News analysis

ISIS obsessed with striking Europe for years

WASHINGTON • The day he left Syria with instructions to carry out a terrorist attack in France, Reda Hame, 29, a computer technician from Paris, had been a member of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) for just over a week.

His French passport and his background in information technology made him an ideal recruit for a rapidly expanding group within ISIS that was dedicated to terrorising Europe. Over just a few days, Hame was rushed to a park, shown how to fire an assault rifle, handed a grenade and told to hurl it at a human silhouette.

His accelerated course included how to use an encryption program called TrueCrypt, the first step in a process intended to mask communications with his ISIS handler back in Syria.

The handler, codenamed Dad, drove Hame to the Turkish border and sent him off with advice to pick an easy target, shoot as many civilians as possible and hold hostages until the security forces made a martyr of him. "Be brave," Dad said, embracing him.

Hame was sent out by a body inside ISIS that was obsessed with striking Europe for at least two years before the deadly assaults in Paris last November and in Brussels this month.

ATTACKS PLANNED AS FAR BACK AS 2012

This didn't all of a sudden pop up in the last six months. They have been contemplating external attacks ever since the group moved into Syria in 2012.

MR MICHAEL FLYNN, a retired US Army lieutenant-general who ran the Defence Intelligence Agency from 2012 to 2014.

In that time, the group dispatched a string of operatives trained in Syria, aiming to carry out small attacks meant to test and stretch Europe's security apparatus even as the most deadly assaults were in the works, according to court proceedings, interrogation transcripts and records of European wiretaps obtained by The New York Times.

Officials now say the signs of this focused terrorist machine were readable in Europe as far back as early 2014. Yet the local authorities repeatedly discounted each successive plot, describing them as isolated or random acts, the connection to ISIS either overlooked or played down.

"This didn't all of a sudden pop up in the last six months," said Mr Michael Flynn, a retired US Army lieutenant-general who ran the Defence Intelligence Agency from 2012 to 2014. "They have been contemplating external attacks ever since the group moved into Syria in 2012."

Hame was arrested in Paris last August, before he could strike, one of at least 21 trained operatives who succeeded in slipping back into Europe.

Their interrogation records offer a window into the origins and evolution of an ISIS branch responsible for killing hundreds of people in Paris, Brussels and beyond.

European officials now know that Dad, Hame's handler, was none other than Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian operative who selected and trained fighters for plots in Europe and who returned himself to oversee the Paris attacks, the deadliest terrorist strikes on European soil in over a decade.

The people in Abaaoud's external operations branch were also behind the Brussels attacks, as well as a foiled attack in a suburb of Paris last week, and others are urgently being sought, Belgian and French officials say.

"It's a factory over there," Hame warned his interlocutors from France's intelligence service after his arrest. "They are doing everything possible to strike France, or else Europe."

The growing capacity of ISIS for terrorist attacks can be seen in its progress in making and deploying bombs containing triacetone triperoxide, or TATP.

TATP has become terrorists' go-to explosive in Europe because its main ingredients, acetone and hydrogen peroxide, can be found in common household goods such as nail polish remover and hair bleach, experts say.

But while the building blocks are easy to come by, TATP is difficult to make, because the ingredients are unstable once combined and can easily detonate if they are mishandled.

In a worrying sign of how the terrorists are now comfortable with TATP: Found inside the apartment of last week's attackers were nearly 151 litres of acetone and 30 litres of hydrogen peroxide - as well as a suitcase containing over 14kg of ready-to-go TATP, according to the Belgian police.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 30, 2016, with the headline 'ISIS obsessed with striking Europe for years'. Print Edition | Subscribe