The bomb plot is also prompting wider alarm among Western intelligence agencies that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, may be changing its tactics when it comes to foreign recruits by urging more of them to remain in their home countries to mount ‘lone wolf’ terror attacks instead of traveling to fight in Syria with the jihadists.
The security scare follows a four-month probe by investigative journalists from UK broadcaster Sky News, who gained the trust of British members of IS in Syria by posing online as committed jihadists and were told of the bomb plot for this weekend. The plot may involve as many as three women, all recruited online by British extremists currently in the Syrian town of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the group’s self-styled caliphate.
UK security officials, who were passed details of the information before the report was broadcast, are encouraging people to still attend this weekend’s event in the British capital celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Allies' defeat of Japan in WWII.
“While the UK threat level from international terrorism remains severe, we would like to reassure the public that we constantly review security plans for public events, taking into account specific intelligence and the wider threat,” the London police said in a statement.
Trained vs untrained recruits
Even more alarming, the broadcaster heard from a security guard who defected from the Islamic State that four trained British fighters had been sent back recently from Syria to Britain with instructions to mount attacks. Analysts say terrorism conducted by trained fighters tends to be more deadly and large-scale than those carried out by untrained recruits, which tend to involve stabbings and smaller although deadly hit-and-run shootings.
According to Thomas Hegghammer, a longtime expert on European jihadists, attacks conducted by returnee foreign fighters average 7.3 deaths while plots executed without their involvement claim 1.2 deaths per attack.
When it comes to encouraging sympathizers to mount terror attacks, “What Sky News is reporting is not a brand new phenomenon,” Hegghammer told VOA. He suspects the jihadists the broadcaster communicated with “may not be representative of IS as an organization” and that the terrorism being encouraged is not necessarily “leadership-directed,” although it is likely approved of by the terror army’s chiefs.
The distinction is important. While IS’s top propagandists have encouraged ‘lone wolf’ attacks by sympathizers sine the caliphate was announced last summer, the group has expended few resources and effort on mounting spectacular large-scale terrorism in the West, unlike its jihadist rival al-Qaida.
IS’s top leaders, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, have made few explicit threats about mounting attacks in the West. In five major public statements issued by al-Baghdadi since July 2014 the West is mentioned in passing and condemned in general terms. That is marked contrast to the public pronouncements of al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden, who committed his group to attacks on the West and went into great detail why the terrorism was justified.
“IS appears to have had a decentralized attack strategy based on encouraging sympathizer attacks while not mounting centrally directed operations of their own,” according to Hegghammer and his research partner Petter Nesser. Both analysts work at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, which advises Norway’s Ministry of Defense.
Although Western intelligence chiefs are highly worried about possible attacks by untrained sympathizers, they are more alarmed about the larger scale of terrorism that could be mounted by returnee Western-born fighters. An estimated 4000 Westerners have joined ISIL in Syria — French officials recently warned that the number may be higher and “blowback” could be severe.
“There have been more plots involving only IS sympathizers than plots involving returned foreign fighters,” the two Norwegian analysts argue. But they caution the organization’s formidable resources and verbal hints at future attacks give reason for vigilance.
Only one terrorist attack has so far been carried out in the West by a returnee fighter — the May 2014 shooting at a Jewish Museum in Brussels by the French-born 29-year-old Mehdi Nemmouche. Although another six plots that were not carried out in the end involved in some way IS fighters who had returned from Syria.
Since January 2011, there have been a total of 69 jihadist terror plots in the West. Of these, 19 came to fruition, according to the Norwegian researchers. There was an ISIL connection in 30 of the 69 plots but most of the IS-related plots consisted of declared support by the plotters for IS but not meetings with jihadist tacticians or communication with IS cadres or even direction from the leadership.
“Sympathizer attacks are worrying enough,” a senior European intelligence official told VOA. “But if the report is accurate that IS has ordered four foreign fighters back to their home country specifically to conduct attacks, that would suggest the group is now considering mounting al Qaida-type spectaculars — and that is even more alarming.”
The Sky investigators posing as IS supporters were sent terror guidebooks by Junaid Hussain, a 21-year-old jihadist originally from the UK town of Birmingham, who runs an IS information and recruitment arm from Syria, and his 45-year-old wife Sally Jones from Kent, who also helps to recruit for the Islamic State. The advice proffered included instructions on raising funds, making weapons and constructing rudimentary bombs.
In email exchanges with Sally Jones, the Sky investigators were told to construct a pressure-cooker bomb. A similar bomb was detonated at the Boston Marathon in April 2013 that left three people dead and 264 injured.