The Increasing Sophistication and Legitimacy of the Islamic State

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has become the preeminent terror group among U.S.-based extremists according to an assessment authored by the Department of Homeland Security and more than a dozen state and local fusion centers. Individuals determined to fight “overseas in a Muslim-majority country” or conduct attacks domestically will be “more likely to derive inspiration from ISIL than [al-Qaeda] or any of its affiliates” as long as ISIL can maintain its “current level of perceived legitimacy and relevancy.” This assessment of ISIL’s increasing popularity among domestic extremists is the focus of a ten page Field Analysis Report obtained by Public Intelligence titled Assessing ISIL’s Influence and Perceived Legitimacy in the Homeland: A State and Local Perspective. Drawing on suspicious activity reports from around the country as well as intelligence reporting from DHS and the Bureau of Prisons, the report finds that ISIL’s military successes in Iraq and Syria along with the group’s self-proclaimed re-establishment of the caliphate have captured the attention of violent extremists likely to buy in to its “violent extremist counterculture.”

While this may mean that more “lone offender” attacks against U.S. targets are on the way, an assessment from the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis sees more sophisticated plots on the horizon. Focusing on a plot disrupted in January 2015 by Belgian authorities in which “a large group of terrorists possibly operating under ISIL direction” were found to have stockpiled explosive precursors and sophisticated weaponry, DHS concludes that the group may have “developed the capability to launch more complex operations in the West.” The assessment titled Future ISIL Operations in West Could Resemble Disrupted Belgian Plot was released to law enforcement last month and was also obtained by Public Intelligence.

An Increase in Suspicious Activity

In the second half of 2014, the volume of ISIL-related suspicious activity reports that were received by state, local and federal authorities “increased sharply,” indicating a trend that “signifies a penetration of ISIL’s messaging into the Homeland.” This increase coincides with the group’s recent military successes including “rapid territorial gains” and the “self-declared re-establishment of a caliphate.” ISIL has also rapidly expanded its English-language messaging to include armies of social media accounts, elaborate and gruesome videos as well as an English-language magazine that highlights life inside of the Islamic State, including “government services” such as “banking, health care and education.” Previous assessments from DHS have noted the “savvy” use of media by ISIL, though the Field Analysis Report studying the group’s legitimacy focuses on the activity this messaging has inspired domestically. According to the report, graffiti, symbols, paraphernalia and other ISIL-related imagery has been reported to law enforcement throughout the U.S.  Personnel at Marine Corps Base Quantico reportedly discovered leaflets with an ISIL banner discussing “coming from Mexico on a train.” Small ISIL flags were found on the windshields of vehicles in a residential neighborhood in Falls Church, Virginia. ISIL stickers have also been reported on highway signs and other public structures in Arizona, Nevada and Texas.

Though suspicious activity reports related to ISIL have increased significantly, many of the reports are likely not a legitimate indicator of ISIL activity. In preparing their Field Analysis Report, fusion center personnel reviewed a number of incidents that resulted in suspicious activity reports being filed into the national Information Sharing Environment and found that half of those were based on anonymous tips “that were likely not credible.” These reports often described “aspirational threats of violence against family or friends, where ISIL-affiliation appeared to be used only as a means to intimidate the victim(s).” The other incidents reviewed, “most of which . . . were also likely not credible” related to public threats against political targets. These include threats made against the President as well as public calls for the assassination of Twitter employees following the company’s suspension of accounts associated with ISIL in 2014. Over one-third of the reports were related to “social media postings” including the dissemination of “official ISIL messaging.”

ISIL’s Legitimacy Surpasses al-Qaeda

Whether the increase in suspicious activity reporting related to ISIL is an accurate indicator of the group’s increasing operational presence or simply an artifact of the group’s increasing notoriety, the Field Analysis Report argues it is a reflection of the group’s increasing legitimacy.  Through its bloody tactics, the group wins converts by asserting their defense of “Muslims against enemy attacks” as well as the defense of the “self-proclaimed re-establishment of the caliphate.”  Citing surveillance of inmate communications conducted by the Bureau of Prisons, the Field Analysis Report lists a number of incidents where U.S. involvement in the Middle East was listed as a justification of ISIL’s tactics.  In multiple conversations with family members, one inmate reportedly stated his belief that the group needed to “finish Shiites and other disbelievers.”  Criminal indictments of U.S. persons inspired by ISIL to either travel overseas or conduct attacks domestically also indicate a “general desire to fight overseas, defend Muslims against aggressors and join like-minded violent extremists.”

ISIL’s attraction among domestic extremists has become so strong that the formal division between the group’s leadership and al-Qaeda has had little effect on their support for both groups.  Individuals arrested for trying to join ISIL, as well as individuals who have traveled overseas to fight with the group, have expressed support for Anwar al-Aulaqi, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as well as Jabhat al-Nusra.  This support indicates that potential “homegrown violent extremists” may “embrace the groups’ similarities more than their distinctions.”  However, U.S.-based extremists are “more likely to derive inspiration from ISIL than [al-Qaeda]” or other groups, a judgment which DHS states is “consistent with [the Office of Intelligence and Analysis’] review of all-source reporting on the topic.”  In fact, DHS states that it concurs with the Field Analysis Report’s judgment that “ISIL’s 2014 successes on the ground in Iraq and Syria–especially its declaration reestablishing the caliphate–and sophisticated English-language messaging campaign . . . are key drivers contributing to the group’s support among a small subset of US-based individuals.”

Increasingly Sophisticated Attacks

Along with their rising legitimacy and increasing popular appeal, ISIL has also likely “developed the capability to launch more complex operations in the West.”  An assessment authored by the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis in May concludes that future attacks conducted by ISIL could reflect an increasingly “complex, centrally planned plotting” over the “more-simplistic attacks by ISIL-inspired or directed individuals.”  The assessment focuses on a plot disrupted in Belgium earlier this year “involving an Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group with at least ten operatives—some of whom were returning foreign fighters—possibly targeting police or the public.”  The plot may have been directed by members of ISIL and was apparently in an early planning phase as there is no publicly available information about the group’s target.  The raid of a safe house in Verviers, Belgium on January 15, 2015 resulted in a firefight between three suspects involved in the plot and police.  Two of the suspects were ultimately killed and the third was arrested by Belgian authorities.  Items recovered from the safe house as well as other locations in Belgium and several other European countries included “automatic firearms, precursors for the explosive triacetone triperoxide (TATP), a body camera, multiple cell phones, handheld radios, police uniforms, fraudulent identification documents, and a large quantity of cash.”

With more than a dozen individuals associated with the plot spread out throughout Europe, including France, Spain, Greece and the Netherlands, the group sought to exploit the “significant challenges for law enforcement to detect and investigate multi-jurisdictional threats and the necessity of interagency sharing of information about emerging and ongoing threats.”  In fact, the group’s leader Abdelhamid Abaaoud reportedly directed other members via a cell phone from a safe house in Athens, Greece and was able to return to Syria even after the raid in Belgium, despite having international warrants for his arrest.  The group also employed sophisticated operational security measures and were able to acquire weapons and other supplies without being detected by law enforcement due to knowledge gained during their extensive criminal histories.

The DHS assessment finds that the “countermeasures used by this group underscore how knowledge of law enforcement tactics can help subjects adapt their patterns of behavior and highlight the need for investigators to consider whether subjects may be using countermeasures to deflect scrutiny.” One group member reportedly changed his cell phone five times, instructed other members of the group to frequently switch vehicles and to examine their surroundings for hidden microphones and other surveillance equipment. Communications between group members often occurred in several different languages and used coded language to hinder translation efforts. The group utilized an assortment of fraudulent identification documents and kept a large amount of cash “intended to fund some of the group’s procurement activities and to conceal purchasing patterns.”

These efforts to conceal their activities indicate that the group was “likely aided by members’ criminal background and possible access to criminal groups, underscoring the potential for operatives to bypass traditional tripwires and obscure operational planning efforts.”  One group member Souhaib el Abdi reportedly “had previous experience with trafficking forged documents” and much of the equipment held in their Belgian safe house “including Kalashnikov rifles, handguns, ammunition, and materials to make explosives” is believed to have been acquired illegally.  Though security measures employed by the group could make it more difficult for law enforcement to discover potential plots, the DHS assessment argues that they may also provide an opportunity to “detect ongoing plotting, as investigations of intercepted illegal activities may present indicators of other nefarious intentions” and “awareness of the tactics and tradecraft used by this group could assist with identifying and disrupting potential complex plots in the United States.”

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