BACKGROUND : How Islamic State Decided to Bomb Europe


Drawing on two Islamic State members with inside knowledge, Martin Chulov of The Guardian explains the ISIS decision to begin attacks in Europe. Up to November 2015, the assaults in Europe, Australia, and North America were “lone-wolf” operations, with Islamic State sympathizers taking matters into their own hands.However, this changed as the Islamic State came under pressure in its core areas of Iraq and Syria. A meeting in northern Syria decided to organize operations against European targets:

Nine days before the Paris attacks, Islamic State leaders gathered in the Syrian town of Tabqa to talk about what was coming next for the terror organisation. Senior officials from across the so-called caliphate had made difficult journeys under constant fear of airstrikes to the small town west of Raqqa.

In what marked a critical phase in the group’s evolution, there was to be a new focus on exporting chaos to Europe, the assembled men were told. And up to 200 militants were in place across the continent ready to receive orders.

Details of the meeting have been relayed to the Guardian by two Isis members who are familiar with what was discussed. Both said the mood in Tabqa that evening in early November was triumphant. Senior leaders said they were turning their focus to European capitals, and had dispatched foreign fighters back to their homelands to prepare attack plans. And wait.The move marked a decisive shift away from putting all the organisation’s efforts into holding on to lands it had conquered in Syria and Iraq – a cause it acknowledged could not prevail against 14 different air forces and the omniscient eavesdropping powers of its foes.

Instead, the group now had the capacity to take the fight to the heart of its enemy. The means to do so had always been there through Europe’s porous borders, which had often facilitated the original journeys. However, the migrant route that had ferried hundreds of thousands of Syrians and Iraqis fleeing persecution had also allowed a small number of Isis members to blend in, and head back the other way. In essence, ISIS had begun to prioritize controlling populations over geography. While it hadn’t given up its grip on the large swath of Iraq and Syria it had seized at the expense of each sovereign state, the original area it controlled was now less important than the far-away societies it could influence.

ISIS’s spread was being consolidated in two ways. First, by the militant cells that had sworn allegiance to it, and were gathering strength in such places as the Sinai in Egypt, Malaysia, Indonesia, Libya and Yemen. More important, though, in the context of the meeting, was the return home of the group’s own members, a small number of the estimated 25,000 fighters who had travelled to Iraq and Syria who were now the advance guard of the “next generation” of global jihad.

The men were to form classic sleeper cells, and wait for orders. ISIS leaders saw opportunity wherever it may arise, but this new wave would place emphasis on wreaking havoc in Italy, Belgium, France, Germany and the UK.

“They said the UK was the hardest to get to,” one ISIS member said. “But Belgium was easy. Spain was also mentioned, but not as much as the rest.”


In the past six months, ISIS has lost roughly 30% of the area it controlled in the heady summer months of 2014. By the end of this year, it is likely to have lost significantly more than that. Palmyra, one of its prized catches, is under imminent threat of recapture by a conglomerate of Russian, Iranian and Syrian forces. And Mosul, where the ISIS insurrection in Syria morphed into a phenomenon that emperiled the regional order, is under increasing threat from regrouping US-backed Iraqi forces.

ISIS now contends that geography was a means to its ultimate ends, which were always to spread its influence far and wide. The group’s most senior leaders, among them the still recuperating Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, are implacably ideological, convinced of their role as custodians of an ultra-radical reading of Islamic teachings and compelled to fight anyone who does not submit to their world view.

ISIS leaders believe that European societies are easily weakened through savagery. One of the group’s members said its senior officials had a deep understanding of the European political architecture and of the fears of its people.

“At the meeting, they talked about which societies would crumble first and what that would mean. They thought big attacks would lead to pressure on the European Union and even NATO. This would be ideal for them.”

In and around Tabqa, and into Iraq’s Anbar province, the group is also focusing its efforts on controlling populations. Over the past two years, it has positioned itself as as the de facto representative of the region’s Sunni Muslims – when a political process in Iraq and Syria has failed to do so.

Isis messaging feeds heavily off a sense of disenfranchisement among Sunni communities who have lost power and influence over the past 13 years in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Here too, physical geography matters less than dictating terms over population centers.

While the group is clearly on the back foot militarily in some corners of its “caliphate”, its strategic goals are now perhaps more in reach than ever before. “They think a lot about this. They think they know you better than you know yourselves.”