The “Islamic State” group is changing its style and tactical media: it is operating in Europe through sleeping-active cells.




More attacks are expected in Europe


Key words: France, Nice, Nice attack, ISIS, ISIL, Daesh, Terrorism

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French version


By Elijah J. Magnier: @EjmAlrai

Despite its loss of significant territories in Iraq and Syria, the “Islamic State” (ISIS) is changing and adjusting to a new tactical style by adopting and executing terrorist attacks outside the Middle Eastern borders (Europe, especially but not exclusively), in a more secretive almost discrete way, followed by a shy unusual initial claim of responsibility through its A’maq media outlet. We see this in recent terrorist attacks: it claimed full responsibility through a video message days later followed by a menace to the French President Francois Hollande promising to hit more cities in France.

This new approach is in tune with the latest official ISIS statement from Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, in which he recognises that ISIS is losing territories in the Middle East, reminding us that the organisation rose from nothing in 2003. Adnani’s aim was to indicate that ISIS would regain momentum in future covert action, despite its apparent decline.

Look at the recent attack in Nice where more than 84 people were killed and over 200 wounded. The executor, 31 year-old Tunisian Mohamed Salman Lahouaiej Bouhlel, had no criminal record related to terrorism, and was not on the list of suspects by neither the French nor the European authorities. But he was able to obtain a gun, and was trained to use it, firing on the security forces during his two kilometres deadly drive on-board of a truck weighing 19 tons. The idea of using such a killing machine to maximise victims doesn’t come from a young immigrant, supposedly quickly or radicalised online as claimed by media and French officials.

It comes from a mind obsessed by fantasy and intrigued with ways of killing. We have seen this throughout the years in Syria and Iraq, since the announcement of the Caliphate in July 2014. Some of these are: death by burning (Jordanian pilot Maaz Kassasbeh in Raqqa, Syria), by drowning (Iraq – Hit), by an anti-armour RPG (execution of four Syrian soldiers), trampling by a tank on a captured soldier (a Syrian tank commander), explosives tied around the neck of prisoners (Afghanistan, against detainees from the Taliban), to several other different methods, all for killing.

The aim is not only to kill but also for the world to speak about the killing methods, attracting the attention of the media through the brutality used, shocking the viewer and leaving a lasting impression. For ISIS, speaking positively or negatively about it means reaching a desired goal that consists in spreading the name of the “Islamic State” to the four corners of the Earth.

To return to Nice, putting in practice the idea of driving a truck (although the idea has previously appeared in al-Qaeda “Inspired magazine) in the middle of a large crowd did not come overnight but through careful and cool layout, requiring a mind of a military planner to think away from the limelight how to do battle in the old European continent and beyond. The planner needs to have multiple unrelated cells, looking for an adequate first victim, the executor, enthusiastic to “do something” and ready to die for a conviction even without being a militant, having a deep religious background, or – as an added value – a criminal record or frequenting a specific milieu that could potentially put him under the security microscope. This is not at all an easy profile to find.

Moreover, the search for an adequate target requires, in the case of the Nice terrorist attack, the existence each year of a public event known and planned ahead by the municipality for years, where a gathering of thousands of people, including foreigners, is expected on the 14th of July along the Mediterranean coast known as “la Promenade des Anglais”.

It is also expected that the head of the cell, the planner, would not reveal himself to the executor – particularly with BouHilal’s not strictly religious background – in case the terrorist changes his mind (it happened before in Iraq and Syria where suicide bombers candidate deliver themselves to the local authorties before the act) or is injured and caught by the security forces. Moreover, there is a need of a religiously prepared trainer – Case Officer (CO) – to convert the terrorist and instruct him to gather, alone, his logistical tools and equipment for the attack (rent a truck, reconnaissance, route, acquisition of a gun…). It is important for this “CO” to report to the head of the cell the readiness or the hesitation of BouHilal and that he is either not ready or charged with enough ideology and motivation to carry his act to the end.

It is not an ordinary thing for a newly prepared executor, without battle field experience to see himself killing tens of civilians, including Muslims, children and women, and continue his death drive for two long kilometres with firm hands around the wheel. It is also likely that the executor was informed in the last days about his final destination, like we have seen in Sanaa, Yemen, in March 2015, when the two suicide bombers – which killed more than 130 people – where informed the night before according to Whats’app messages exchanged with a friend and collected by the author after the attack. At that time, ISIS had not establish a “Hisba Tweeter” (social media police) to monitor the leaks of classified details , the intrusion of false supporters and to provide proper but limited instruction for those travelling from abroad and willing to join the Caliphate.

The elements mentioned above lead to the strong possibility of further terrorist attacks in Europe on large or small scale. ISIS will keep a steady strategy consisting of keeping the name of the organisation going by word of mouth, most of the time. The interval between one attack and another is not a key indicator. This is possible to achieve through spectacular or minor attacks among the western societies, where the consequences of any attack is devastating in comparison to the Middle East, already accustomed to daily lethal attacks.

Another issue is the way ISIS is dealing with the news and media. It is no longer the organisation that is announcing the attacks outside the Middle East but it is using its media outlet first – A’maq – and abstaining for days before confirming it. This happened in the Nice attack as well as in the Wurzburg attack in Germany where an Afghan teen, also announced as a “soldier of the Islamic state”, stabbed and injured five people on board of a train. There is no doubt that both events will be mentioned in the next ISIS magazine issue “Dabiq”, with perhaps more information about the two men. That maybe irrelevant because ISIS may no longer be able to produce spectacular videos or issues once the two main cities – Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq – are recovered, and will have to adapt to more modest means in the future. But it will always use its electronic online outlet to spread its propaganda and news even while losing ground and enjoying less access to its usual sophisticated technology.

The ISIS change of style in providing less information about its overseas attacks and the fact that is relying more on its outlet are indications of changes within the group operational tactics and strategy. It is a fact that the group is losing ground in Iraq, Syria and Libya where it used to hold the vast majority of the ground. Nevertheless, it is a fact recognised by counter-terrorism experts that terrorism cannot be eradicated but contained and defeated to reduce its consequences on civilian societies, as long as the fight against terror is a joint cooperation between countries of the Middle East and Europe on intelligence services level. Countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco are the main providers of extremist Jihadists. The collaboration of those countries with the European security services is essential on all levels. Moreover, internal intelligence services, on national level, should look at all possibilities, including interesting themselves in those not frequenting mosques of certain extremist milieus. For that, human Intelligence (HUMINTL) and signal intelligence (SIGINTL) are vital. More attacks in France, as expected, will have a devastating result among the population in all walks of life. ISIS is particularly looking forward to triggering a reaction against the Muslim community so as to receive with open arms those who have suffered bitter experiences due to racism.

Defeating this kind of terrorism is difficult and complicated. It will take generations and a radical change in political and religious education, coupled with awareness that certain Muslims can take certain extremist ideas further culminating in destructive acts of random killing of innocent people. There must be consciousness that radical extremist teaching has turned even against the origin of its diffusers who once believed that it is Islam, its is pure form, will be limited to Da’wa and will never become, as is now the case, a killing machine.

The land of the old continent will tremble again under terrorism hits. These attacks which continue despite the loss of vast territories, are not a sign of the strength or the weakness of ISIS. Their existence is a fact we have to coexist with and whose effect we need to minimise.




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