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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 Backed Fighters Say, ‘They Have Taken Position in Islamic State Enclave in Syria’

The enclave resembles an encampment, filled with stationary vehicles and rough shelters with blankets or tarpaulins that could be seen flapping in the wind during a lull in fighting as people walked among them

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US, Islamic state
Fire is seen during fighting in the Islamic State's final enclave, in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria March 17, 2019. VOA

U.S.-backed fighters said they had taken positions in Islamic State’s last enclave in eastern Syria and air strikes pounded the tiny patch of land beside the Euphrates River early on Monday, a Reuters journalist said.

Smoke rose over the tiny enclave as warplanes and artillery bombarded it. Another witness said the jihadists had earlier mounted a counter attack.

“Several positions captured and an ammunition storage has been blown up,” said Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia, on Twitter late on Sunday.

The enclave resembles an encampment, filled with stationary vehicles and rough shelters with blankets or tarpaulins that could be seen flapping in the wind during a lull in fighting as people walked among them.

Backed by air power and special forces from a U.S.-led coalition, the SDF has pushed Islamic State from almost the entire northeastern corner of Syria, defeating it in Raqqa in 2017 and driving it to its last enclave at Baghouz last year.

islamic state, US
The Islamic State group’s last pocket of territory in Baghouz, Syria, as seen from a distance on Sunday, March 17, 2019. VOA

But while its defeat at Baghouz will end its control of populated land in the third of Syria and Iraq that it captured in 2014, the group will remain a threat, regional and Western officials say.

The SDF has waged a staggered assault on the enclave, pausing for long periods over recent weeks to allow surrendering fighters, their families and other civilians to pour out.

Since Jan. 9, more than 60,000 people have left the enclave, about half of them surrendering Islamic State supporters including some 5,000 fighters, the SDF said on Sunday.

People leaving the area have spoken of harsh conditions inside, under coalition bombardment and with supplies of food so scarce some resorted to eating grass.

Last month, the SDF said it had found a mass grave in an area it captured.

Still, many of those who left Baghouz have vowed their allegiance to the jihadist group, which last week put out a propaganda film from inside the enclave calling on its supporters to keep faith.

Suicide attacks on Friday targeted families of Islamic State fighters attempting to leave the enclave and surrender, killing six people, the SDF said.

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Late on Sunday, the Kurdish Ronahi TV station aired footage showing a renewed assault on the enclave, with fires seen to be raging inside and tracer fire and rockets zooming into the tiny area.

The SDF and the coalition say the Islamic State fighters inside Baghouz are among the group’s most hardened foreign fighters, though Western countries believe its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has left the area. (VOA)