Amn al-Kharji officer online or via an encrypted messaging service; and (3) inspired attacks where IS sympathisers respond to the command of IS’s leadership to conduct attacks in their country of residence.
In the final category, theoretically, one would find “lone wolves,” but even the inspired attacks have tended to occur within the context of a network—in other words, accomplices, which means by definition they are not “lone”—and most of the IS foreign attacks have fallen into categories one and two above.
Even where IS’s hand has been more indirect, this terrorism takes place within the framework of a strategic vision laid down by IS. Unlike al-Qaeda which tries to preserve its sympathisers, IS wishes to mobilise as many attacks as it can in the shortest time possible and regards its sympathisers in Europe as its “soldiers” every bit as much as those fighting on the ground for it in Syria and Iraq. Foreign terrorism was in IS’s DNA from the start as part of its state-building project, and now its networks are mature enough to bring off this mayhem.
In just the last two weeks there have been four IS-claimed terrorist attacks in Europe, two in France—the ramming attack with a truck in Nice on 14 July that massacred eighty-four people and the assault by two men on a church in Normandy that murdered a priest on 26 July—and two in Germany, an attack with a knife and a hatchet on a train in Würzburg on 18 July and a suicide bombing at a music festival in Ansbach on 24 July.
Luckily, the only fatalities in these attacks in Germany were the perpetrators. (Germany was not so lucky with a shooting rampage in Munich on 22 July and the macheteing to death of a woman in Reutlingen, which appear so far to be unrelated to Islamism.) None of these cases can be described as a “lone wolf” attack. In Nice, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel’s mass-killing on Bastille Day was made by possible by several accomplices, some of them seen on CCTV with him in the truck he used just hours before the rampage, and text messages in the same period make clear that Bouhlel had assistance packing the truck with weapons, among other things.
The would-be killers in Wurzburg (Muhammad Riyad) and Ansbach (Mohammed Daleel) and the murderers in Normandy (Adel Kermiche and Abdel Malik Petitjean) had all passed video footage of themselves swearing allegiance to IS’s caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to Amaq, IS’s “news” agency before their attacks; that IS played these videos afterward can be taken as testimony that IS approved this terrorism in advance.
So far, messages between Bouhlel and IS in advance of the Nice attack have not been found. It is crucial, however, to understand how early in the investigation France is, and how much they have already got wrong with the bias toward the “lone wolf” thesis. For example, the Interior Minister initially asserted that the Bouhlel must have “radicalised very quickly“.
It is now clear the slaughter was months in the making. Given the scale of the attack, it is also reasonable to assume greater IS resource investment in operational security and with the nature of encrypted communications, the contact between Bouhlel or his co-plotters and IS might never be found.
Even more interesting is the Ansback suicide bomber, Mohammad Daleel, who appears to have conducted a directed attack. According to IS’s newsletter al-Naba, Daleel was a long-term secret agent of IS’s, having joined the organisation in 2006 and infiltrated Europe after an injury as early as the spring of 2013.
Daleel is alleged by al-Naba to have built his bomb over three months and been in constant contact with an IS handler in Syria during this time. The level of centralised coordination from IS that has often heretofore been dismissed is of real-world importance.
The downplaying of IS’s direct role in the European attacks had deadly consequences last year when the connections between a series of plots in France were missed, and the diversion of the security forces helped open the way to the devastating 13 November 2015 attacks in Paris that struck at the Stade de France with suicide bombers, shot-up restaurants, and slaughtered concert-goers at the Bataclan, leaving 130 people dead.
Britain has understandably alerted churches in the wake of the Normandy attack, but there is little that can be done to protect soft targets in free countries without the countries ceasing to be free. And there are costs no matter how the West proceeds now.
There are measures related to immigration and integration that can help, but their rewards would not be seen for some years. Allowing jihadists to leave—putting aside the cruelty they inflict on foreign populations—allows them to train and return even more lethal.
But as Kermiche, who had twice been prevented from joining IS in Syria, showed, there are costs to preventing emigration, too. In his Ramadan speech in May, inciting this wave of attacks, IS’s spokesman Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani) said: “If the [governments] have shut the door of hijra (emigration to the caliphate) in your faces, then open the door of jihad in theirs.” Kermiche did exactly that in Normandy.
The destruction of IS’s statelet will still leave IS networks in Europe, but it would remove the training field that allows those networks to be replenished. The crucial component of this is the stabilisation of Syria that will prevent IS’s revival and achieving this requires the West to alter course and finally implement the policy as it exists on paper: the removal of the Assad regime and the formation of a representative transitional government that can unite the country against terrorism, rather than massacring civilians and all armed groups except the terrorists.
The perception—that has an increasing basis in reality—of Western complicity with the pro-regime coalition feeds straight into IS’s narrative of a global conspiracy against which only it can defend Sunnis, granting it the legitimacy it will need to recover and in the meanwhile enabling IS to mobilise foreign sympathisers for terrorist strikes in the West and beyond at an unprecedented rate.