Experts recommended the United States take heed of the recent surge of terror attacks in Europe to learn how to more effectively combat ISIS at a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday.
George Washington University fellow Seamus Hughes told the committee that although it is losing ground on the battlefield, ISIS has successfully continued to attack Europe and the United States because it uses social media to command local sympathies.
“Until recently, IS operated a relative safe haven from which it could plot and plan attacks. Despite its recent territorial losses, it continues to maintain a cadre of sympathizers who feel an obligation to help the beleaguered Caliphate,” he said. “This is one of the main factors that explain the wave of attacks, both thwarted and successful, that have hit Europe and the United States in recent months.”
Since 2104, ISIS has conducted 51 attacks in Europe and North America, according to Hughes. The majority of these attacks were committed by citizens of the country in which the attack occurred and only five percent by refugees or asylum seekers. Although ISIS has taken credit for forty percent of the attacks, the majority have been “inspired” by rather than directly ordered by the caliphate. Of the countries attacked, France has experienced the most with seventeen, followed by the United States with sixteen.
Hughes said that the United States has more leeway to prosecute terrorism than many European countries, which accounts for the lack of a structured ISIS network in America.
“Unlike Europe, the United States does not seem to possess extensive homegrown militant organizations that can provide in-person ideological and logistical support to individuals attracted to IS,” he said. “In contrast, many European countries have militant Salafist organizations that provide individuals undergoing the radicalization process with ideological underpinnings and, in many cases, also with concrete help that facilitates their travel to Syria or Iraq.”
Since it often lacks an in-person network to inflict terror, ISIS has resorted to the internet and social media to recruit new members. According to Hughes, nineteen out of 38 ISIS-linked plots in Europe between 2014 and 2016 have involved some form of online instruction.
Senior Research Fellow for Counterterrorism at the National Defense University Kim Cragin called this method of recruiting “virtual planning” and said it is quickly becoming the standard process for radicalization.
“These virtual planners identify local recruits, put operational teams together, sometimes introduce new recruits to others with technical expertise or provide technical guidance, and help pick the target, all remotely via Telegram or WhatsApp,” she said.
Both Europe and the United States can deter future ISIS attacks by preventing radicalization in young people, implementing methods of sharing information between law enforcement services, and preventing reintegration of former terrorists into extremist communities, said Georgia Holmer, director of countering violent extremism at the United States Institute of Peace.
“The United States should remain steadfast in its engagement and commitment to helping build the capacity of countries to develop sustainable and effective Countering Violent Extremism and Counter Terrorism strategies, along with allied partners. American leadership is crucial,” she said.
Subcommittee chairman Ted Poe (R., Texas) emphasized the necessity of the United States using the situation in Europe to strengthen itself against terror threats.
“We can’t write this off as a European problem. These terrorists want to kill Americans and want to destroy our way of life,” he said.