The New York Times published a story by Rukmini Callimachi today which explains how ISIS handlers are using encrypted communication to remote-control attacks on western nations, including the United States. The attackers, who are often mistaken for lone wolves, have sometimes been trained and guided by ISIS handlers right up to the moment of the attack. One example: The attackers who opened fire on the Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest in Garland, Texas. Remote terror planners have been behind a number of attacks that made international news and which, at first glance, appeared to be the work of lone wolves. For instance:
In Germany, a man who set off a bomb outside a concert and a teenager who assaulted train passengers with an ax were both chatting with handlers until minutes before their attacks. The teenager’s handler urged him to use a car instead of an ax — “The damage would be much greater,” the handler advised — but the young man said he did not have a driving permit. “I want to enter paradise tonight,” he said, according to a transcript obtained by a German newspaper.
In northern France, a pair of attackers who had been guided by an Islamic State cybercoach slit the throat of an 85-year-old priest. The pair had not known each other, and according to the investigative file, the handler introduced them, organizing for them to meet days before the attack. Intelligence records obtained by The Times reveal that the same handler in Syria also guided a group of young women who tried to blow up a car in front of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris.
The NY Times story describe how just one ISIS planner, out of perhaps a dozen, was working with several potential attackers in Britain, Canada and America all at once:
One of the Islamic State’s most influential recruiters and virtual plotters was known by the nom de guerre Abu Issa al-Amriki, and his Twitter profile instructed newcomers to contact him via the encrypted messaging app Telegram…
Amriki was grooming attackers in Canada and Britain, as well as at least three other young men in suburbs across America, according to court records. They included a former member of the Army National Guard living in Virginia; a warehouse worker from Columbus; and Emanuel L. Lutchman, a 25-year-old in Rochester.
Amriki and his wife were killed by a U.S. airstrike last April.
Many of these remote-controlled ISIS attacks have been prevented or were not as deadly as they might have been because the attackers were poorly trained. One plot was busted after the would-be bombers were unable to cook up the explosive as instructed in a video provided by their ISIS handler. When they started talking about how to “cook the rice” on non-encrypted phones, authorities swooped in and found the failed explosive material in the freezer.
That said, the advantage of this type of attack is that it allows ISIS to bypass most of the physical and bureaucratic barriers set up to prevent terrorists from traveling to other countries and carrying out attacks:
While the trail of many of these plots led back to planners living in Syria, the very nature of the group’s method of remote plotting means there is little dependence on its maintaining a safe haven there or in Iraq. And visa restrictions and airport security mean little to attackers who strike where they live and no longer have to travel abroad for training.
All ISIS needs to do is appeal to fringe characters with their online propaganda and then pilot these people like remote drones toward various attacks. Even taking the fight to ISIS in Syria won’t necessarily stop this because, in theory, they could do this from anywhere. As one analyst quoted by the Times says, “I fear this is the future of ISIS.”