How to Counter ISIS Wolf-packs

The Barcelona murders are leading counter-terror specialists to study a new ISIS doctrine urging assassins to burrow into their adopted nations in the West and to plan complex attacks in place. Just a year after his death by a missile strike near Aleppo, Syria, the strategic doctrine of the Islamic State Intelligence director, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, is much alive through his calls to all ISIS agents in the West to carry out attacks in the countries where they live.

Adnani’s audio message of May 21, 2016 calling for lone-wolf attacks in Europe now appears to have been a turning point. From then, the Adnani’s intelligence agency focused on sending operatives to the West and reaching out to close family and trusted friends of established foreign fighters. But after Barcelona, the lone-wolf concept appears misleading; its more accurate to say the wolves are running in packs.

Two essential steps were taken by Adnani’s team.

First, the foreign fighters unknown to intelligence agencies were sent to Turkish Mediterranean holiday resorts after purchasing two—week to a month long holiday packages and only staying a few days in their hotels by taking a lot of pictures to prove they were vacationing in Turkey, if later questioned by their home country counter-terrorism officers. They then headed back to Syria for fast-track military trainings. This way, ISIS managed to train dozens of foreign fighters quickly and sent them back to Europe with orders to hide themselves, according to ISIS defector interviews we carried out during the last three years.

The second step was and still is asking the established foreign fighters to reach out to their close friends and relatives in the West for recruitment to attack. Case in point: a senior ISIS commander reached out to his brothers Khaled Khayat, 49, and Mahmoud Khayat, 32, in Australia who carried out the failed Australian passenger airliner bombing in early August.

The Spain attackers who killed 14 people and injured more than 120 were close relatives or friends. ISIS urges recruitment of friends and family because it is easier, faster and safer. A similar scenario was linked with the Paris attackers. The cell in Spain, an identified 13-person team and 3 unknown members, included four sets of brothers. The relatives of Younes Abouyaaqoub, the main suspect in Barcelona van attack who was shot to death, told Reuters that “they were shocked at his involvement, as well as that of his two cousins and brother,” which should not be surprising, because the operatives were strictly instructed not to reveal their connections with any but supremely trusted family.

The team managed to operate secretly for over a year to prepare their partly failed attacks most probably with the aid of several ISIS-produced books distributed electronically.

ISIS has produced and distributed over its social media many handbooks and manuals to train and guide its “Lone Wolves” in the West. An e-book published July 3, 2017 in Turkish titled “Lone Wolves’ Handbook” described several ways to carry out easy to follow attacks including preparing powerful explosives by using LPG gas tanks and TATP explosives. The Barcelona terrorists likely used similar manuals to create an explosive truck which detonated prematurely a day ahead of their actual attack. Likewise, ISIS published a manual in 2015 titled “How to Survive in the West, a Mujahid’s Guide” extensively coaching its operatives about hiding their identities, learning survival techniques, transporting explosives and escaping after attacks.    

Three essential and immediate steps that should be taken by the West.

First, Counter-terror units must upgrade their intelligence activities. This means all known foreign fighters’ close connections should be closely watched based on a prioritized list. A well-trained and experienced intelligence officer can easily understand if a suspect is planning an attack.

Second, solid and sincere intelligence and information sharing, not only domestically in a country between law enforcement and intelligence agencies, but also internationally, between countries and relevant agencies. The international community still lags at intelligence sharing. An international platform is needed where fast and reliable intelligence could be shared without time-consuming bureaucratic obstructions.  

Third, the Salafist jihadi content on the Internet and social media must be blocked and wiped off. ISIS continues to operate a virtual caliphate, recruiting remotely thanks to its online propaganda and training videos with its terror manuals one click away, ordering its members through cell phone applications to carry out attacks and arranging its operations abroad successfully. Internet and social media companies should do a better job to block the use of their platforms to terrorists. A google search of ISIS eBook with quotations “How to Survive in the West” produces 1,470,000 results many of which have downloadable live links to the manual.

Ahmet S. Yayla, Ph.D.
Ahmet S. Yayla, Ph.D.
Ahmet S. Yayla is an assistant professor at the DeSales University Homeland Security Department and faculty member at Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies. He is also a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at the George Washington University. Dr. Yayla previously served as a full professor and the chair of the Department of Sociology at Harran University in Turkey. Dr. Yayla is a 20-year veteran of the counterterrorism and operations department in the Turkish National Police and served as the chief of counterterrorism in Sanliurfa, Turkey between 2010 and 2013.