Last month, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) warned that, “our enemies remain focused on attacking the United States, and they are constantly adapting. DHS and its partners are stepping up efforts to keep terrorists out of America and to prevent terrorist recruitment and radicalization here at home, and we urge the public to remain vigilant and report suspicious activity.”
The DHS also indicated the U.S. is facing a significant, ongoing terror threat and the agency’s website displayed an “Elevated” alert level (second from the most severe), which means a credible threat of terrorism against the U.S. exists.
Guess Who’s Back
Al Qaeda never really went away, of course. The 30-year-old terrorist organization had just, for the most part, receded to the background while the Islamic State took center stage. While ISIS has been driven out of Iraq and Syria, they are alive and well in Africa and Europe. ISIS supporters can be found in the U.S. as well, as evidenced by recent activity by the group’s devotees.
Al Qaeda has reemerged as stronger now than they were when Bin Laden was killed. While the world was focused on ISIS, al Qaeda was quietly amassing power, planning, strengthening alliances and fundraising.
Earlier in the year, Stratfor reported that some are concerned that al Qaeda and ISIS may reunite:
“The idea of the global jihadist movement’s two major poles joining forces is certainly a troubling one. The combined capabilities of the Islamic State and al Qaeda could pose a significant threat to the rest of the world, making them a much more dangerous enemy together than divided.”
Though both groups follow Salafist ideology, it might be difficult to merge the two groups’ divergent goals. The Islamic State seeks global conquest in the establishment of Caliphate, while Al Qaeda is focused on the demise of the United States. Al Qaeda boasts a sophistication gained from years of experience, selectivity in recruiting and an assortment of well-educated scholars, including scientists and engineers.
Viewed as crude, by al Qaeda, ISIS also lacks the restraint exercised by al Qaeda.
Some collaboration, between these two terrorist groups, has already occurred in Syria, where fighters with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), also known as al Qaeda in Syria, and ISIS were found to have a somewhat cooperative relationship. Additionally, al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri has been attempting to build bridges among groups with similar enemies. And, al Zawahiri reiterated the fact that the U.S. is al Qaeda’s number one priority.
In comparing the two groups, Critical Threats points out that, “while ISIS had used conquest and bombastic proclamations to capture popular support and gain momentum, al Qaeda worked quietly with a softer approach to securing support.”
“The strengthening of al Qaeda is more dangerous than the success of ISIS. Al Qaeda’s softer approach to building popular support at the grassroots level evoked little, if any, reaction from the West. The West bought al Qaeda’s line that its local focus is a local issue. Al Qaeda further managed the reactions of the communities into which it was insinuating itself by permitting outbursts of local resistance and adjusting its time line to avoid generating backlash. ISIS’s conquest, by contrast, resulted in the West mobilizing a military effort against the group and harsh reaction from its conquered communities over time. ISIS’s coerced popular support in the Muslim world will collapse. Al Qaeda is positioned to absorb the remnants of ISIS, benefit from ISIS’s global mobilization, and sustain its own momentum within Sunni communities to strengthen the Salafi-jihadi movement.”
Al Qaeda does have sleeper cells, within the U.S., who are responsible for planning and launching attacks. But, there are also “lone wolf” supporters of Al Qaeda, in addition to ISIS proponents, in the U.S., who are preparing to launch attacks on their own.
There has also been found to be increasing collaboration among various terror groups in the Maghreb- particularly in Libya. They have been exchanging ideas for training, military tactics, PR, recruitment, and financing.
“Libya is a key node for the global Salafi-jihadi movement.7 The Libyan base provides the global movement with a destination for jihad, a transit and training zone, and a key node for global foreign fighter flows. It is already an important enabler for the global Salafi-jihadi threat against the United States, Europe, and American interests.
Al Qaeda and ISIS are consolidating a safe haven in Libya from which they will directly threaten the West over the long term.”
Add to that the fact that al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) has managed to turn a profit of around $100 million through ransom, drug trading, taxing locals and donations from around the world, according to a study by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
The global Salafi-jihadi movement was and remains more than just al Qaeda—or ISIS, however. The American Enterprise Institute cautions that, “the need is urgent. Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the global Salafi-jihadi movement together are stronger today than they have ever been.”
Holiday season threats have been issued primarily to Europe, but to New York City, also:
The Hill reports: “An ominous poster of Santa Claus standing next to a box of dynamite in Times Square appeared in a pro-ISIS forum earlier this week with the headline ‘we meet at Christmas in New York soon.’ A picture of a masked jihadi, with a rifle in the front seat of a car driving toward the Vatican marked with the banner ‘Christmas Blood so wait’ appeared a few days before that.”
A new series of threatening images posted on social media and messaging apps, with ISIS imagery, is being shared. These graphics call for terror attacks on New York City, Paris and London.
Other posters include images of London’s Regent Street and the Eiffel Tower in Paris, with images of jihadists and blood superimposed on them. A chilling message in English, German and French is included: ‘Soon on your holidays.’
According to Metro.co.uk, “a propaganda poster emerged showing a terrorist in the Vatican with a rocket launcher. The message warned that ‘the crusaders feast is approaching’, suggesting they are planning to attack the Catholic church’s holy city. Another was shared online showing a masked figure driving towards St Peter’s Basilica with a gun and a backpack inside his car, with the message ‘Christmas blood’ written in red underneath.”
Potential Terror Threats to the U.S. in 2018
Hezbollah – “While I’m not here today to speak publicly about any specific, or credible, or imminent threat to the homeland, we in the intelligence community do in fact see continued activity on behalf of Hezbollah here inside the homeland,” National Counterterrorism Center Director Nicholas Rasmussen said. Rasmussen went on to say that it is the center’s, “assessment that Hezbollah is determined to give itself a potential homeland option as a critical component of its terrorism playbook.” He pointed out the recent arrests of alleged Hezbollah operatives in Michigan and New York.
The two alleged operatives that were arrested are Ali Kourani and Samer el Debek. Charged with providing material support to Hezbollah’s Islamic Jihad Organization, Kourani described his role as a “sleeper.” And, according to the complaint, El Debek was trained in making landmines and other explosives.
Dirty Bombs – Terrorist could use drones to drop dirty bombs or poison on U.S. cities. Security officials have said that it may just be a matter of time before such schemes could come to fruition in America. In August, Australian federal police disrupted an ISIS plot to construct an “improvised chemical dispersion device,” which they planned to deploy in urban areas. Hydrogen sulfide, a poisonous gas, would have been spread over the urban areas had the plot not been foiled.
Possible Backlash – Some Muslim leaders have said they view the plan to move the U.S. Embassy to from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as “a declaration of war.”
Also, Jihadists across the ideological spectrum have beseeched Muslims to take physical action instead of merely protesting the planned move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.
For its part, al-Qaeda has urged followers all around the world to target U.S. interests, its allies and Israel in response to the U.S. Embassy plan. “A statement posted Friday on al-Qaeda’s media arm as-Sahab, in both Arabic and English, urged holy war or jihad and described America as a modern-era ‘pharaoh’ oppressing Muslims. Branches of the global terror network, including the North Africa branch known as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and also al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, issued similar statements.”
Then too, Sheikh Hamza bin Laden, son of Osama bin Laden, has called for the group’s supporters to “embrace the kinds of ‘lone wolf attacks’ used by Islamic State, its bitter rival, in which jihadists execute terror operations acting largely on their own and without direction.”
Attacks on the US Government & Critical Infrastructure – Some experts anticipate that in 2018 a major attack on U.S. critical infrastructure will occur. “Additionally, tension between the U.S. and other countries could escalate to online cyberattacks. In October, the FBI and DHS warned of advanced persistent threat activity targeting energy, nuclear, water, aviation, construction, and critical manufacturing sectors. Critical infrastructure companies are behind in preparing their operational facilities to confront cyberattacks – making them an easy target for politically-motivated attackers – Adi Dar, CEO, Cyberbit”
On social media and encrypted messenger apps, training materials are being produced and shared at an alarming rate and volume. This includes an astonishing assortment of bomb-making instructions and recipes for a whole host of gases and volatile compounds.
Of late, in these online forums, a lot of emphasis is placed on bioterrorism, with detailed training materials being provided on how to execute attacks on “kuffars” using substances such as anthrax, ricin and botulism.
Regarding bioterrorism, former White House biodefense aide Robert Kadlec said that, “the trends indicate more terrorist groups are interested in conducting such attacks.”
In 2016, ISIS operatives planned to contaminate water sources in Turkey with bacteria causing tularemia, which is a potentially fatal human illness. In another ISIS-linked ploy, an anthrax attack in Kenya was thwarted by the police. And, in yet another instance in Nigeria, the army intercepted poisoned fish believed to have been brought into the country by Boko Haram operatives.
Both al Qaeda and ISIS have threatened public transportation in the U.S., but online, al Qaeda has been heavily promoting its train derailment tool, providing detailed instructions on how to use it and the best routes across the country to use it on.
On the Telegram app, there are channels in which collaboration among the supporters of ISIS, al Qaeda and other Salafist terrorist groups, such as Ansar al Sharia, is taking place. Shared on these channels is a seemingly endless array of tools for lone wolves, including remote control detonators, a device that explodes when one opens a door, car bombs, hidden bombs and much more. Very detailed instructions are given for all of these explosive devices. The channels generally have hundreds of participants and the channels get reported and shut down frequently, but are back up again shortly afterwards. Channel administrators simply continue distributing materials to those who desire to be a well-equipped, adequately trained lone wolf.
The massive cache of Islamic State propaganda videos found on the cellphone of Sayfullo Saipov, the man accused of using a truck to mow down pedestrians and cyclists recently in New York City, provided a glimpse of the vast amount of jihadist content on the internet.
Along with 90 videos and 3,800 images found,were depictions of beheadings and bomb-making instructions.
The amount of jihadist content on the internet is staggering. The efforts of law enforcement, intelligence agents and private intel agencies around the world are not sufficient to thwart every planned attack, though many have been thwarted.
One way individuals can help is by always being aware of their surroundings. People should report any suspicious behavior potentially related to terrorism to law enforcement.
And, since many terror attacks are closely linked to online activity such as planning attacks, garnering materials and instructions on how to carry out attacks, warnings about attacks and gloating immediately following an attack, be sure to also report suspicious behavior you see online.
Candice Lanier is Chief Operations Officer at Ghost Cyber Intelligence, a private intel agency specializing in counterterrorism, Darknet operations, black ops and cybersecurity. Candice also writes for RedState, The Christian Post and Medium.