Police guard the scene of the Verviers anti-terror operation in January 2015 ©Bruno Fahv/AFP/Getty Images

The terror network

Revelations about Islamic State's planning show that extremists are most likely to be radicalised by relatives or friends. To stop them we need to break those connections
May 18, 2016
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Just after five o’clock on a cold, foggy afternoon in January last year, a car pulled up outside a nondescript three-storey terraced brick house on the Rue de la Colline in the centre of Verviers, a small city southeast of Brussels. Carrying a heavy parcel, a 25-year-old got out, paid the driver and knocked on the door of the ground floor flat.

Waiting for him were two veterans of the war in Syria who had recently returned to Belgium after months overseas. Sofiane Amghar, 26, and Khalid Ben Larbi, 23, had been fighting with Islamic State (IS) and were now planning a series of bombings and shootings at an airport and police stations in Belgium. According to the police, who had wired the flat with microphones and put it under 24-hour surveillance, the man who joined them was responsible for logistics. He was Marouane El Bali, a former security guard who, like the others, had grown up around the Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek. El Bali was warmly greeted. “Hey, I’ve missed you,” said one of the two men. “How are you big guy?” asked the other. Backslapping and laughter followed.

The package El Bali had brought, officials say, contained an AK-47 assault rifle complete with magazines and ready for use. The weapon was one of the final elements the cell needed before launching their attacks, scheduled for the following day.

Earlier, while waiting, Amghar and Ben Larbi had discussed how they would feel when the shooting started. One had confessed to nerves. “Everyone is scared,” he said. This irritated the other man. “I’m never frightened... You’re a nutter,” he responded. After El Bali’s arrival, the conversation returned to their planned attacks. “You’ve seen much worse things over there [in Syria] and you’re scared here?” chided the alleged quartermaster of the cell, shortly after unwrapping the gun.

There was little time for further exchanges. At about 5.45pm, the men were talking about how IS had rewarded one fighter in Syria with a farm. Their conversation was interrupted by shouts of “police, police.” The door to the flat was splintered and shots fired. The authorities, having heard the references to the weapon, had decided to move in. Amghar and Ben Larbi were killed in the firefight. El Bali leapt through a window of the burning building but was still arrested. His trial began on 9th May.

One line in the transcripts of their conversations, reported by Le Monde, has a particular resonance today. The men discussed how to motivate one member of the cell who was reluctant to participate in the forthcoming attack. None had an obvious solution. “Call O,” suggested one.

“O?” “Yes O... You know, Abdel...” “O,” referred to Abu Omar, the nom de guerre of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who would lead the November attacks in Paris, and whose network would go on to kill another 35 people in the Brussels bombings in March.

Abaaoud, who died in a shootout with French police shortly after the Paris attacks, is the man at the centre of the worst wave of terrorist violence in Europe for a decade. He was first noticed by European intelligence services three years ago, when his presence in Syria was revealed by boastful social media postings. It took until late 2014 before his involvement with violence in Europe became clear. Intensive efforts to track him down followed. Shortly before the raid in Verviers, Abaaoud had been in Athens; but European agencies were too slow to catch him there and the trail went cold. It is only now, however, that the extent of Abaaoud’s importance is becoming clear.

The Verviers plot—10 months before the Paris attack—was far from the first of Abaaoud’s efforts to strike in Europe. IS, it now appears, was planning attacks on the continent much earlier than previously thought. Interviews with officials in France, Belgium and the UK, as well as reporting by French media, the New York Times, the BBC and others, suggest that efforts started well before the launch of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria by European nations as part of the US-led coalition in August and September 2014, and apparently even before IS captured the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in June that year. It is also increasingly clear that Abaaoud brought something to IS that was critical in converting the group’s apparently longstanding desire to launch a terrorist campaign in Europe into the ability to do so. The nature of this prize asset tells us much about the threat posed by modern Islamist militancy—and suggests some ways to better counter it.

Abaaoud was born in Brussels in 1987; his father was a prosperous shopkeeper and small businessman who had emigrated from Morocco 12 years before. He was educated at a number of schools, including one exclusive fee-paying establishment he attended for a year. By his late teens, he was living in Molenbeek and had racked up the first of a series of convictions for petty crime. Neither he nor his family were particularly religiously observant. According to his father, Abaaoud’s interest in extremist Islam began during a spell in jail in 2012. When freed, he was drawn to an informal circle of young radicals familiar with a well-known local activist and preacher in Brussels, who was convicted last year of sending recruits to Syria. At least three others in Abaaoud’s network were possibly recruited by this man too.

Abaaoud arrived in Syria in 2013. Despite travelling between Belgium and the conflict zone, or perhaps because of such trips, he appears to have swiftly risen through the ranks of IS. By early 2014, he was talking to fighters who were tasked with carrying out terrorist attacks in Europe, and by the middle of that year he was training the men who would end up in the Verviers flat.

His ascent is not hard to explain. He had qualities that may have been unique within IS. He was able to build relationships with the hundreds of young Franco-Belgian recruits who made their way to fight with the organisation, speaking their language literally and figuratively. Given the complex attacks that eventually occurred in Paris, he clearly had talent as a logistician and manager. Crucially, his background gave him access not just to Belgium, an easy place for extremists to operate as well as recruit, but, as a fluent French speaker with an EU passport, to France too, a prime target for IS. Then there was his most useful asset of all: a deep network of friends, relatives and acquaintances back home, who had useful skills, and who lived in exactly the right place.

One difference between the current generation of European attackers and earlier ones is their level of prior involvement in criminal activities. Offences range from petty theft and trafficking in soft drugs through to armed robbery and violent assaults. Today’s militants are more likely to be people who can get hold of an AK-47 or a stolen car, find a safe house or evade surveillance, come up with large amounts of cash at short notice or false documents. Abaaoud is entirely representative of this new type of extremist recruit. Ten years ago, such men might have frequented bars like Les Beguines in the centre of Molenbeek—a favourite hangout of Abaaoud and many others involved in the Paris attacks, which was shut by police who found young men dealing drugs—before becoming interested in radical Islam. But once convinced of their new cause they would have avoided such places. Police analysts, social workers, community leaders and young people I interviewed in Molenbeek last November say these days radicalisation—and apparently planning of terrorist acts too—is significantly more likely to occur in such locations than in a mosque.

“It happens on the pavement, or wherever they meet. Nowhere special,” said the mother of one 19-year-old from the neighbourhood who joined IS and was killed in Syria last year.

To start with, Abaaoud’s connections back home do not seem to have been much help. Through 2014 and early 2015, he appears to have found, or been sent, a series of fighters in Syria who came from European countries. These volunteers had been convinced that they should return home to cause mayhem by attacking soft targets, rather than get killed in Syria or Iraq. This was in line with the broader thinking within IS that privileged a series of small-scale attacks over the single spectacular strike. Not only were the former less costly and less vulnerable to disruption, but they were thought, at least over time, to be as effective at terrorising enemies, polarising the targeted communities and mobilising followers as any one-off bigger operation.

After an initial success, when Mehdi Nemmouche, a French criminal turned IS fighter, attacked the Jewish Museum in Brussels and killed four people in May 2014, there came a series of failures. Abaaoud’s students appear to be motivated but incompetent. In June 2014, a Belgian veteran of the Syria conflict returned to Brussels and was detained after being found in possession of a large amount of ammunition. A few months later a young French veteran was arrested in Cannes after his co-conspirator was stopped in Barcelona and explosives seized. There were a string of other arrests. Then came the debacle in Verviers—possibly caused by loose talk on telephones. In April 2015, another of Abaaoud’s plans failed when a young Algerian-born man shot himself in the foot as he prepared to attack a church full of worshippers in France and called an ambulance. In August 2015, another French veteran was arrested in Paris and then described to authorities how he had been trained by Abaaoud for six days, then told to get home, obtain weapons and fire into a crowd, possibly at a concert. The same month, a gunman armed with an AK-47 was overpowered on the Thalys high-speed train from Brussels before he could do serious harm. He too seems to have been one of Abaaoud’s protégés. The result appears to have been that by mid-2015, IS changed tack. Instead of lone actors with minimal support attempting small-scale operations, the group would attempt a much more ambitious attack.

Abaaoud was still relatively junior within IS and his role, though important, was operational, not strategic. The orders to organise the Paris attacks may have come from Fabien Clain, a veteran French jihadi released from prison in early 2014. He travelled to Syria and rose rapidly up the hierarchy. Most likely, a directive was issued by the IS leadership which then signed off on the plan once Clain, Abaaoud or others had worked out the details.

Whoever planned the operation in early or mid-2015 may have instinctively understood that two major developments had made such a strike significantly easier to execute. One was the existence of a new cohort of young Belgians and Frenchmen now fighting for IS. The flow of volunteers to the group had significantly spiked in the autumn of 2014 and the surge continued through the first half of 2015. Not only did this provide many more candidates from whom attackers suitable for operations in Europe could be selected, but a very high proportion of the several hundred Belgian newcomers had been initially drawn into extremism and sent to Syria by the same networks. This meant a significant number knew Abaaoud personally, or at the very least had mutual friends.

But it was the second development that would make the real difference. Only a minority of those actively interested in IS and its ideology in places like Molenbeek actually travelled to Syria. The rise of IS to global prominence, and its propaganda also affected those who remained. Events in the Middle East had also deepened the engagement of Abaaoud’s contacts back in Belgium. This sprawling network of friends, relatives and others—so many with useful and rare criminal capabilities—now included far more people who might help with logistical support. This was vital.

Attacks over the last decade or so have repeatedly shown how success needs the involvement of many more people than the few who place bombs or fire guns. Officials now talk of the actual perpetrators as only the “tip of the iceberg” of any conspiracy. Turkish police investigating attacks in Istanbul in 2003 by an al-Qaeda-linked cell estimated that 400 people knew of the forthcoming operation and had failed to inform the authorities. Subsequent investigations revealed the number of those who could be linked, even tangentially, to the bombings of Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005 was many times the handful of attackers in either case.

Even so-called “lone wolves” are rarely alone. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University examined the interactions of 119 supposed lone wolf terrorists from all ideological and faith backgrounds, and found that, even though they launched their attacks alone, in 79 per cent of cases others were aware of the individual’s extremist ideology, and in 64 per cent of cases family and friends were aware of the individual’s intent to engage in terrorism-related activity. Saleh Abdeslam, alleged to be a key logistician for the Paris attacks, evaded Belgian security services for four months before being detained in Molenbeek where he was hiding in the basement of the home of a distant relative’s mother.

The success of the Paris operation was, of course, owed to many factors. There were the multiple failures of counter-terrorist agencies across the continent, the acute refugee crisis which distracted policymakers and allowed some of the conspirators a mobility they might otherwise have been denied, and the clever exploitation of new technology by the attackers. But above all its success was a result of a sprawling network of individuals focusing its resources and energies on a single enterprise in an extraordinarily effective way. By linking fighters in Syria to the newly energised support network in Belgium, this created a capability that had never existed before. It certainly meant an end to the incompetence that had marked the individual operations of the previous 18 months. The only person capable of coordinating this network’s disparate elements was Abaaoud.

So what does this mean for the effort to counter the terrorist threat in Europe and elsewhere? Some of the most interesting work currently being done on Islamic militancy is by Scott Atran, an anthropologist at Oxford University, and his colleague Nafees Hamid, a social psychologist at University College London. Atran maintains it is not loners seeking “brotherhood or sisterhood” through membership of extremist organisations that pose the greatest danger, as many currently suggest. It’s the opposite: individuals who are well embedded in a range of social networks.

“It’s the initial belonging that’s the risk factor, not seeking to belong. Once one member of a friendship circle goes over the edge of radicalisation they risk pulling all of their friends in with them. Much of the discussion and research on counter-radicalisation and countering violent extremism has focused on understanding ‘root causes’ and developing ‘counter-narratives.’ I think such a focus has been, and will likely continue to be, a massive waste of time.”

This, Atran argues, is because current “prevent strategies” attempt the impossible.

“We can’t prevent every person from joining a group. Instead, we must accept that from time to time people will radicalise—just like cars will crash—but we can try to mitigate the risk of that one person pulling all of their friends in with them. If they don’t pull in their network then they’re less likely to be motivated to go through with violent acts... and they won’t have the support that is necessary for carrying out domestic attacks either.”

Hamid downplays the role of environmental factors. “Look at France. The latest statistics are that 0.04 per cent of the French Muslim population are implicated in jihadi networks. Any environmental factors—socio-economic status, for example—will apply to many more. The presence of particular social networks is a far better predictor. Closed networks are a petri dish in which good or bad ideas can spread,” he said.

This means, Atran says, turning away from our current focus on poverty, criminalisation or marginalisation, as well as from our conversations about British or French or Belgian values and identity too. Instead, policies aimed at preventing radicalisation should be focused on increasing the resilience of a social network to radicalisation “once a member has gone over the edge.”

Hamid points to existing programmes in Pakistan and France that attempt to break up the closed environment created within small groups as an example of what can be done, but Atran admits that there are few tried and tested tactics.

“One possibility is that another member finds some other movement and creates a counter-pull on the network in that other direction. Perhaps having weaker ties in the network between members increases resilience by decreasing social unity. Perhaps a charismatic leader can dissuade other members. Maybe these are all wrong and probably some of these aren’t even desirable. But until we shift focus and try to answer the question of network resilience, prevention policies will continue to attempt the impossible rather than solving a more tractable problem that is ultimately creating the bulk of the risk: friends radicalising friends.”

One other lesson from the story of Abaaoud is that individuals can have a very significant impact within terrorist groups. This has long been argued by government agencies involved in counter-terrorism but resisted by those who prefer to emphasise the “hydra-like” nature of violent extremist organisations. Such individuals can be field commanders such as Mohamed Atta, leader of the 9/11 hijackers, or Mohammad Sidique Khan, who led the 2005 bombings in London. Both showed significant management and leadership abilities. They can be those who recruit, control and mobilise too. Raffaello Pantucci, an author and researcher, cites the example of Rashid Rauf, a Briton who led dozens of British volunteers for al-Qaeda and was able to put together a series of plots, most notably an attempt to bring down half a dozen transatlantic jets simultaneously, before his death in a drone strike in Pakistan sometime between 2008 and 2012. One disadvantage, for terrorists anyway, of the role social networks play in facilitating attacks is that the disruption when the key “link” figure is removed is very great. If Abaaoud had been killed or detained at any stage up until the moment when the attack in Paris was launched, it is unlikely that it would have been as murderous, and possibly might not have taken place at all.

IS and al-Qaeda are not large organisations. The upper ranks of both are comprised of only a few men and truly competent senior leaders are not numerous. Many have been killed. The question now is whether IS has the reserves of talent to replace lost personnel. There are reports that Clain, the veteran French militant, has taken over Abaaoud’s role. There are also suggestions that a third Frenchman in Syria, who has also been involved in militant violence for many years, may be playing a key role too. A fourth French citizen, so far unidentified, is also thought to be influential. At least one of the Brussels attackers is known to have had a long conversation with this man shortly before the bombings in March.

But anyone attempting to launch another attack such as that in Paris will be operating in a dramatically different set of circumstances. There are gaping holes in Europe’s defences against terrorism but there is a recognition that these need to be filled. More importantly, the flow of foreign fighters to Syria from European nations has slowed dramatically. American officials estimate that only a tenth of the 2,000 who reached the conflict zone every month at the peak of the influx now make their way there successfully. Though thousands of Europeans remain in Syria, there are reports that the Franco-Belgian brigade that provided Abaaoud with his attackers has been disbanded, in part because of heavy casualties. IS is now on the defensive in many areas, and intensified airstrikes directed against individuals and resources used to mount terrorist attacks overseas are taking their toll.

All this suggests some cautious optimism might be justified, despite the evident likelihood of further attacks in Europe. Waves of terrorism tend to follow a fairly regular course: a build up that goes unnoticed, a sudden surge of violence that prompts a desperate scramble by governments and counter-terrorist agencies to tackle the new threat, a period of stalemate that sees regular attacks, and then a steady, if slow and uneven, decline of the threat. We saw this in the 1970s with rather different forms of terrorism, as well as in the 1980s and early 1990s in various conflicts in the Islamic world involving militants that are now largely forgotten. We saw it too between 1998 and 2011 with al-Qaeda.


We are likely to see this too with IS, though perhaps not for some time. Each one of these waves of violence lasted around 15 years, and we are only in, at best, the sixth year of this one. For all the short-term utility of killing individuals such as Abaaoud, it has almost always been the partial resolution, or at least evolution, of the deeper causes of terrorism which has previously allowed sustainable progress in the effort to counter it. Victory of a sort may come eventually, but it won’t be for a while.