The shadowy men who control the ISIS killing machine

One-third of the estimated 5,000 European jihadists who went to Syria and Iraq have re­turned to their home countries.

Amniyat chief Abu Mohammad al-Adnani who was killed in 2016. (AP)


2017/03/19 Issue: 98 Page: 17


The Arab Weekly
Ed Blanche



Beirut - When the external op­erations arm of the Islamic State (ISIS), the Amniyat al- Kharji, got into high gear in 2015, it sharply escalated the terrorist threat by moving away from having untrained sympathis­ers carry out what became known as lone-wolf attacks, which fre­quently failed, to mass-casualty at­tacks planned and directed against civil society to cause panic and fear in the West.

The Amniyat is now focused on coordinating sleeper cells estab­lished by key planners operating from Syria and Iraq. As the jihad­ists come under ever-growing mili­tary pressure on their shrinking caliphate, terrorism experts say the Amniyat is setting up alternative command nodules in less threat­ened sectors, using end-to-end en­crypted internet channels to direct its killer cells.

EU Counterterrorism Coordina­tor Gilles de Kerchove said in a De­cember report that one-third of the estimated 5,000 European jihadists who went to Syria and Iraq have re­turned to their home countries, an unknown number of them unde­tected.

Some of the 1,750 believed to have returned will have been “sent back on specific missions” to participate in ISIS terror attacks, de Kerchove said. Returnees played key roles in the November 2015 slaughter in Paris and the Brussels bombings in March 2016, Western intelligence sources say.

The Amniyat alumni from Syria and Iraq keep in touch with their handlers, who are believed to be based mostly in Syria, through the encrypted one-to-one messaging app known as Telegram, along with WhatsApp and other digital chan­nels that foreign intelligence ser­vices cannot penetrate.

The head of Amniyat al-Kharji controls several theatre command­ers, who US analyst Bridget Moreng said “seem to be assigned an area according to their language abilities and nationalities — enabling them to draw on extensive knowledge of the area when organising plots”.

Various sources say these opera­tives were directly controlled by the Amniyat chief, Abu Mohammad al- Adnani, the most trusted aide of the ISIS caliph, an Iraqi religious scholar known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Adnani, a Syrian and a prime tar­get for the US-led coalition, was killed August 30th, 2016, in a US air strike on Raqqa in northern Syria, de facto capital of the ISIS caliphate.

Up to that point, Adnani’s imme­diate deputy in the Amniyat was a French national known as Abu Su­leyman al-Firansi — real name Ab­delilah Himich — who functioned as director of external operations.

Baghdadi is reported to have pro­moted him to that post as a reward for organising the November 2015 bloodbath in Paris, highly coordi­nated attacks on several targets simultaneously that transformed ISIS’s terror wing from a worrisome irritant to a strategic threat.

Abu Suleyman has been identi­fied as a Moroccan born in Rabat in 1989 who spent his adolescence in Lunel, a small town in southern France that security officials say has produced up to two dozen jihadists who joined ISIS in Syria.

What made him stand out was that he joined the French Foreign Legion in November 2008 and saw combat during a 6-month tour in Afghanistan.

He was identified by an ISIS de­fector as the brains behind the No­vember 2015 Paris attacks, the first major multi-target ISIS operation organised by the Amniyat, and the bombing of Brussels airport and a subway station on March 22nd, 2016. Between them, 152 people were killed and 660 wounded, a ter­rorist toll unprecedented in Europe since the second world war.

Another pivotal figure is Rachid Kassim, a 29-year-old Frenchman believed to be of Algerian descent who joined ISIS in 2015 and was seen in several ISIS videos behead­ing hostages.

He is seemingly constantly on­line with a Facebook page and a Telegram channel, through which he exhorts ISIS supporters to attack Western targets and, when they agree to do so, channels them into the encrypted apps to plan the op­erations.

Kassim’s virtual fingerprints were all over the fatal stabbing of a police chief and his female companion at their home in Magnanville outside Paris on June 14th, 2016, and the gruesome killing of 85-year-old Catholic priest Jacques Hamel in his church in the Normandy village of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray on July 26th, 2016, investigators said.

Moreng said: “It is highly likely that Kassim was responsible for directing other plots throughout France, especially ones that have been accompanied by posthumous video messages from the attackers.”

She identified Kassim, 29, as “one of the Islamic State’s most danger­ous virtual planners… who has pub­lished a number of guides for ISIS supporters in which he specifies the name and location of recommended targets and gives tactical and strate­gic advice to ensure the success of the operation”.

French authorities say that among the operations Kassim mas­terminded were the July 14th, 2016, carnage in the French resort city of Nice, when a French-Tunisian petty criminal named Mohamed Lah­ouaiej-Bouhlel drove an 18-tonne delivery truck into a crowd cele­brating Bastille Day, slaughtering 86 people and injuring hundreds more.


Ed Blanche has covered Middle East affairs since 1967. He is the Arab Weekly analyses section editor.


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