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Europe Braces for More Attacks From Islamic State

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Police stand next to terraced housing in Harlesden Road
Police stand next to terraced housing in Harlesden Road, north London, April 28, 2017. British counterterrorism police said they had thwarted an active plot in an armed raid, the second major security operation in the British capital in the space of a few hours. VOA

European counterterror officials say they are taking no solace in the liberation of Raqqa from Islamic State, with some warning that the terror group’s communication and planning units remain “very active.”

The fall of IS’s Syrian capital this month has been heralded as a crushing blow to the group’s aspirations, with U.S. President Donald Trump calling it a “critical breakthrough.”

But counterterrorism officials say there is broad consensus that IS still has a considerable reach, especially in the near term.

“We all share the same opinion. The military defeat, the so-called caliphate being scattered, does not mean that the terrorist organization ISIS is defeated,” Dick Schoof, the Dutch national counterterrorism coordinator, told reporters Wednesday, using an acronym for the group.

Ability to communicate

A key concern is that a loss of territory in Iraq and Syria has yet to have a considerable impact on the terror organization’s ability to communicate, both with its operatives in Europe and potential recruits.

IS has also been able to leverage relationships with organized crime syndicates, which officials describe as especially worrisome.

“We know that ISIS’s planning unit is still functioning. Also, its communications unit is still functioning,” said Schoof.

The European assessment mirrors that of counterterror officials in the United States, who have repeatedly warned that, at best, there would be a lag between the fall of the terror group’s self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria and any impact on its external operations.

“We do not think battlefield losses alone will be sufficient to degrade its terrorism capabilities,” Nick Rasmussen, head of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, warned in written testimony to U.S. lawmakers in September. He called IS’s reach on social media “unprecedented.”

Also, one of the most anticipated consequences of the collapse of the so-called caliphate has failed to materialize: a substantial flow of foreign fighters to their home countries.

Schoof, the Dutch counterterror coordinator, said that of the Netherlands’ approximately 300 foreign fighters, slightly more than 50 have returned, with only a handful trying to make their way back as IS’s fortunes have waned.

French police and anti-crime brigade members
French police and anti-crime brigade members secure a street during a counterterrorism swoop at different locations in Argenteuil, a suburb north of Paris. VOA

Complex terror threat

Friedrich Grommes, head of the international terrorism and organized crime directorate for Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, has also said that “there is no hard evidence” for a rising tide of returning foreign fighters.

Instead, officials say, Europe is facing a more complex and variable threat picture, even as they have worked to take down, through multiple raids and a series of arrests, most of the IS network thought to be behind the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels.

At the same time, officials warn al-Qaida operatives have become more active, stepping up their planning for potential attacks on the West.

In particular, there has been growing concern about IS and al-Qaida activity in northern Africa.

“We are very cautious,” Schoof said. “ISIS and al-Qaida are still not very strong but do have footprints.”

Like the U.S., which has sent troops to Niger to track IS operatives and officials, European militaries have also been active in the region.

So far, at least, Western officials have yet to track any significant flow of foreign fighters or top officials from the Middle East to Africa.

But Islamic State, at least, is turning to a familiar strategy.

“What ISIS is absolutely trying to do is leverage local insurgencies now to rebrand themselves,” Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joe Dunford, the top U.S. military officer, said Tuesday following a meeting of the global coalition to defeat IS. “They’re trying to maintain relevance.”(VOA)

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US Will Deploy Necessary Resources to Counter Dangerous Actions by Iran, Says General

Tensions between Tehran and Washington have risen since the Trump administration last year withdrew from an international nuclear deal with Iran and began ratcheting up sanctions

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FILE - Then-Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 4, 2018. VOA

U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said Saturday that the United States would deploy the necessary resources to counter any dangerous actions by Iran, Sky News Arabia reported.

“We’re going to continue to reach out to our partners and friends in the region to ensure that we make common cause against the threat of Iran,” McKenzie, on an official visit to the Gulf region, was quoted as saying.

“I believe we’ll have the resources necessary to deter Iran from taking actions that will be dangerous,” he said, according to a transcript released by the Abu Dhabi-based channel. “We will be able to respond effectively.”

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Trump ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops Syria in December after he said they had defeated Islamic State militants there. VOA

Tensions between Tehran and Washington have risen since the Trump administration last year withdrew from an international nuclear deal with Iran and began ratcheting up sanctions. Earlier this month, the United States blacklisted Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards.

Sanctions for oil purchases

Washington on Monday demanded buyers of Iranian oil stop purchases by May or face sanctions, ending six months of waivers that allowed Iran’s eight biggest buyers, most of them in Asia, to continue importing limited volumes.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and some senior military commanders have threatened to disrupt oil shipments from Gulf countries if Washington tries to strangle Tehran oil exports. McKenzie also said a reduction of U.S. troops in Syria would be done cautiously.

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Tensions between Tehran and Washington have risen since the Trump administration last year withdrew from an international nuclear deal with Iran and began ratcheting up sanctions. VOA

“On the long term, we’re going to reduce our forces in Syria. We recognize that; that’s the guidance in which we are operating. That will be something that we will look at very carefully as we go forward,” the general said.

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President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops Syria in December after he said they had defeated Islamic State militants there. In February, a senior administration official said the United States would leave about 400 U.S. troops split between two different regions of Syria.

McKenzie also said he was confident that the U.S. is going to have “a long-term presence in Iraq, focused on the counterterror mission.” (VOA)