U.S. officials warn ISIL still capable of surprise attacks; risk higher in Europe

WASHINGTON — The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has either ordered or inspired eight major attacks in the last 15 months.

During that time, two rampages in Paris and separate attacks in Yemen, Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, California and Brussels have killed 686 people combined.

The attacks occurred despite significant progress by a U.S.-led, global, military coalition to destroy ISIL’s headquarters in Syria, kill or capture ISIL fighters and dry up funding for the terror group.

According to a Joint Intelligence Bulletin obtained by WTOP, U.S. officials studying the March 22, 2016, attacks in Belgium believe that quick ISIL-fueled strikes in the United States or against Americans abroad are still possible, but are more likely to occur in Europe.

The recently released alert from the Department of Homeland Security, FBI and the National Counter Terrorism Center read:

“We are not aware of any direct links to the Homeland; however, radicalized individuals inspired by ISIL operating alone or in small groups continue to have the ability to conduct relatively unsophisticated attacks with little to no warning in the United States.”

Officials believe potential attacks on American soil could be similar to those in Belgium that struck a subway station and airport.

The Brussels bombings involved four to five attackers who were divided into two teams. “(They) probably conducted preoperational surveillance, did some level of tactical planning, and had familiarity with the targets prior to the attack,” the bulletin said.

U.S. officials have determined that the Brussels attackers had weapons training and were familiar with triacetone triperoxide (TATP), a deadly explosive made from easily obtained chemicals — another reason why U.S. intelligence officials worry about ISIL-inspired plots in the United States.

All of the attackers, known as the “Brussels Cell,” had either direct or ancillary contact with elements of ISIL leadership in Syria.

While U.S. officials report no imminent threats here at home, they too expressed concern in the bulletin that “homegrown violent extremists either inspired by or in communication with Syria-based external operatives represent the most likely ISIL threat to the Homeland.”

“We remain concerned (homegrown violent extremists) acting alone or in small groups could seek to develop the capability to replicate the effects of the Paris or Brussels attacks using similar weapons against transportation and commercial venues,” the bulletin read.

The greatest threat at the moment, according to the bulletin, is in Europe, a popular tourist destination for American travelers and the temporary home to thousands of Americans who work and study there.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, issued an emergency message to American citizens warning them that “Swedish Police are actively investigating a potential terror threat against Sweden.”

The embassy alert warned that “Terrorist groups continue to plan near-term attacks throughout Europe, targeting sporting events, tourist sites, restaurants and transportation.”

In the Joint Intelligence Bulletin, U.S. officials said, “We assess ISIL plots involving multiple teams of operatives — at least some of whom are dispatched from or received training in Syria or Iraq — are more likely to occur in Europe and other overseas locations than in the United States due to a variety of geographic and societal factors.”

Those influences, according to the bulletin, include “the Middle East’s geographic proximity to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq; and the number of Western foreign fighters currently in theater.”

A U.S. intelligence official told WTOP, “We observe that ISIL continues to deploy operatives to Europe and seeks to inspire individual attacks.” He added, “In coordination with foreign counterparts, the U.S. intelligence community has stopped numerous terrorist operatives in Syria and Iraq from entering Europe.”

The U.S. government has sent what it calls “surge teams” abroad to keep tabs on the evolving terrorism picture in Europe and eastward.

A senior Obama administration official says, “these are interagency teams of U.S. security experts who consult on shared counterterrorism priorities. These teams work with interested countries to build on existing partnerships and expand counterterrorism capacity.”

Looking toward the future, the joint intelligence bulletin read, “We remain concerned also about US persons who connect with violent extremist groups overseas.”

U.S. authorities are worried that “regardless of their original reasons for traveling — they could gain combat skills, violent extremist connections, and possibly become further radicalized or persuaded to conduct organized or lone offender violent extremist-style attacks, potentially targeting the United States and US interests abroad.”

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