A series of Salafist, jihadi terrorist attacks that erupted at the onset of the 2017 Ramadan portends a summer of terror for the West. Britain went to the polls on the heels of double attacks — Manchester and London – and ISIS targeted the Iranian Parliament. And now, Al Qaeda has stepped out of the ISIS shadow and seeks to be the premier mentor for Salafist assassins everywhere.
Both ISIS and Al Qaeda recently issued statements directing their followers to carry out inspired and semi-directed attacks, but the good news is that the posted guidance can be used to predict future strikes.
Two pieces of evidence are key. First, ISIS has re-issued statements and broadcasts from the late Abu Muhammad Al Adnani, killed in an August 30, 2016 US air strike near Mosul. Adnani was ISIS’s director of intelligence and special operations, and a spokesperson who was credited with recruiting dozens of terrorists to stage “homegrown” terror attacks in Europe. Last May, he ordered a series of attacks during Ramadan that reportedly killed more than 700 people.
Second, the son of Osama Bin Laden and heir of the Al Qaeda terror franchise, Hamza Bin Laden, issued a highly specific guidance for attacks in the West in a revealing 10-minute video released May 14.
[Editor’s note: Also read the author’s Homeland Security Today report, Al Qaeda Makes its Move with a Video Primer by Hamza Bin Laden]
These two sets of marching orders are extremely important to terrorist cadres and should be studied by security professionals. Initially, ISIS and Al Qaeda leadership will try to mobilize their members in the West to carry out attacks through the orders of central leadership. These efforts will focus planning on operations similar to ISIS’s attacks in Paris two years ago. In addition, expect ISIS and Al Qaeda to seek to catalyze some attacks planned by jihadists entirely on their own without any direct involvement or direction of leadership.
In the long term, the key to pre-emption is counterintelligence penetration of the jihadist community and face-to-face engagement with suspected terrorists. Terror cells do all they can to prevent this. Both ISIS and Al Qaeda teach their cadres during training two important rules as soon as they start their indoctrinations. The first rule is “to hear and obey,” regardless of any circumstances. Through this first lesson, Salafist organizations try to make sure their orders will be carried out without any discussions and as a religious duty. Disciples who refuse to obey frequently are executed as examples. The second rule is “not to involve themselves with the teachings and literature of other Islamic traditions and not to communicate or discuss their ideologies with others, even if they are family members,” so as to isolate their cadres from the outside world. The isolation ensures the status quo of coercive mental conditioning.
Effective counterterrorism over the long haul requires that the shell of secrecy and self-imposed mind control be penetrated. Because the cadres are taught not to discuss what they believe and what their plans are — even with their close family members — it is all the more difficult for law enforcement to find out what their intentions are. These rules for terror cells ensure these cells and their members survive among adverse environments, keep their belief systems intact and their true intentions hidden. Therefore, eliciting the terrorist’s own self-understanding and reversing it is a labor-intensive, long-term project not only for counterterrorism professionals, but also for trusted mentors, teachers, Imams and psychologists.
Based on my 20 years of counterterrorism field experience as a chief of counterterrorism and operations in Turkey, and as a counterterrorism academic, I recommend three short-term measures to diminish or eliminate the immediate threats.
First, lock up the known players. The known threats are the jihadist fighters returning from Syria and Iraq. Thousands of terrorists who had been in the combat zones fighting for different terrorist organizations, including 400 former ISIS fighters in the UK alone, frequently are known to intelligence agencies. These experienced terrorists often form the backbone or strongest existence of terrorist groups in the host countries. At the very least, they will recruit new people even if they themselves do not carry out attacks. And past attacks clearly indicate returnees have been involved; witness the Paris and Belgium attacks. It is essential that any known returnee is kept under detention, laws permitting, until a court proceeding rules they are not threats.
Second, immediately implement 24/7 surveillance of ideological and known allies/supporters. Electronic surveillance should include top names on a prioritized list in each Western country. In all these countries, jihadist supporters are known to intelligence agencies. True, not all those people constitute a threat, but they pose a greater risk to their societies as twice happened with the recent attacks in the UK. These people are susceptible to being influenced by the terrorist organizations due to favorable feelings toward Salafist jihadi ideologies. An experienced and well-trained counterterrorism analyst or officer can easily pick up the clues through surveillance of listed suspects in the case an attack is being planned.
Controlling the base population of terrorists is essential to preventing terrorist attacks, as they are the most important tools of terrorist organizations abroad. Consider the fact that many of the individuals, as happened in the UK and the other attacks in Europe, were known to intelligence agencies, and yet they were able to carry out attacks.
Third, harden the targets. Thanks to Hamza Bin Laden’s specific target priority list in his last video, officials know which facilities and persons are the most at risk. Experience shows terrorists will abandon targets that are well guarded. For example, the ISIS Reina nightclub attacker in Istanbul did not carry out his attack against the Taksim Square as planned because of heavy police presence. The jihadist decided on the spot to attack the Reina nightclub which was protected by a single security guard.
Counterterrorism business has deadly consequences, if not appropriately implemented. The principal success of countering terrorism is the prevention of attacks before they occur.
Ahmet S. Yayla, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of criminology, law and society at George Mason University. He is also senior research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, and formerly served as a professor and the chair of the sociology department at Harran University in Turkey. He also served as the chief of the counterterrorism and operations department of the Turkish National Police in Sanliurfa between 2010 and 2013. He is the co-author of the newly released book, ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate.