The resurgence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has coincided with a recent spate of attacks in Europe writes Darren Davids. While intelligence agencies have been able to foil large scale plots, the Islamic State will be increasingly relying on radicalised lone attackers.
A foiled attempt
Between 6 and 8 February, the Danish Security and Intelligence Service arrested 13 people in the central and west Zealand Region, Denmark, during two separate anti-terrorism raids. At least seven people have been charged with planning to stage terrorist attacks. During the raid, police discovered fuses, several kilos of cannon shots, wires, and an Islamic State (IS) flag. German authorities arrested one other suspect in Hesse State in connection with the operation. IS cells have continued to operate throughout Europe despite the group’s supposed defeat in 2019. Throughout 2020, IS militants significantly increased the number of attacks in their traditional strongholds of Syria and Iraq, and now large parts of Africa – pointing to a possible resurgence.
Return of the jihadi
Between June to December 2020, IS militants carried out at least 579 attacks in Iraq and Syria, compared to 321 during the same period in 2019. IS and IS-affiliated groups have carried out increasingly sophisticated attacks in Kirkuk, Iraq, Deir ez-Zor Governorate, Syria, northern Nigeria, and even MocÍmboa da Praia in northern Mozambique even after the US declared that IS’s territorial caliphate in Baghuz, was defeated in March 2019.
“Although most lone actors don’t have formal organisational links to IS, the group has now become more reliant on inspiring attacks in Europe than directing them.”
IS’s apparent resurgence in other parts of the world has coincided with the recent spate of IS inspired terrorist attacks in Europe. Between March 2019 and June 2020 there have been an average of 2.2 thwarted or successful IS-inspired attack plots in Europe per month. The growing number of foiled plots versus successful attacks is largely attributed to the increased intelligence sharing among European law enforcement agencies. IS sympathisers or IS members have carried out at least 13 successful attacks in countries such as the UK, France, Italy, and Austria. During these attacks more than 13 people have been killed and more than 40 others have been injured. Countries such as the UK, France, and Germany were most frequently targeted by IS members during the existence of the Caliphate, and this has remained the case since its fall.
Although most lone actors don’t have formal organisational links to IS, the group has now become more reliant on inspiring attacks in Europe than directing them. According to data from Counter Extremism Project, IS-ordered direct attacks in Europe peaked between 2015 and 2016. European intelligence agencies have found it harder to track terrorist plots in recent years as more terrorists have opted for uncoordinated attacks using a knives or assault rifles, which require less preparation than setting up explosives or multi-staged terror attacks involving several assailants. These lone actor plots have become increasingly common. Since March 2019, eight out of the nine plots uncovered in the UK were carried out by lone actors. These lone actors tend to have greater chance of success than large coordinated attacks, as knife attacks can occur with little preparation. While these lone actor attacks result in fewer casualties that complex ones, they tend to inspire and promote others to conduct similar attacks.
IS’s recent resurgence in Iraq and Syria will likely inspire European jihadist sympathisers to stage more frequent and high impact attacks in Europe, or travel to the Middle East to join the group. However, current strict travel restrictions as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic can further frustrate individual actors who wanted to travel to Iraq or Syria to carry out attacks on European soil instead. Frustrated travellers who are blocked or restricted from traveling to fight for IS have previously launched unsophisticated attacks to contribute to IS’s cause from their country of residence. For example, in April 2017, an Uzbek national killed five people and injured 10 others during a vehicle ramming attack in Stockholm, Sweden. The assailant had previously attempted to Syria in 2015 but was detained and deported back to Sweden. According to data from the Global Terrorism Database, approximately 60 percent of terrorist plots in the US involved frustrated travellers who were prevented from fighting with their aligned group.
While the number of successful terrorist attack in Europe have remained steady in recent years, most reporting on terrorist incidents tend to exclude foiled or failed plots.
While the number of foiled plots has increased markedly as a result of increased intelligence sharing across Europe, authorities still face significant challenges dealing with lone actors inspired by IS. Although it is too early to tell if the recent spate of attacks across Europe is a direct result of the resurgence of IS in Iraq and the Levant, the growing number of jihadists prevented from traveling to join IS are likely to lead to an increase in attack plots. It is therefore likely that IS attacks in Europe will continue, but remain low impact and unsophisticated, as opposed to large-scale plots involving complicated networks and top-down directives.