Few Islamic State fighters return but home-grown attacks rise, Europol says

Manuel Navarrete, head of Europol's Counter Terrorism Centre and Catherine De Bolle, head of Europol, hold a news conference in The Hague, Netherlands June 19, 2018. Picture taken June 19, 2018 REUTERS/Eva Plevier

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – Europeans who went off to fight on behalf of Islamic State have not flooded back in large numbers since losing strongholds in Syria and Iraq, Europe’s police agency said on Wednesday, but they have inspired a growing number of home-grown attacks.

Tracking battle-hardened fighters is still the main concern of Western counter-terrorism officials, though a big influx did not materialize, Manuel Navarrete, head of Europol’s Counter Terrorism Centre, told reporters at its Hague headquarters.

“The main threat is coming from foreign terrorist fighters even though the numbers … that are returning are quite low,” he said, referring to outsiders who traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside militants there.

There has been a spike in recent years in IS-inspired attacks by “lone wolves” using little more weaponry than a knife or car. Most have been less deadly than strikes by former fighters, but they are harder for police to stop, he said.

The number of attacks and foiled plots in Europe more than doubled last year to 205, killing 62 people, Europol’s annual report showed.

“Even though we suffer more attacks, they were less sophisticated,” Navarrete said.

Of more than 5,000 Europeans – most from Britain, France, Germany and Belgium – who joined the ranks of fighters in Syria and Iraq, some 1,500 have returned and 1,000 were killed, according to the EU intelligence-sharing body. There is only limited intelligence available about the fate of the rest.

Many fighters have been detained. Some traveled to Malaysia, the Philippines and Libya. Others are thought to be laying low or in third countries like Turkey, he said.

Tougher border controls, surveillance and prosecution in Europe have also dissuaded some from returning, with EU nations making more than 700 arrests linked to jihadi activity in 2017, he said.

The suicide bomber who killed 22 people at an Ariana Grande concert in the English city of Manchester in May 2017 had just returned from Libya. But most recent attacks have been carried out by home-grown jihadists who never went to conflict zones.

As the Islamic State was routed last year from Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, it urged followers to carry out attacks at home, rather than travel to its self-declared caliphate.

“Now the message of the Islamic State has changed … to being more negative and asking for retaliation,” Navarrete said.

While lone actors often use tactics that result in fewer victims, they pose a threat that is difficult to prevent. In 2016, a man killed 86 people by driving a truck into a crowd in the Mediterranean city of Nice, France.

“You have to be very, very close to a person in order to take action on the police level to prevent this,” Navarrete said. “And the closest you can be to a person right now is not going to the front door, it is going to Facebook, to Twitter.”

(Reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Peter Graff)

Islamic State militants developing own social media platform: Europol

A 3D printed logo of Twitter and an Islamic State flag are seen in this picture illustration taken February 18, 2016.

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) – Islamic State militants are developing their own social media platform to avoid security crackdowns on their communications and propaganda, the head of the European Union’s police agency said on Wednesday.

Europol Director Rob Wainwright said the new online platform had been uncovered during a 48-hour operation against Internet extremism last week.

“Within that operation it was revealed IS was now developing its very own social media platform, its own part of the Internet to run its agenda,” Wainwright told a security conference in London. “It does show that some members of Daesh (IS), at least, continue to innovate in this space.”

During a Europol-coordinated crackdown on IS and al Qaeda material, which involved officials from the United States, Belgium, Greece, Poland, and Portugal, more than 2,000 extremist items were identified, hosted on 52 social media platforms.

Jihadists have often relied on mainstream social media platforms for online communications and to spread propaganda, with private channels on messaging app Telegram being especially popular over the past year.

Technology firms, such as Facebook and Google, have come under increasing political pressure to do more to tackle extremist material online and to make it harder for groups such as Islamic State to communicate through encrypted services to avoid detection by security services.

However, Wainwright said that IS, by creating its own service, was responding to concerted pressure from intelligence agencies, police forces and the tech sector, and were trying to found a way around it.

“We have certainly made it a lot harder for them to operate in this space but we’re still seeing the publication of these awful videos, communications operating large scale across the Internet,” he said, adding he did not know if it would be technically harder to take down IS’s own platform.

Wainwright also said he believed that security cooperation between Britain and the EU would continue after Brexit, despite British warnings it is likely to leave Europol and cease sharing intelligence if it strikes no divorce deal with the bloc.

“The operational requirement is for that to be retained. If anything, “If anything we need to have an even more closely integrated pan-European response to security if you consider the way in which the threat is heading,” he said.

Europe, he added, is facing “the highest terrorist threat for a generation”.

However, Wainwright said there were important legal issues that would have to be thrashed out and it was not easy “to just cut and paste current arrangements”.

“The legal issues have to be worked through and then they have to be worked through within of course the broader political context of the Article 50 negotiations (on Britain’s planned exit from the EU),” he said.

“In the end I hope the grown-ups in the room will realize that … security is one of the most important areas of the whole process. We need to get that right in the collective security interest of Europe as a whole, including of course the United Kingdom.”

(Additional reporting by Eric Auchard; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Europol warns of IS attacks, says dozens of militants may be in Europe

An Islamic State flag is seen in this picture

THE HAGUE, Dec 2 (Reuters) – Islamic State is likely to launch more attacks in Europe, the EU police agency Europol warned on Friday, with several dozen militants already in place and more possibly arriving as IS faces setbacks in Syria and Iraq.

In a report on the threat the Islamist group poses to the 28-nation bloc, Europol said the most probable forms of attack would be those used in recent years, from the mass shootings and suicide bombings seen in Paris and Brussels to stabbings and other assaults by radicals acting alone.

Car bombs and kidnappings, common in Syria, could emerge as tactics in Europe, it said, while protected sites such as power grids and nuclear power stations were not seen as top targets.

Essentially the entire European Union is under threat as almost all its governments back the U.S.-led coalition in Syria, the agency said, warning that IS was likely to infiltrate Syrian refugee communities in Europe in an effort to inflame hostility to immigrants that has shaken many EU governments.

“If IS is defeated or severely weakened in Syria/Iraq by the coalition forces, there may be an increased rate in the return of foreign fighters and their families from the region to the EU or to other conflict areas,” Europol said in a statement.

It said Islamic State was also likely to start planning attacks and sending militants to Europe from Libya and that other groups, including al Qaeda and its affiliates, also continue to pose a threat to the continent.

Europol Director Rob Wainwright said EU states had stepped up their security cooperation in the wake of IS attacks in the last couple of years, allowing more plots to be thwarted.

“Nevertheless,” he said, “Today’s report shows that the threat is still high and includes diverse components which can be only tackled by even better collaboration.”

(Reporting by Alastair Macdonald in Brussels; Editing by Janet

Islamic State possibly planning more attacks in Europe, Europol warns

The Islamic State is believed to be planning additional terrorist attacks against targets in France and the European Union, according to a new report from the union’s law enforcement agency.

Europol issued a public report on the Islamic State on Monday, writing “there is every reason to expect” the organization, or those inspired by it, would carry out another attack. The agency also wrote there’s a chance of attacks from lone-actor terrorists, or other religiously inspired groups.

The report, which does not mention a specific future terrorist threat, draws its conclusions from a meeting of more than 50 counterterrorism officials from throughout the European Union. The discussions were held November 30 and December 1, a little more than two weeks after the Islamic State killed 130 people during Nov. 13 terrorist attacks at various locations across Paris.

The report highlights what Europol believes is an adjustment in the Islamic State’s game plan.

It indicates the Paris attacks, as well as the investigation into them, “appear to indicate a shift towards a broader strategy of (the Islamic State) going global,” and evidence suggests the group is planning “special forces style attacks” in foreign countries. It warns of the possibility of additional attacks against France, or other European Union nations, “in the near future.”

It was released the same day that Europol opened its European Counter Terrorism Centre in The Hague, Netherlands. In a news release announcing the opening, Europol said the continent “is currently facing the most significant terrorist threat in over 10 years,” and the center would help officials share terrorism intelligence and coordinate responses to any potential acts of violence.

The report offers insight into Europol’s intelligence on the Islamic State’s recruitment, training, financing and planning methods.

It addresses public fears that terrorists are exploiting the ongoing migrant crisis to enter Europe, in some cases posing as refugees to get into the union undetected. The report says there is “no concrete evidence” that terrorists are systematically using the refugee system that way, though acknowledged it’s possible some Syrian refugees “may be vulnerable” to radicalization.

The report also outlines how quickly the Islamic State can recruit foreigners — particularly younger people, who can be more impressionable and vulnerable. It indicates 20 percent or more of the Islamic State’s foreign fighters had been diagnosed with a mental problem before joining the group, and up to 80 percent of the foreign fighters had some kind of criminal record.

Europol’s report indicated that attacks aren’t necessarily coordinated from Syria, an Islamic State stronghold, and that the leaders of local cells are given “tactical freedom” to make adjustments as they see fit. It notes the Islamic State’s documented ability to “strike at will,” but noted the group has a preference for attacking soft targets — those unable to defend themselves — to kill as many people as possible.

The report noted similarities between the Paris attacks and attacks against Mumbai in 2008, as both had comparable targets, weapons and death tolls.

Europol says cyber attacks or plots against power grids or similar targets “is currently not a priority” for the Islamic State, though the report indicates it’s possible the organization could pursue “cyber-attacks targeting critical infrastructures and state security” against Western nations in the future.

Europol Arrests 11 In Cybercrime Plot

The European Union’s law enforcement agency, Europol, arrested 11 people yesterday in what’s being called a “ransomware” plot.

Lead by Spanish investigators, the officers arrested men in Russia, Georgia and Ukraine who attempted to force people to pay money to continue using their computer or to not be turned into authorities on false charges including having child pornography on their machines. Continue reading