Islamic State has begun flooding Europe with “lone wolf” attackers with orders to organise their own low-level attacks, as a smoke-screen to tie up security agencies while larger atrocities are plotted, a senior judge has warned.
Although Islamic State terrorists seized territory in Syria and Iraq in 2014, they are believed to have had European targets in their sights for up to four years, aggressively recruiting European potential jihadists into Syria before sending them home as trained fighters detached from the Islamic State hierarchy.
“It served to put all of our agencies on edge. Just like a smoke screen, it allowed them to calmly prepare,” said Marc Trevidic, France’s chief counter-terrorism judge until his retirement last year.
And alarmingly, all this was happening right under the noses of American and European security forces, which at first dismissed Islamic State as little more than a lower-profile branch of al-Qaeda, the New York Times has reported.
Even when some of the European jihadists began carrying out low-level attacks, local authorities described them as isolated incidents or random acts; the links to Islamic State either overlooked or played down.
“This didn’t all of a sudden pop up in the last six months,” said Michael T. Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general and former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. “They have been contemplating external attacks ever since the group moved into Syria in 2012.”
Reda Hame, a 29-year-old computer technician from Paris was one such jihadist. His training in Syria consisted of being shown how to use an assault rifle and hurl a grenade, and how to use the encryption program TrueCrypt. The ‘course’ lasted just one week – then he was driven to the Turkish border by a handler code-named ‘Dad’ who simply him to pick an easy target, shoot as many people as possible, and to hold hostages until he was killed himself.
His experience appears to be typical: the jihadis are encouraged to choose their own targets so as to reduce any chance of their plot being traced back to higher level operatives in Syria.
Another more notorious case is that of Mehdi Nemmouche, who, on May 24, 2014, walked into the Jewish Museum of Belgium and opened fire, killing four people.
Yet despite the discovery by Belgian police of a video in which he claimed responsibility for the attack alongside a flag featuring the words “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” Belgium’s deputy prosecutor, Ine Van Wymersch, dismissed any connection. “He probably acted alone,” she told reporters at the time.
It now looks as though at least 21 jihadis including Hame and Nemmouche were dispatched back to Europe by Islamic State in late 2014 / early 2015, travelling alone or in pairs so as not to raise suspicions. Most were arrested, but in each case officers failed to spot the connection to Islamic State and Syria.
Some were even released, such as Ibrahim Boudina, a French citizen who was arrested by Greek police just four miles from Turkey with a copy of a French document titled “How to Make Artisanal Bombs in the Name of Allah” in his possession.
Hame was arrested in Paris last August before he could carry out his attack, but told his interrogators: “It’s a factory over there. They are doing everything possible to strike France, or else Europe.”
‘Dad’, meanwhile, turned out to be none other than Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian mastermind of last November’s Paris attack, the most deadly on European soil for over a decade.
Abaaoud, who was killed in a raid weeks after the attack while in the midst of plotting further atrocities, is believed to have had a hand in plotting last Tuesday’s attacks on Brussels airport and Metro station as long ago as last summer – but is now also feared to have been at the head of a 90-strong unit of lone wolf attackers dispersed around Europe.