The recent attacks in Paris and Beirut and the downing of a Russian airliner in Egypt were the first results of a centrally planned terrorism campaign by a wing of the Islamic State leadership that oversees “external” targets, according to U.S. and European intelligence officials.
The Islamic State’s overseas operations planning cell offers strategic guidance, training and funding for actions aimed at inflicting the maximum possible civilian casualties but leaves the task of picking the time, place and manner of the attacks largely to trusted operatives on the ground, the officials said.
Carrying out attacks far from the Islamic State’s base in Iraq and Syria represents an evolution of the group’s previous model of exhorting followers to take up arms wherever they live — but without significant help from the group. And it upends the view held by the United States and its allies of the Islamic State as a regional threat, with a new assessment that the group poses a whole new sets of risks.
“Once the Islamic State possessed territory that provided them sanctuary and allowed them to act with impunity, they like other jihadist groups inevitably turned to external attacks,” said William Wechsler, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and until last January a top counterterrorism official at the Pentagon.
One possible motivation of the change in strategy by the Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL, is to seize leadership of the global jihad from al-Qaida — from which the Islamic State broke away in 2013. The attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali on Friday was probably carried out by two al-Qaida-linked groups, suggesting, as one senior European counterterrorism official put it, “The race is on between ISIS and al-Qaida to see who can attack the West the best.”
U.S. and European intelligence officials said they based their new assessment of the external operations structure on intercepted communications, the Islamic State’s own propaganda, and other intelligence.
Investigators are still piecing together details of how the Paris plotters communicated, but two Western counterterrorism officials revealed that there were electronic communications between Islamic State leaders in Syria and Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the man suspected to be the mastermind of the assault, in the weeks before the attacks.
Similar evidence analyzed after the bombings in Beirut, the Lebanese capital, suggests that those strikes were directed from Syria and conducted by operatives on the ground. The downing of the Russian airliner followed a larger Islamic State goal to strike Russian interests but was probably carried out autonomously by the group’s affiliate in Egypt, officials said.
According to U.S. and European officials, the man overseeing the attacks outside Iraq and Syria is Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, a 38-year-old Syrian who is the official spokesman for the Islamic State and one of the most trusted lieutenants of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group’s supreme leader.
Adnani is best known for a 42-minute audio statement issued on social media in September 2014 in which he called on individual Muslims living in the West to kill civilians in their countries by any means necessary: “If you can, kill a disbelieving American or European — especially the spiteful and filthy French — or an Australian, or a Canadian.”
As a result, Adnani now has a $5 million bounty on his head. “Adnani has been a key figure in external planning since ISIS rose to prominence over a year ago,” said Matthew G. Olsen, a former director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
French intelligence officials believe that Abaaoud, who was killed last week, worked under Adnani in Syria.
According to activists from Aleppo province in Syria, Abaaoud spent time in Azaz, near the Turkish border, in early 2014. Azaz at the time was a kind of foreign jihadist boomtown.
Western officials say the Belgian-born Abaaoud was eventually assigned a bigger role: to organize attack missions in Europe. There, he drew upon a vast network of radicals and extremists long before the Paris strikes.
The Islamic State-operated cells worked in what a Belgian counterintelligence official called a “bamboo” structure — most militant groups have cells intended to operate separately and in parallel to ensure that if one member is killed or a plot is aborted, the demise would not affect other plots.
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said the Islamic State’s main priority for its first year had been to consolidate control over territory in Iraq and Syria, but that the external operations cell had grown in stature, now most likely directing specific plots.
“In the case of Paris,” Schiff said, “we’re still trying to determine the extent of control by the external branch, and how much discretion was given to the operatives in Europe to pick the time, place and manner of attack.”