ISIS has trained hundreds of fighters with instructions to plan and carry out attacks in Europe, like the one this week in Brussels and the one last year in Paris. The Associated Press reports:
The network of agile and semiautonomous cells shows the reach of the extremist group in Europe even as it loses ground in Syria and Iraq. The officials, including European and Iraqi intelligence officials and a French lawmaker who follows the jihadi networks, described camps in Syria, Iraq and possibly the former Soviet bloc where attackers are trained to attack the West. Before being killed in a police raid, the ringleader of the Nov. 13 Paris attacks claimed to have entered Europe in a multinational group of 90 fighters, who scattered “more or less everywhere.”
Estimates range from 400 to 600 Islamic State fighters trained specifically for external attacks, according to the officials, including [French Senator Nathalie] Goulet. Some 5,000 Europeans have gone to Syria.
The story indicates that while the exact number of ISIS fighters lurking in Europe is unknown the strategy is clearly understood thanks to interrogations of fighters returning to Europe:
French speakers with links to North Africa, France and Belgium appear to be leading the units and are responsible for developing attack strategies in Europe, said a European security official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about briefing material. He is also familiar with interrogations of former fighters who have returned to Europe. Some were jailed after leaving IS while others were kicked out of the terror group. The fighters include Muslims and Muslim converts from all across Europe.
Fighters in the units are trained in battleground strategies, explosives, surveillance techniques and counter surveillance, the security official said.
The goal of these cells of ISIS fighters is not simply to inflict maximum casualties but to create an ongoing series of attacks, forcing European nations to respond by deploying more manpower to cover soft targets, such as airport ticket counters and crowded subway platforms. The AP also has a companion piece up today noting how relatively easy an attack like the one in Brussels is to carry out:
Despite the high death toll and dramatic scenes of destruction, this week’s attacks in Brussels appear to have been surprisingly easy to carry out, requiring little more than some careful preparation, a handful of motivated militants and ingredients that are readily available on store shelves.
That last point is a reference to TATP, a type of explosive composed of peroxide and acetone which is thought to have been used in the Brussels attack. The chemical explosive is very unstable (this article says it is nicknamed “the Mother of Satan”) but is likely popular with terrorists because the ingredients can be purchased separately without raising much suspicion.
Authorities have revealed that 15 kilograms of TATP were discovered in an apartment raid yesterday, suggesting the Brussels attack was initially intended to be much larger than it was. The capture of Salah Abdeslam last Friday may have led the remaining members of the terror cell to accelerate their attack plan.