WASHINGTON - European counterterror officials say they are taking no solace in the liberation of Raqqa from Islamic State, with some warning that the terror group's communication and planning units remain "very active."
The fall of IS's Syrian capital this month has been heralded as a crushing blow to the group's aspirations, with U.S. President Donald Trump calling it a "critical breakthrough."
But counterterrorism officials say there is broad consensus that IS still has considerable reach, especially in the near term.
"We all share the same opinion. The military defeat, the so-called caliphate being scattered, does not mean that the terrorist organization ISIS is defeated," Dick Schoof, the Dutch national counterterrorism coordinator, told reporters Wednesday, using an acronym for the group.
Ability to communicate
A key concern is that a loss of territory in Iraq and Syria has yet to have a considerable impact on the terror organization's ability to communicate, both with its operatives in Europe and potential recruits.
IS has also been able to leverage relationships with organized crime syndicates, which officials describe as especially worrisome.
"We know that ISIS's planning unit is still functioning. Also, its communications unit is still functioning," said Schoof.
The European assessment mirrors that of counterterror officials in the United States, who have repeatedly warned that, at best, there would be a lag between the fall of the terror group's self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria and any impact on its external operations.
"We do not think battlefield losses alone will be sufficient to degrade its terrorism capabilities," Nick Rasmussen, head of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, warned in written testimony to U.S. lawmakers in September. He called IS's reach on social media "unprecedented."
Also, one of the most anticipated consequences of the collapse of the so-called caliphate has failed to materialize: a substantial flow of foreign fighters to their home countries.
Schoof, the Dutch counterterror coordinator, said that of the Netherlands' approximately 300 foreign fighters, slightly more than 50 have returned, with only a handful trying to make their way back as IS's fortunes have waned.
Complex terror threat
Friedrich Grommes, head of the international terrorism and organized crime directorate for Germany's Federal Intelligence Service, has also said that "there is no hard evidence" for a rising tide of returning foreign fighters.
Instead, officials say, Europe is facing a more complex and variable threat picture, even as they have worked to take down, through multiple raids and a series of arrests, most of the IS network thought to be behind the terror attacks on Paris and Brussels.
At the same time, officials warn al-Qaida operatives have become more active, stepping up their planning for potential attacks on the West.
In particular, there has been growing concern about IS and al-Qaida activity in northern Africa.
"We are very cautious," Schoof said. "ISIS and al-Qaida are still not very strong but do have footprints."
Like the U.S., which has sent troops to Niger to track IS operatives and officials, European militaries have also been active in the region.
So far, at least, Western officials have yet to track any significant flow of foreign fighters or top officials from the Middle East to Africa.
But IS, at least, is turning to a familiar strategy.
"What ISIS is absolutely trying to do is leverage local insurgencies now to rebrand themselves," Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joe Dunford, the top U.S. military officer, said Tuesday following a meeting of the global coalition to defeat IS. "They're trying to maintain relevance."