ISIS threat to Europe: Any changes?

There were many discussion that with ISIS losing territory the organization may try to hit Europe also with some returnees. Is this still a big threat, or how would you assess readiness and maybe also current willingness of ISIS to attack western targets? Read few comments.

Sam Mullins*, Professor of Counterterrorism, George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies

In trying to understand the likelihood of a terrorist organization conducting an attack, there are basically three factors that you need to look at: intent, capability and opportunity. In terms of intent to attack Europe (and elsewhere) ISIS still scores very highly. They continue to push out propaganda calling for attacks and show no sign of changing on this front. So the question is more to do with capability and opportunity. Because of its territorial losses and the continued pressure that it finds itself under, I believe that ISIS is currently operating with reduced capability compared to the height of its powers in 2014-2016. Its immediate priority right now is most likely survival and conducting operations in its sphere of operations in Syria and Iraq. The attacks we have seen in Western countries throughout 2018 have been inspired rather than directed and financed by ISIS, and this is likely to remain so in the majority of cases for the foreseeable future.

Additionally, when we look at opportunity, this has also arguably diminished. There are stronger border controls between Syria and Turkey, for example. The migration flows (which were utilized by the network responsible for the attacks in Paris and Brussels) are better controlled. And throughout Europe and the world we have seen significant improvements in counter-terrorism capabilities. As a result, it would be a lot harder now than a few years ago for ISIS operatives to evade detection by the authorities. So I think it is fair to say that we are safer right now in early 2019 than compared to 2014-2015. With all of that said, however, we cannot rule out another ISIS-directed attack, the situation in Syria in particular is still very volatile (and the pending withdrawal of US troops could well lead to deficits in intelligence) and so it remains a real possibility. Moreover, even if ISIS lost all of its territory, it would be a mistake to become complacent and we have to recognize that even ‘non-violent’ returnees from Syria and Iraq can play a dangerous role over the long-term by proselytizing, fundraising, recruiting, and expanding terrorist networks over time, if we are not careful. Now is the time to remain vigilant, to try and capitalize on counter-terrorism progress both at home and abroad, and to further weaken remaining jihadist networks.

* These views do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S.  and/or German Government.

Steve HewittSenior Lecturer in American and Canadian Studies, University of Birmingham

The potential for an Islamic State sympathizer attack remains high. That could involve a returned IS member although based on the past it would be more likely to be someone who was prevented from going abroad to join IS or those who simply sympathize with Islamic State and what it represents. These sort of attacks would involve a lone individual or possibly a group attack along the lines of what occurred at London Bridge in 2017. I think it is unlikely that there will be a big organized attack along the lines of what hit Paris in November 2015. Islamic State is clearly in retreat and simply trying to survive and thus would lack the sort of centralized planning, let alone experienced personnel, to carry it out. Also, such attacks involving larger numbers although potentially far deadlier are also in some ways easier to prevent because they involve larger numbers of people and thus there is an increased chance of the interception of communications or the infiltration of groups with informants.

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