How extensive is the ISIS threat inside Europe?


Rob Wainwright, chief of Europol, says that security authorities are focused on some 5,000 suspects who were radicalized in Europe and went to fight in Syria. Many of these battle-hardened fighters have now returned.

The Washington Post reports: The French newspaper Le Monde and the Belgian broadcaster RTBF reported that video monitors had captured images of another possible accomplice, who is believed to have slipped away on the Brussels subway. The report could not be immediately confirmed.

Authorities also suggest that the Brussels attackers — two of them brothers — were spurred into action as security crackdowns and raids closed in.

Days before the attacks, counter­terrorism police had raided their Brussels safe houses. An ally who took part in November’s Paris carnage was shot and captured by authorities. And Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, a 29-year-old Belgian with a thick rap sheet, wrote that he did not want to wind up in a prison cell, Belgian federal prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw said Wednesday.

Bakraoui and his younger brother, Khalid, were among the three suicide bombers in the back-to-back strikes: tearing apart a Brussels subway car and shattering the city’s main airport terminal. At least 31 people were killed and 300 injured in the bloodiest attack on Belgian soil since World War II.

Bakraoui detonated a suitcase full of nails, screws and powerful explosives at the airport, killing himself in the process, Van Leeuw said. So did Islamic State bombmaker Najim Laachraoui, 24, who is also believed to have prepared explosives for the Paris attacks, according to an Arab intelligence official and a European intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

An unidentified man who left an even larger suitcase of explosives at the airport is believed to still be at large, he said. That suitcase did not immediately detonate, sparing Belgium even more casualties.

Laachraoui’s involvement draws the boldest line yet between the Paris attacks and those in Brussels. His DNA was found on explosives in the Paris attacks, and authorities believe that he was versed in assembling powerful explosives from ingredients readily available. His participation in two attacks suggests that the Islamic State is increasingly able to strike on European soil — although his death may also mean that he feared imminent capture by European authorities.

Terrorism experts regard bomb­makers, especially those trained in handling sensitive explosives, as among the most valuable and protected members of a terrorist organization. It is highly unusual for them to participate in suicide attacks themselves. [Continue reading…]

At a moment such as this, politicians, security officials, security experts, and other commentators all want to exercise caution and avoid understating the risks of further acts of terrorism.

Public awareness of risks is obviously an essential element that helps facilitate ongoing security operations and this is not the time to encourage anyone to be less vigilant.

Nevertheless, the close ties between the Paris and Brussels attacks and the fact that the individual believed to have been the bombmaker in both attacks killed himself on Tuesday, suggests that with the possible exception of a very small number of individuals at large, nearly all the culprits in these atrocities are now either dead or in detention.

That doesn’t mean that there won’t be other groups who follow in their footsteps. That’s why the danger of further attacks is real. Even so, there often seems to be a tendency to extrapolate from specific events, wider connections that don’t necessarily pertain.

Donald Trump and other Islamophobes like to evoke images of terrorists being provided refuge inside Muslim communities — the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels has frequently been characterized as a “haven” for extremists.

Yet when the decisive break in their investigation came for Belgium police last week, it was through their discovery of an a hideaway where it was evident that the fugitives appeared to be receiving no outside support.

As the New York Times reported:

The turning point in the case came last week when the police raided an apartment about six miles from Molenbeek, seeking clues but believing it to be empty.

Instead, they were met with gunfire. They killed the gunman, Mohamed Belkaid, a 35-year-old Algerian who had already been linked to the Paris plot. But two men escaped. And when the police entered the apartment, they found large quantities of ammunition, an Islamic State flag — and Mr. Abdeslam’s fingerprints.

“There was no electricity, no water, no gas,” said Ahmed El Khannouss, the deputy mayor of Molenbeek. “He was living in catastrophically unhygienic conditions.”

That two individuals happen to cross paths in the same bar or go to the same school, might turn out to be as consequential as the connections they’ve made fighting in Syria.

Often, the small stories turn out to be as, if not more significant than the big stories. Every life is filled with the random, messy details of happenstance.

In other words, although political, sociological, and ideological lenses are all useful, we need to avoid deterministic conclusions that make terrorism appear inevitable. It isn’t. Ultimately it hinges on choices made by individuals.

The fact that European security services have as many as 5,000 suspects in their sights underlines the challenges they face in attempting to keep track of these individuals.

At the same time, this number may be misleading if it conjures an image of a hidden army scattered across the continent. Moreover, this representation itself risks empowering these individuals with a sense that they remain part of a movement, when in reality they may now be utterly isolated.

These are individuals who really deserve to be called dead-enders.

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