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Activating the Sleepers: Islamic State Adopts a New Strategy in Europe

Last week’s attacks in Brussels show that Islamic State has built up a sophisticated network of terrorists that goes well beyond al-Qaida’s capabilities. It is now able to strike using sleepers who have not yet been identified by security officials.

An image published by the media branch of the Islamic State group in Anbar province (Welayat Al-Anbar) on March 21, 2016 allegedly shows a French Islamic State (IS) group fighter, Abu Zubayr al-Faransi, posing for a picture at an undisclosed location. At least six soldiers were killed in an attack on March 21 in western Iraq claimed by IS that began with five suicide bombers ramming explosives-laden vehicles into a checkpoint, officials said. Several foreigners were among the bombers, including the Frenchman, according to a statement by IS which said its fighters carried out the attack.  / AFP PHOTO / Welayat Al-Anbar / HAND OUT / === RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / HO / WELAYAT AL-ANBAR" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS FROM ALTERNATIVE SOURCES, AFP IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY DIGITAL ALTERATIONS TO THE PICTURE'S EDITORIAL CONTENT, DATE AND LOCATION WHICH CANNOT BE INDEPENDENTLY VERIFIED ===

They chose the perfect moment. Just as Europe was letting out a sigh of relief, having captured one of the Paris terrorists after months of pursuit, the bombers detonated their explosives. The signal sent by the arrest was that Islamic State (IS) is defeatable. But the Brussels attack tells us that isn’t the case. Just when you think you’ve beaten us, we’ll strike you right in the heart.

Investigators and intelligence agencies both agree that preparations for the attacks in Brussels must have begun long ago. The Belgian bombs thus heralded a new approach for Islamic State in Europe — one that does not bode well for those trying to prevent acts of terrorism — because the threat is no longer limited to individuals known to the police or already on wanted lists, but also comes from those in the shadows in the second or third rank. Even jihadists who have not yet been identified by officials are now capable of striking.

This approach reflects the one used in IS’ main battle grounds of Syria and Iraq. For some time there, unsuspected aggressors, who have been discreetly trained, have infiltrated targeted circles and built up long-term sleeper cells. Or men from regions neighboring a target are recruited to wait and attack at the right moment.

Surprisingly Farsighted

This is a modus operandi that has been employed by terrorists against prominent and often well-defended opponents multiple times — it’s how Abu Khalid al Suri, the Syrian emissary for al-Qaida boss Aiman al-Zawahiri, was betrayed by one of his own employees and killed in early 2014 by IS despite all possible protective measures being taken at his top secret hideout.

A rebel commander who had fled after Islamic State had taken over Raqqa was abducted by his own driver in Turkey, who was working under the orders of IS. And the founder of the secret activist network Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently was massacred in his apartment in the Turkish city of Sanliurfa by an IS agent who had infiltrated the opponents months before, posing as a supporter.

The people behind this terror are proving to be surprisingly farsighted, patient planners and not rash actors — and this applies in both Europe and Syria. This is the new and long underestimated side of IS.

The length Islamic State goes to in order to install sleeper cells is illustrated by a lesser-known case — one in which IS attempted to infiltrate opposition forces.

Jamil Mahmoud, a young Kurdish man from Afrin who worked as a furniture painter in Beirut, was selected to be inserted into the ranks of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the northern Syrian district where he had come from. Once his recruiters were confident enough that he would act in their interests, Mahmoud was smuggled through the harbor in Tripoli into Turkey, without ever having to show his passport.

From the sea, he was driven inland for four hours, the Kurd later told SPIEGEL. “Until we got to a large, isolated farmhouse. There were around 25 men there, Arabs and Turks. We were trained in the use of Kalashnikovs and Glock pistols.”

They never left their camp. But the area of Gaziantep came up often in conversation. After two months, he was assigned to join the YPG militia in Afrin (a group close to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK) and told to await further orders. “They said simply they would always be nearby and that they would get in contact when it was time to take action.” Mahmoud was driven to the border, whereupon he traveled to Afrin and joined the militia, as ordered. After a few months, however, he handed himself in to to the Kurdish authorities — before the order to strike came through.

Sleeper Cells in Europe

IS’ behavior is in many ways more like that of a secret service than of animated fanatics. Al-Qaida committed its attacks as its raison d’etre, the result being that there were no subsequent attacks far outside their usual theaters of war following their acts of violence on New York and Washington in 2001, on Casablanca, Madrid, Amman and elsewhere. Al-Qaida had acted, not reacted. But IS appears capable of doing so.

Testimony from deserters suggests the terror organization began establishing sleeper cells in multiple European countries early on, in Turkey in particular. According to the former


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