Even as ISIS loses ground in Syria and Iraq, its jihadists are bringing the war to Europe's capitals in minutely planned terror attacks. It is a scenario driven by a new kind of criminal profile.
BERLIN — A dangerous game of hide and seek between ISIS and European intelligence and security agencies has begun, and the latter have so far been foiled. More than 160 dead and over 700 wounded in ISIS terror attacks in Europe since Nov. 13. The jihadists have quite successfully brought scenes of war to the democratic cities of the Old Continent.
The terror attacks were not only planned long in advance but had also been announced to the world. European intelligence services hadn't been very concerned when ISIS started its lethal campaign in Syria and Iraq more than two years ago. Its agenda was confined to "regional â€¦ conquest of more territory," to "gain more area in which to exert their influence." Al-Qaeda, so intelligence officials surmised, was still a much more dangerous and better organized adversary than ISIS.
But this turned out to be wishful thinking. ISIS has in fact recruited thousands of fighters from the West and trained them in their camps, taught them how to assemble bombs, handle assault rifles and how to apply commando tactics. They successfully established sleeper cells across Europe with attendant logistics and helpers on stand-by. They have created a terrorist infrastructure that now enables them to attack, and ruthlessly so. And the timing isn't arbitrary either.
"The so-called Islamic State's position in Syria and Iraq has been weakened," Holger Münch, president of the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), said this week. "This puts the terrorist group under pressure and necessitates spectacular terrorist attacks to gain attention and demonstrate power."
ISIS has indeed lost up to 40% of its territory in Iraq and nearly 20% in Syria. More than 10,000 of its troops have been killed, according to U.S. officials. All of this has delivered a moral blow within the terror group, ISIS deserters say.
A year ago, it wanted to conquer the world, and now its finds itself on the defensive. Palmyra was retaken by government forces on Saturday, and Raqqa will be next. But while it may be losing ground in the Middle East, it is still very much capable of executing terror attacks in the West, probably more so now than ever before. The U.S. magazine Foreign Policy wrote a few days ago that "a wounded ISIS is a dangerous ISIS."
Criminals come trained
The professional style of ISIS with regard to its attack planning, logistics and number of supporters within Europe has taken investigators by surprise. Up until now, they presumed that the jihadists were making use of individual terrorists, the "lone wolf" strategy. ISIS propaganda has always called for such amateur attacks to kill so-called infidels. The planning of such attacks "should not be too complicated," according to ISIS propaganda magazine Dabiq. Otherwise, they may fail or be discovered prematurely.
But as has been demonstrated recently, the planning of terror has become sophisticated. The group has mostly recruited French and Belgian nationals, some of whom were issued fake Syrian passports and then smuggled into Europe disguised as refugees — something else the intelligence services didn't anticipate.
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Suspects in the Brussels airport attack
But what truly worries European intelligence services isn't the advanced competency in planning but also the emergence of a new terrorist profile. Analyzing the Belgian-French terrorist cells demonstrates that many of the jihadists are already criminals, young men who came into conflict with the law starting at an early age.
Examples include the brothers Khalid und Ibrahim El Bakraoui, who launched suicide attacks in Brussels, at the airport and on the subway, respectively. Both had been in court several times and even received long prison sentences. Khalid had robbed a currency exchange office and attacked responding police with a Kalashnikov assault rifle, while his brother was better known for stealing cars.
"We are dealing with a new generation of jihadists," says a German security agency civil servant who doesn't want to be named. "These people were more or less successful criminals, and they are now successful terrorists." He describes this evolution as a fast growing "Islaminization of crime."
It gives ISIS the advantage of new recruits having contacts to the criminal underworld, of which they themselves are a part. The perpetrators of the Paris and Brussels attacks were easily able to obtain fake passports and could rely on supporters to provide them with safe places to hide.
It was second nature to these new recruits to know how to evade the police and legal authorities. Their form of communication was clandestine, using dozens of SIM cards and several mobile phones, each of which just for a single day. What may seem like extravagant terrorist training is daily routine for these criminals, who are drug dealers or petty criminals. In a nutshell, the Paris and Brussels killers didn't have to alter their behavioral patterns too much to plan and execute these attacks.
"This connection to the criminal underworld did not exist with Osama bin Laden," says Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohammedou of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. Al-Qaeda's motivations were based on pure fundamentalist convictions whereas ISIS terrorists are not as steeped in ideological or religious motivations. But they are, nonetheless, just as determined.
And that's precisely what worries security services most. "It demonstrates how dangerous a people we are dealing with," notes one official at Germany's Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. "Even mere supporters are now willing to become perpetrators and blow themselves up."