At a Glance - November 28

US Military and the FBI Attack ISIS Social Media Program

A feature article in the New York Times last week states that US counterterrorism attacks have killed the most significant leaders of the social media campaign of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or ISIL) to spread propaganda and inspire attacks in the West. Using the killing of British hacker and recruiter Junaid Hussain (see photo) in August 2015 as a dramatic example, it reports that US and coalition forces have decimated a cell of about a dozen social media specialists that the FBI calls “the Legion.” It cites US military, intelligence, and law enforcement officials as acknowledging that ISIS still has a sophisticated social media arm, but pointing to the coordinated effort against the Legion as evidence of success in reducing ISIS’ ability to direct, enable, or inspire attacks against the West.

In addition to the military attacks overseas, the article says the FBI examined the social media activity of thousands of the Legion’s followers to determine who had actually been inspired to take action, contributing to the nearly 100 ISIS-related arrests in the past two years.

Who Are the Masterminds Behind ISIS Attacks in the West?

Last week, in a move that sheds light on the planning of ISIS “external operations” in the West, the State Department announced that two external operations planners and an ISIS leader have been added to the list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists. Abdelilah Himich, a.k.a. Abu Sulayman al-Faransi, is a “senior foreign terrorist fighter and external operations figure. Himich was reportedly involved in the planning of ISIL’s November 2015 Paris attacks and March 2016 Brussels attacks.” (Photo shows police on patrol in Brussels.) Basil Hassan is an “external operations planner.” Abdullah Ahmed al-Meshedani is an ISIS “leader who manages arriving foreign fighters, handles guesthouses for them, and transports suicide bombers.”

An article co-published last month by ProPublica and Frontline cites interviews with US and European counterterror officials, in which they acknowledge that they have struggled to pin down the identities of the ISIS planners, but now believe that Himich, a French national, is one of the senior masterminds of the Paris and Brussels attacks. It quotes officials as saying ISIS’ Arab leaders have given senior and mid-level European fighters considerable autonomy in selecting targets and working out the details of plots in Europe.

The article also quotes European counterterror officials as saying that an ISIS militant known only as “Abu Ahmad” played a key role in planning the Paris and Brussels attacks. Two ISIS fighters captured in Austria described him as a lead planner of the Paris attacks. Also, when Belgian police closed in, he reportedly told surviving members of the Paris cell to strike in Brussels, instead of attacking in France again as originally planned.

British Murder Conviction Highlights Potential for Nationalist Extremist Violence

In a case that highlights the potential for politically motivated violence by nationalist extremists in Western countries, a nationalist in the UK who was obsessed with Nazi and white supremacist writings was found guilty last week of killing British legislator Jo Cox in an attack during the runup to the country's vote on leaving the European Union. Witnesses testified that during the attack on June 21, Thomas Mair, age 53, shouted "Britain first!" and "Keep Britain independent" as he shot Cox three times and stabbed her repeatedly. Cox, a 41-year-old mother of four, was a prominent proponent of remaining in the EU and an advocate for refugees. 

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