While the Paris attacks have reignited controversy over the admission of refugees from war-torn Syria, terrorist groups have made clear in recent months that they consider relying on immigration a weak strategy that threatens operational security.
Instead, groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda have placed heavy emphasis on natives conducting terror operations where they know the people, the culture and language, where they know the city like the back of their hand, where they blend in and are less likely to arouse suspicion. Even better, hold a position of trust or operational significance in a day job there.
The strategy, in a few words: Bloom where you’re planted.
In the majority of the Paris terrorists, ISIS found their ideal operatives: native sons. Thus, in a country that was already on alert after the January attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish supermarket, the plot to hit six sites in rapid succession with gunmen, suicide bombers and drive-bys was able to slip under the radar of security services.
Not much is known about the suicide bomber who traveled on a Syrian passport that may have been fake — the Islamic State, which seizes passports from legitimate refugees to impede their travel, could easily forge such documents — under the name Ahmad al-Muhammad. He arrived in an overloaded raft of refugees at the Greek island of Leros in early October, was fingerprinted and given travel papers for the rest of his journey through the Balkans. Ferry tickets showed he had a companion for at least part of the trip, a man named Mohammed Almahmod.
The rest of the terrorists who have been identified operated much closer to home.
Suicide bomber Bilal Hadfi was French and living in Belgium. He was reportedly a hard-partying teen until he developed an admiration for Boko Haram. After the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January, he took a trip to Syria.
At the Bataclan concert hall, two of the three terrorists were natives of the Paris suburbs: Samy Amimour, a known-wolf whose father had tried to bring him back from Syria last year, and Ismael Omar Mostefai, a married 29-year-old with a daughter. The third attacker is unknown.
Ibrahim Abdeslam, a French citizen who owned a seedy bar in Brussels, blew himself up outside of a cafe, while his brother Salah Abdeslam, a Belgian-born French national, is wanted by authorities. The brother of the pair, Mohammad Abdeslam, told CNN that he “literally saw them every day” and noticed that they went to the mosque more and had stopped drinking.
Alleged mastermind Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a native of Belgium, is so ruthless he recruited his 13-year-old brother into ISIS. He is alive and being sought by authorities.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) noted that while refugees would be screened — “and, frankly, we don’t have very good screening mechanisms” — the European-born terrorists would have an easy time slipping into the United States.
“The people who were there in the country, with European passports, can come to the United States without a visa,” Thornberry told Fox on Sunday. “So the idea that this is something that could just be contained to Europe or that if you just don’t let any refugees in, and you stop this, is not true. They are looking for ways to get around our security measures.”
“They are growing in attractiveness and they are trying to make the most of it — and again, to emphasize, they have been asking for months for their followers to carry out these sorts of attacks wherever they live,” the chairman added. “So it’s important to pay attention to the refugees, but it’s also the guy on the computer in his basement that could go carry out these sort of attacks at a mall, a hotel or something here in the United States. That is part of the threat that these guys pose to us.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) stressed Sunday on ABC that “the bottom line is that this is not just a threat coming from abroad.”
“What we need to open up to and realize is that we have a threat here at home, homegrown violent extremists, individuals who perhaps have not even traveled abroad, who have been radicalized online,” Rubio said. “This has become a multi-faceted threat.”
And terror groups have been making strides in helping facilitate small-cell training for those who can’t come to camps.
They’ve also stressed that not every would-be jihadist is fit to jump through flaming hoops at boot camp, but should still use their particular skills to attack through a variety of methods.
PJM reported this spring on an April call from ISIS to jihadists in Egypt to activate, noting that “wolves” are “one of the first jihad work stages” and simply indicates “individual small cells” who have a greater chance of taking the enemy by surprise.
“Jihad is going through various stages to reach the state of empowerment and the rule of the land, as it does our brothers in the land of the caliphate,” said the call posted online. Recruits don’t need “strength or muscle, huge experience in jihad work” and “each wolf chooses what suits him and what fits his goal and location of the implementation of the action.”
“Small firewood is what ignites huge and large flames… wolves will increase their expertise and will move with the time and expertise to the largest operations and to expand and diversify the weapon used.”
Six months later, a Russian Metrojet was brought down by a bomb over the Sinai as travelers flew back to St. Petersburg from their Sharm el-Sheikh resort vacations. The 2.2-pound bomb could have been placed on board the plane before takeoff by an airport worker who used his position and access to wage jihad.
Last month, ISIS converted a series of al-Qaeda lectures on operational guidelines into a 12-chapter, 63-page English-language handbook in an effort to drum operational security discipline into jihadists’ heads.
“The brother(s) who want to join you, you must know them very well. You should know their history, their childhood, their past, their past experiences in university, their job, ex-jobs, their political affiliation, virtually everything. You don’t necessarily need to go into the details, but you should know who you have in front of you, and you should be able to see any contradiction in the story he’s telling you about himself,” the guide states, stressing that all “should make sure to not look particularly attached to religion.” No beards, none of the “usual sentences that religious brothers use,” Western clothes.
The handbook notes that those conducting attacks on their home turf are especially valuable because they don’t catch attention for being fish out of water — they’re “already in their natural environment and know the customs around them very well.”
“Most operations that failed in the West did because of brothers who were unsufficiently prepared,” the guide states. “That is why we privilege people who are already from the West (instead of sending someone from here). Because in the West, you already know the environment, how people talk, behave, and you can be like a fish in the ocean if you respect some basic rules.” They’re instructed to make apartments and any safehouses they use look “un-Islamic” and to be nice and polite to neighbors.
If jihadis decide to go beardless to not attract attention, they’re advised to allow a 2-week beardless window to allow their skin to get some sun. And it’s “permissible” for jihadists trying to blend in “to wear a necklace showing a Christian cross.”
“The best cover is natural cover,” jihadists are told, “so if you are an engineer, you use your own job as a cover, because you know your job, you understand it, so you can’t make any mistake on that field.” This highlights again why they cherish and seek the jihadists who will operate on their home turf: “He is already established in the West, his entire life is a cover story – and a very strong one at that.”
A March guide for Western jihadists stressed that converts to Islam should “hide your Islam as much as possible,” and use a non-Muslim name such as “Al” instead of “Ali” to get an “important position” such as work in a power plant.
ISIS jihadists in the West shouldn’t call themselves lone wolves, the book noted, but an ISIS “special services secret agent.”
The summer issue of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, whose bomb recipe guided the Boston Marathon bombers, tried to capitalize on the Black Lives Matter protests with an article stressing that al-Qaeda sympathies with “the oppression and injustices directed towards you” and wants to recruit African-Americans to work cooperatively in jihad.
“So where are the noble mujahedeen who will return the battle to America in their own soil?” AQAP asks.