The evolution of the strategies employed by terrorist groups is constant, and the most recent iteration groups like the Islamic State are employing may be impossible to stop, according to security experts.
Patrick Skinner of the Soufan Group, a strategic security intelligence consulting firm, said the tactic utilized by the Brussels “supercell” was adopted from traditional criminal organization. Skinner, a former CIA case officer with experience in counter-terrorism, told WTOP news that groups like the Brussels supercell engage in a “carjacking” style of terrorism.
“These people have basically merged terrorism with gang crime, which is virtually impossible to root out. Police everywhere from Liverpool to Molenbeek to Los Angeles have struggled with this,” said Skinner.
Skinner points to two significant traits to defend his theory. First, terrorists like those who perpetrated the attacks in Brussels, Paris and San Bernardino are generally locals with knowledge of their potential targets and connections to larger terrorist organizations overseas. Second, the attackers generally engage in a significant amount of planning and preparation before committing their attacks.
As an example, Skinner pointed to Paris mastermind Salah Abdeslam.
“He was the most wanted man in the E.U. for four months, but he didn’t run away; he ran home,” said Skinner. Because Abdeslam had intimate connections to the local population in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels, there was no need for him to run off to a far-flung country, everything he needed was in Molenbeek, from guns to shelter.
Indeed, just days before Abdeslam was captured, he was believed to be aided and abetted by sympathetic locals in Brussels. When security officials attempted a raid to capture him, they were met with gunfire, injuring three officers.
The strategy, according to Skinner, is nearly impossible to stop.
“How can you root out this type of crime? You actually can’t,” he said. “It’s a local, crime-driven event that you just can’t possibly prevent. You can’t stop a carjacking attempt from happening. They’ve applied the carjacking model to terrorist attacks.”
The hierarchy is essentially plug-and-play. Local terrorists, many of whom are already tied in with local criminality and are “tied to the local economy” affiliate themselves with a larger terrorist group like ISIS.
Dan Botsch, president of counter-terrorism consulting firm Trapwire, corroborated much of Skinner’s theory, particularly regarding how local cells use surveillance and plug in to larger terrorist groups.
“They’re following the practices of the professional organizations,” he told WTOP. “What I mean is they are doing their homework. They don’t wake up one morning to decide ‘We’re gonna hit this facility.’ They study it online, in person; they run surveillance operations against it.”
[dcquiz] The Brussels supercell almost certainly did have grander ambitions than just the attacks on Paris and Brussels. Officials discovered several hours worth of video of what appeared to be surveillance on a top Belgian nuclear official during a late February raid on a suspected terrorist’s Brussels apartment. A Belgium official later said he believed the terrorists may have been attempting to create a ‘dirty bomb.’
“They will learn everything they need to know about that target, so that on the day of the attack they hit their target and do it in a way that’s going to create the maximum amount of damage,” said Botsch.
Skinner warns that not only is the “carjacking” strategy nearly impossible to counter, it also has “completely upended” traditional counter-terrorism strategies.
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