The suicide bombing at a pop concert in Manchester on Monday, which killed 22 people, took place exactly three years after the first terror attack attributed to the Islamic State in a Western country. On May 24, 2014, Mehdi Nemmouche, a French citizen with Algerian roots, opened fire inside the Jewish Museum in Brussels, killing four. Nemmouche had spent over a year fighting for ISIS in Syria and had returned to Europe to continue the Caliphate’s war against the “Crusaders.”
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In the three years that followed, there has been a quick evolution of ISIS operations in the West. Nemmouche had help from other Islamic State veterans and supporters who had created a logistical hub in Brussels’ Molenbeek neighborhood, where he obtained his weapons. But Nemmouche largely acted on his own. Eighteen months later, ISIS was already capable of carrying out a much more complex assault: In November 2015 the group’s militants simultaneously attacked the Bataclan Theater in Paris, restaurants and cafes nearby and a sports stadium to the north of the city, killing 130 people.
The last members of the Molenbeek network, which were receiving funding and instructions from ISIS headquarter in Raqqa, Syria, succeeded in carrying out another complex operation in April 2016, when they bombed the airport and subway stations in Brussels, killing 32. That was the last well-organized attack by the Islamic State in the West.
Meanwhile, ISIS opened up its ranks worldwide, allowing any aspirant to record a pledge of allegiance to its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and take whatever weapon at hand – a gun, a makeshift bomb, a knife or a truck – and kill civilians as a “soldier” of the Islamic State. Like a fast-food chain, ISIS granted franchises to any jihadis who wanted to operate in its name in their homelands, without having visited the movement’s centers in Syria or Iraq. The franchises spread from San Bernardino in California to the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. These “lone wolf” attacks, such as the shooting at the Pulse night club in Orlando, where 49 were killed, and the truck that drove onto the promenade in Nice, killing 86, had no sophistication or major planning, but they didn’t lack in deadliness.
From details that have emerged so far, Monday night’s attack in Manchester seems to be different. Salman Abedi, the suicide bomber, had visited Libya and perhaps Syria recently, but is not believed to have taken part in ISIS operations there. He was, however, part of a wider group of radicalized Muslim youths in South Manchester, some of whom did make their way to join ISIS in recent years. A number of them have been killed there, while others have already returned or will soon be on their way back.
ISIS faces obstacles in its two major strongholds. The Iraqi army and militias have nearly retaken Mosul, ending over two years of Islamic State control. Raqqa is almost surrounded and the American-backed and supplied Syrian Democratic Forces are preparing to attack the city. ISIS still has bases in Egypt's Sinai, Libya and other places, but these are smaller and relatively isolated. It is losing the easily-accessible bases and freedom of movement it had, but it won’t be disappearing any time soon.
Hundreds of ISIS fighters who came from the West to join the group have already returned home. Hundreds more, if they survive the fighting in Mosul and Raqqa, can be expected to do so soon. They combine operational and logistical experience with a knowledge of their home countries that will enable them to operate there, connecting with supporters and training them. The Manchester attack may be the first carried out by one of these new and independently acting cells. Locating these ISIS veterans upon their return and arresting them and their collaborators before they launch more similar operations will take a much higher level of coordination between Western intelligence agencies: They will have to detect the passage of these suspects through their countries, track them and notify their counterparts of their arrival and presence. This remains one of the weakest links in the West’s counterterrorism operation.
The difficulties of sharing intelligence have been highlighted like never before by U.S. President Donald Trump in recent days. First it was his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov two weeks ago, in which he disclosed classified information on ISIS that the U.S. had received from Israel. This week it transpired that Trump, in a phone conversation with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, had disclosed the location of two American nuclear submarines near North Korea. And while Trump himself can’t be blamed for U.S. intelligence sources leaking information on the Manchester attack to the American media, it certainly hasn’t helped change the image of an America that can’t be trusted with its allies’ secrets.
In his meetings earlier this week in Saudi Arabia and Israel, Trump spoke at length of his great “coalition” with Sunni Arab nations in fighting both ISIS terrorism and the malign influence of Iran. Like nearly everything Trump says, the slogans have little relation to any specific plans of dealing with reality. Some have criticized Trump for not making a distinction between the two enemies, Shi'ite Iran and Sunni Islamic State, which are also at war with each other. That is a disingenuous argument: While ISIS has massacred large numbers of Shi'ites throughout the region, it has also served Iran’s purposes well by discrediting the Syrian uprising against Tehran’s key ally, Bashar Assad.
ISIS’ atrocities have deflected attention from the fact that over 95 percent of the hundreds of thousands of deaths in Syria over the last six years have been caused by the Assad regime, its Iranian-funded backers and Russia. In his main speech in Riyadh, Trump mentioned the influence of Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, but not Russia, without whose help the Assad regime would have almost certainly lost control of nearly the entire country in late 2015.
The main rallying call attracting young Muslims to the ISIS flag has been the war in Syria, where mainly Sunni civilians are being killed with no Western intervention. The chaos in Syria afforded the Islamic State room to grow and has given its foreign volunteers their military experience. To effectively fight ISIS in the West, the underlying causes of its popularity have to be tackled as well, and this means confronting Assad’s Iranian and Russian patrons. And while the Sunni Arab states can be important partners, Trump has not directly addressed their support for other jihadi elements linked to ISIS and Al-Qaida.
The Trump administration’s talk of supporting “an Arab NATO” which would coordinate joint efforts against the Islamic State and Iran obscures the fact that in the past, Trump was not fan of the original NATO, calling the Western military alliance “obsolete” on last year’s campaign trail. Hopefully, now in Brussels for his first NATO summit, Trump will realize how crucial NATO still is to Western security. NATO is the only organization that can provide the necessary infrastructure for professional and efficient intelligence sharing among Western nations, just as it ensured the West’s defense against the Soviet Union for half a century. If Trump seriously wants to fight ISIS and to improve his own shaken credibility, strengthening NATO – rather than half-baked plans of an Arab NATO – would be the place to start.