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Short term optimistic evaluation:
- Many Foreign Fighters (FFs) killed by the two coalitions in Syria and Iraq
- The prisoners’ fate: those in Kurdish jails (800?) different from those arrested in Iraq; many women and children (a problem!!); decision by many Europeans to cancel their nationalities and not permit return;
- In spite of threats and some reports, it seems that there was no serious penetration of organized and trained cells through the immigration wave after 2016: see also latest al-Baghdadi’s audio asking for “lone wolfs” to stage knife and ramming attacks, more important than battles on the ground in the Middle East
The radical Sunni organizations and groups
Huge numbers and diversity of ideological and strategic goals, which means it will be difficult to eradicate them even after the demise of ISIS (slide 2).
Syria: the situation on the ground (slide 3)
The regional and global powers involved:
- Damascus regime, Russia, Iran, Turkey: a strategic alliance, although relations between Russia and Turkey and Russia and Iran pose them serious problems
- Turkey and the United States: old close alliance involving also NATO, but the neo-Ottoman and Islamist policies of the Erdogan regime jeopardize their present relations
- The Kurdish issue: an internal and regional problem for Turkey; The United States continue to support the Kurds in Syria; Russia ahs good historic relations with them
The Idlib pocket and problem: in case of hot military conflict, as the Russian-Turkish deal didn’t work, its occupation by the Damascus regime by force could produce a huge wave of refugees (from a population of 2 millions) (slide 4-5).
Al- Qaeda predominant in the province; Central Asian and Uighur fighting groups
The AQ inspired jihadist networks and individual entrepreneurs have been the basis for the organization of the wave of Foreign Fighters (FFs) migrating to the battlegrounds in Syria and Iraq. In the summer of 2015, the European networks connected to the Sharia4 movement were at the heart of Europe's radical Islamist community cooperating with ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
The dramatic rise to power of the Islamic State by the end of 2014, challenged, and arguably eclipsed, AQ. However, global jihadism after 2014 is rather a bipolar movement, divided between two main camps vying for power and influence.
Most of the same AQ social networks and entrepreneurs survive on the ground in Europe after the demise of ISIS, as the AQ and ISIS’s fight for their “minds and hearts” has only begun. Key organizational patterns of the Islamist terrorism activity in Europe – in terms of structure, recruitment and training – did not change significantly. Nevertheless, they have evolved.
The ISIS territorial demise and the strategy for the near future (slide 6-8)
- Underground insurgency, mainly in Sunni areas in Iraq
- Relocation: Khorasan/Afghanistan; Libya, Africa
- The global arena, including Europe, for the moment left to individual and cells initiative
FFs Returnees. The threat appears less important than feared, as the contingent of potential candidates for return tends to shrink. From around 5 000 individuals from the EU who travelled since 2011 to Iraq and Syria, about 1.500 returned home and 1.000 were killed. (Slides 9 – 13)
The importance for Bulgaria and Hungary of the Balkan FFs
- Numbers of FFs (slide 14)
- The Kosovo plot (slide 15)
ISIS-Backed Plans for Kosovo Attacks:
Everything began in September and October 2016. Through a Telegram account six Islamic State supporters in Kosovo planned and coordinated with Syrian commanders attacks and suicide bombings in Kosovo against Orthodox Churches and an Israeli football team, and attacks in France and Belgium, from December 2017 to June 2018.
The plans were coordinated with Rdvan Haqifi [an Albanian ISIS commander in Syria] and Lavdrim [Muhaxheri], the leader of Kosovo Albanian foreign fighters for ISIS. ISIS intelligence had helped with the money side of things. Communication with Muhaxheri and Aqifi continued until 2017 when they were killed by drone attacks, after which the communication continued with others, via Telegram.
Six Afghan migrants suspected of links to terrorism and human trafficking have been detained in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2018. The six are among more than 25,000 migrants and refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran who have entered Bosnia since 2018, after Hungary and Serbia closed their borders.
Characteristics of jihadi terrorists in Europe
- Age and gender (slide 16)
- Jihadi women play a much more active role than hitherto assumed and represent a growing threat. (slide 17)
- The problem of children (slide 18)
- Converts pose serious operational but also cultural and social problems.
- Prisons play a critical role in both triggering and reinforcing the radicalization process. (slide 19-20)
The ethnic and geographical origin of jihadist terrorists is important in the analysing and monitoring jihadist networks and cell.
- Moroccans in Belgium and Spain
- Algerians in France
- Turks in Germany and Netherlands
Real “lone wolves” are a small minority (slide 21)
The immigration routes to Europe (slide 23-24)
- Eastern Europe: Turkey => Serbia => Croatia => Slovenia => Austria => Germany
- Western Europe: from North Africa, Libya => Italy; Morocco => Spain
The waves of illegal immigrants have not been so far an effective way of infiltrating terrorists to Europe. It is assessed to be more difficult now for terrorists to exploit the migrant flow.
Terror plots of refugees and asylum seekers: Key Points (slide 25-28)
Since January 2014, 44 refugees or asylum seekers have been involved in 32 Islamist plots in Europe. These plots led to 182 deaths and 814 injuries.
Most refugee and asylum-seeker plotters were radicalized prior to their entry to Europe. However, radicalization occurring after arrival in Europe has become increasingly commonplace since fall 2016.
The mean distance between arrival in Europe and a plot being thwarted or executed was 26 months. While plots were devised or carried out in 12 different countries, the most frequent target was Germany.
The majority of plots had direct ties to ISIS. Majority of terrorism plots involving refugees and asylum seekers are prevented or occur within three years of arrival.
The threat of Iranian/Shia Foreign Fighters and cells has been underestimated (slide 29-37)
The Long arm of Iran (slide 38)
Germany. In January 2018, after weeks of surveillance, German authorities raided several homes tied to Iranian operatives who reportedly were collecting information on possible Israeli and Jewish targets in Germany, including the Israeli embassy and a Jewish kindergarten. Arrest warrants were issued for 10 Iranian agents, but none were apprehended. A month before, the German government protested to the Iranian ambassador following the conviction of an Iranian agent for spying in Germany. In that case, the agent scouted targets in 2016, including the head of the German-Israeli Association.
Albania. In March 2018, Albanian authorities arrested two Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force operatives on terrorism charges. In October 2018 Albanian authorities expelled Iran’s ambassador and another diplomat, tied to the aborted March planning an explosive attack against the personnel of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, or MEK.
Netherlands. In June 2018, two Iranian diplomats based at the Iranian embassy in Amsterdam were expulsed following the investigation of the assassination several months earlier of an Iranian Arab activist who was gunned down in the Dutch capital.
France, Belgium, Austria. Assadollah Assadi, an Iranian diplomat accredited to Tehran’s embassy in Vienna, Austria, was arrested in June 2018 in Germany. Prosecutors tied Assadi to Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), whose tasks primarily include combatting of opposition groups inside and outside Iran.
He hired an Iranian couple living in Belgium, Amir Sadouni, 38, and his wife, Nasimeh Noami, 33, to carry out a bomb plot targeting the annual meeting of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a rally of about 4,000 Iranian dissidents, at the Villepinte Congress Center near Paris. Among the VIPs attending the event on June 30 were Bernard Kouchner, Ingrid Betancourt, Stephen Harper, former Canadian Prime Minister, and Rudolph Giuliani, former mayor of New York and current lawyer of Donald Trump.
Assadi provided the couple with 500 grams of TATP explosives at a meeting in Luxembourg in late June 2018. The couple was arrested in Brussels, Belgium,
Three people of Iranian origin were arrested in France to assess their link to the Brussels’ suspects. Two were released while the third, Merhad. A., was held as suspected accomplice of the pair in Brussels.
On October 2, 2018, some 200 French policemen staged twelve searches in the Grande Synthe, a city in northern France, at the headquarters of the Shiite association "Center Zahra France" and the homes of its main leaders, because of their "strong support" to "several terrorist organizations, mainly Hezbollah." This center could have been used as logistical support for Iranian operations in France. Official sources confirmed that the operation against Center Zahra France is directly related to the attempted bombing in Villepinte, which was foiled thanks to the collaboration of the Israeli services.
In a statement released on October 2, 2018, French authorities announced that, following the foiled attack in June, France has frozen the assets of two Iranian citizens, Assadollah Asadi and Saeid Hashemi Moghadam, as well as those of a branch of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence (MOIS), which has "sponsored" the planned attack.
The Belgian connection. The arrested terrorist Amir Sadouni was granted asylum as a member of MEK. Several years ago, Assadi, the Iranian diplomat, approached Sadouni recruited him for intelligence information on MEK. Sadouni and his wife were supporters of the group and attended meetings around Europe and reported his findings back to Assadi. One day, Assadi asked Sadouni's wife to carry a makeup pouch containing explosives to one of the meetings and set it off there.
Denmark. In late September 2018, authorities closed bridges into Copenhagen and suspended train operations in connection with a terrorist case. Three dangerous people involved in a "serious crime" and travelling in a Swedish-registered car were hunted by Danish police. A Norwegian citizen of Iranian origin was arrested in Sweden on 21 October in connection with the alleged plan. Norway had since extradited to Denmark the man who was seen taking pictures of the Danish home of a leader of The Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (ASMLA), an Arab nationalist insurgent group that advocates for a separate Arab state in Khuzestan Province of Iran. Denmark has recalled its ambassador from Tehran and is consulting other EU countries about imposing new sanctions against Iran.
The Norwegian connection Mohammad Davoudzadeh Lului, 39, born in Ahvaz, is an officer serving Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence (MOIS) for the last 10 years. He is the Norwegian citizen of Iranian origin arrested in Sweden on October 21, 2018, at the request of the Danish government, when he returned from Iran. He was extradited to Denmark for prosecution in the terrorist plot against an Iranian Arab citizen in Denmark. Davoudzadeh was in close contact with Iran’s ambassador and the embassy in Norway and was tasked with approaching the PMOI and the NCRI in Norway. One of Davoudzadeh’s missions in Oslo was the formation of front commercial companies and associations for spying and preparing the ground for terrorist acts and bypassing sanctions.
The European Union froze the assets of an Iranian intelligence unit and two of its staff, as the Netherlands accused Iran of two killings on its soil and joined France and Denmark in alleging Tehran plotted other attacks in Europe. The move, although in part symbolic since one of the men is in prison in Belgium, marks the first time the EU has enacted sanctions on Iran since lifting a host of curbs on it three years ago following its 2015 nuclear pact with world powers. The decision, which includes designating the unit and the two Iranians as terrorists, follows last year’s disclosure by Denmark and France that they suspected an Iranian government intelligence service of pursuing assassination plots on their soil. Copenhagen sought an EU-wide response.
As it appears from the various Iranian and Hezbollah terrorist plots on European soil since 2012, their apparatuses use a wide range of militants of Iranian, Lebanese or other Shia origin, be it regular citizens of these countries (Sweden, Belgium, France, Netherlands, and others), as well as asylum seekers, for intelligence missions or as terrorist infrastructure.
Many of the conducive environments that permitted ISIS’s success are still very much in place. However, some respite is offered now and the threat of a renewed major wave of jihadist terrorism depends on the way we seize the opportunity offered by the decline of ISIS’s caliphate.
This article is part of the RED-Alert project, funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation Programme under grant agreement No 740688.