PARIS, March 24, (AP): The Islamic State group has trained at least 400 fighters to target Europe in deadly waves of attacks, deploying interlocking terror cells like the ones that struck Brussels and Paris with orders to choose the time, place and method for maximum chaos, officials have told The Associated Press. The network of agile and semiautonomous cells shows the reach of the extremist group in Europe even as it loses ground in Syria and Iraq.
The officials, including European and Iraqi intelligence officials and a French lawmaker who follows the jihadi networks, described camps in Syria, Iraq and possibly the former Soviet bloc where attackers are trained to target the West. Before being killed in a police raid, the ringleader of the Nov 13 Paris attacks claimed he had entered Europe in a multinational group of 90 fighters, who scattered “more or less everywhere.”
But the biggest break yet in the Paris attacks investigation — the arrest on Friday of fugitive Salah Abdeslam — did not thwart the multipronged attack just four days later on the Belgian capital’s airport and subway system that left 31 people dead and an estimated 270 wounded. Three suicide bombers also died. Just as in Paris, Belgian authorities were searching for at least one fugitive in Tuesday’s attacks — this time for a man wearing a white jacket who was seen on airport security footage with the two suicide attackers.
The fear is that the man, whose identity Belgian officials say is not known, will follow Abdeslam’s path. After fleeing Paris immediately after the November attacks, Abdeslam forged a new network back in his childhood neighborhood of Molenbeek, long known as a haven for jihadis, and renewed plotting, according to Belgian officials.
“Not only did he drop out of sight, but he did so to organize another attack, with accomplices everywhere. With suicide belts. Two attacks organized just like in Paris. And his arrest, since they knew he was going to talk, it was a response: ‘So what if he was arrested? We’ll show you that it doesn’t change a thing,’” said French Senator Nathalie Goulet, co-head of a commission tracking jihadi networks. Estimates range from 400 to 600 Islamic State fighters trained specifically for external attacks, according to the officials, including Goulet. Some 5,000 Europeans have gone to Syria.
“The reality is that if we knew exactly how many there were, it wouldn’t be happening,” she said. More than four sources with access to tallies of fighters tasked with Europe attacks independently corroborated the numbers of fighters who trained for specific attacks in Europe, including some who have spoken to fighters directly. Others have cross checked information regarding fighters leaving or returning.
Two of the suicide bombers in Tuesday’s attacks, Belgian-born brothers Ibrahim and Khalid El Bakraoui, were known to authorities as common criminals, not anti-Western radicals until an apartment one of them rented was traced to Abdeslam last week, according to Belgian state broadcaster RTBF.
Similarly, an Algerian killed inside that apartment on March 15 had nothing but a petty theft record in Sweden — but he’d signed up as an Islamic State suicide bomber for the group in 2014 and returned to Europe as part of the Nov 13 plot.