No one can claim to have a unique insight into the “endgame” of ISIS as far as Europe is concerned. I am not sure that ISIS “leadership” could give a well-rounded response to that query either. The stated aim of ISIS and its self-declared “caliphate” is the dissemination of their brand of radical Islam across the globe, to obviously include the “Islamification” of Europe.
The ISIS apparatus organises itself in a fashion that does not concern itself with national and regional politics but rather is in favour of an over-arching unifying call to all Muslims in the context of the Mahdi and the “end of days” concept. It is an apocalyptic creed.
The ISIS plan in Europe, if one can call it that, is characterised by opportunistic and ad-hoc activities which can therefore not necessarily be considered strategic or centrally planned and therefore are incredibly difficult to effectively predict and prevent.
Despite the ISIS cell structures exposed after the Hebdo, Bataclan, Zaventem and Maelbeek atrocities – the previous MO and likely future continued approach of the group will be to appeal to “lone wolf” (LW) type operatives for the majority of their “ops”.
The Zaventem and Maelbeek attacks were allegedly fast-tracked in response to the arrest of Salah Abdeslam and his apparent co-operation with the authorities. The decision to accelerate the schedule was made unilaterally by the cell, not ISIS leadership, if correspondence later found on a laptop apparently belonging to Ibrahim el Bakraoui can be believed.
Sven Mary, Abdeslam’s lawyer, will try to have his eventual sentence reduced on the grounds that he is/was (before the Brussels attacks) acting as an informant – although obviously nothing he told interrogators prevented the Brussels atrocities.
While ISIS cells will carry out “spectaculars” like Brussels and Paris again, the intervening periods are more likely to consist of types similar to Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein in Copenhagen (Feb 2015), Rafik Mohamad Yousef in Berlin (Sep 2015) , Tarek Belgacem in Paris (Jan 2016) and several other LWs who have carried out attacks in France, Serbia, Hungary, Denmark and Poland in the last twelve months which were later explicitly claimed by ISIS or which individuals were later found to have been affiliated or sworn allegiance to the group or carried out the attacks in support of ISIS objectives.
Despite the LW nature of these attacks they can be just as devastating. And act as a constant reminder of the ever-present threat that now exists from radical Islamists across the continent.
ISIS of course has its origins in the Sunni insurgency following the invasion of Iraq by the George W. Bush administration. This initially gave rise to Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which eventually split from core Al Qaeda, in part because of its shocking violence towards other Muslims.
In “The Management of Savagery” a book published over a decade ago by AQI leaders a strategy was laid out that suggested the use of spectacular acts of brutality and displaying them across media platforms in order to goad Western powers into ground wars in the Middle East.
ISIS, like AQI before it, includes in its highest ranks former Baathist members of Saddam Hussein’s military apparatus, who joined the militant group after the Bush administration’s de-Baathification policies and after the U.S.-backed sectarian regime in Baghdad proved unwilling to include Sunnis in government.
This took notice of the jihadi lessons learned in the guerrilla war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. By employing the tactic of high impact terrorism in Europe some observers suggest that ISIS is seeking to galvanize opinion that will ultimately result in European powers taking a hardline interventionist approach in the Middle East.
ISIS believe that the resulting intensified air war or ground invasions to battle ISIS in their heartlands, as reaction to attacks in Europe, would be incredibly costly for any coalition and has a high likelihood of yielding counterproductive blowback and unintended consequences for Europe.
Furthermore it plays to the ISIS narrative of the Anti-Islam Crusader mentality that they claim is prevalent in Europe and as such increase recruitment to their cause locally and internationally.
At present the ISIS aim in Europe is to intimidate, disrupt and demoralize and in the process recruit more operatives – cells or LWs. Increasingly spectacular attacks followed by reprisal will attract further disenfranchised recruits.
Whatever way you choose to describe ISIS actions in Europe – opportunistic, tactical, strategic – the intended result is the same – polarize opinion in Europe resulting in the further marginalization of Muslims and Muslim communities. This can only be good for their “cause”.
Didier Leroy, is a leading terrorism researcher at the Royal Military Academy of Belgium and an adjunct at the Free University of Brussels. When asked what did the Brussels attacks reveal about the aims of ISIS in Europe he said:
“The Brussels attacks have been, without much surprise, claimed and celebrated by ISIS supporters. Ideologically, the symbolic dimension of the targets—the Brussels international airport, less than 5 kilometers away from NATO headquarters, and the Maelbeek subway station, near the main institutions of the European Union—reflects ISIS’s dual view of the world: the struggle of a Muslim oppressed world against a Western oppressing world.
At the level of the modus operandi, we find several common features shared by the French and Belgian commandos: relatively small cells of determined individuals hitting as many “soft” (civilian) targets as possible. Historically there are almost no links between Belgium and Syria or Iraq. I am still rather skeptical about the depth of structural connections between these young jihadi candidates and ISIS, which is a Middle Eastern phenomenon in the first place (and the so-called Caliphate has regional priorities before global ones).
I see ISIS as a “heterarchical” organization, characterized by an undisputed leader—the self-proclaimed Caliph Ibrahim—but also by a shared decisional process. The ISIS central command in Rakka could be regarded as a vertical entity, which becomes more “horizontal” when it reaches the external layer of foreign recruits. There certainly is a central, top-down policy calling on fighters to hit enemies of the “Islamic State project” wherever possible, but the when, the how, etcetera, are left to the initiative of individuals or small groups—it’s up to them to decide the best way to proceed. Most of these recruits obviously know their countries of origin well, have grown up with the Internet and the images of 9/11 in their minds, and are determined to “do better” than old-fashioned al-Qaeda.”
Marc Trevidic: “ISIS using lone wolf attackers in Europe as smoke screen for larger plots”
ISIS is flooding Europe with low-level, unsophisticated attack plans to swamp intelligence agencies while larger atrocities are secretly plotted, a senior counter-terrorism judge has warned. The terror group has had Europe in its sights for up to four years, it is feared, and sent dozens of jihadists back to carry out lone-wolf attacks. “It served to put all of our agencies on edge. Just like a smoke screen, it allowed them to calmly prepare,” said Marc Trevidic, who retired as France’s chief counter-terrorism judge last year. The offensive was orchestrated by Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian mastermind behind the Paris atrocity in November, which left 130 dead.
Abaaoud, who was killed in the weeks after the attacks, is feared to have been at the head of a 90-strong cell of jihadists spread across Europe. It has also emerged he has persuaded some fanatics to return to attack Europe by convincing them it is better that facing the horrors of the war in Syria, according to files seen by the New York Times. Prior to his death, he was a senior figure in a unit within Islamic State in Iraq and Levant, tasked with directing attacks on European soil. Fighters are sent back and told to decide their own targets so limit the chances of plots being traced back to the unit.