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ISIS delivering on 2015 threat to Britain

Armed police guard St. Thomas Street in London last Sunday in the wake of the terror attack on London Bridge. The Islamic State is losing ground but continues to maintain influence.
Armed police guard St. Thomas Street in London last Sunday in the wake of the terror attack on London Bridge. The Islamic State is losing ground but continues to maintain influence.
Published Jun. 11, 2017

LONDON — In the weeks after Islamic State operatives struck Paris in November 2015, the group released a prerecorded video of the killers. They stared into the camera, waved serrated knives, raged at the West and specifically warned Britain: You're next. Footage showed scenes of London Bridge through a gunsight.

For the next 13 months, the Islamic State and those inspired by the group killed and maimed in Brussels, Berlin, Nice and Normandy, and across the Atlantic in California and in Florida. Yet the rhetoric against Britain began to feel like the frothy threats made by the group toward other countries that had avoided attacks, including Iran: loud and menacing but ultimately empty.

Until now. The recent strikes against London and Tehran followed back-to-back attacks, by an assailant who used an SUV to smash into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge in March and a suicide bomber at a pop concert in Manchester in May. "This is for Allah!" the attackers were heard screaming in the latest bloodshed in London as they plunged knives into their victims.

From a publicity standpoint, the attacks in Britain and Iran are a lift to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, as it loses ground steadily in Syria, Iraq and Libya. Some analysts have interpreted the strikes as a bid by the group to demonstrate its resilience, even as its territory-holding caliphate slowly disappears.

But a review of court records and statements by officials suggests that the violence in London and Tehran was more than just a message. It reflected persistent efforts by the Islamic State since its rise in 2014 to hit targets once thought unassailable — especially in Britain. During this period, officials there intercepted and foiled more than a dozen plots — including five in the past three months.

The number of disrupted plots appears to be far greater in Iran, a Shiite-majority country loathed by the militant Sunni extremists of ISIS, which has aimed to hit Iran since at least 2007. A day after the deadly assault last week on the parliament building and the tomb of Iran's revolutionary founder, Iranian intelligence officials said they had thwarted 100 terrorist plots in the past two years.

Hours after the violence in Iran, ISIS released its glossy, online magazine, directly challenging skeptics who have questioned the group's stamina as its territory shrinks. "What many of these analysts failed to admit, however, is that losing territory was nothing new for the Islamic State," the article said, referring to the group's near-defeat in 2011 at the hands of U.S. forces in Iraq.

"The reality faced by the Crusaders today is that despite their claims that the Islamic State has been weakened," it said, "strikes in the heart of the Crusaders' strongholds in the West will continue to occur just as suddenly and unexpectedly."

While few details have been shared with the public about thwarted attacks in Iran, plots neutralized in Britain show how ISIS' reach grew with each attempt. The techniques used by the frustrated attackers, the types of targets they chose and the kind of coaching they received broadly follow the arc of the group's evolution as it struck repeatedly elsewhere in Europe.

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The earliest instances involved would-be attackers who had ideological affinity for ISIS but no direct communication with the group. They took their direction from the many YouTube videos they had watched showing ISIS atrocities, and from detailed instructions delivered online by Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the group's spokesman.

The messages initially called recruits to travel to the group's territory, but as those journeys became more perilous, al-Adnani exhorted adherents to stay put and wage violence at home.

That shift is seen in a typo-laden note scrawled by an 18-year-old suspect in Peckham district arrested with a backpack concealing a hammer and knife: "Because I have no means ov gettin there I will wage war against the british government on this soil," the suspect, Brusthom Ziamani wrote in June 2014, according to a definitive report by the expert Raffaello Pantucci on the growing terrorism threat.

Just months after the Islamic State declared its territory-holding caliphate in 2014, authorities began to see suspects who were in contact with people who had traveled to join the militants.

Such was the case for three men who lived near Southall, a suburb of London, and who maintained contact with a friend who had slipped across the Syrian border, according to court records.

While their friend joined the ranks of ISIS, the three were stuck in Britain, where they increasingly steeped themselves in the group's propaganda. When the militants' spokesman, al-Adnani, broadcast an audio recording inciting followers to kill in any way possible — "smash the disbeliever's head with a rock or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car" — the young men felt as if he was talking to them, the records show.

The men were arrested in November 2014, according to court documents.

Counterterrorism experts say the number of foiled Islamic State plots represents the tip of the iceberg. At least 500 people are under active surveillance in Britain, they say, raising the question of whether all can be stopped.

"Everyone is saying enough is enough, but what can you actually do?" said David Wells, who until 2013 worked for the Government Communications Headquarters, Britain's version of the National Security Agency in the United States.

"My view is that there is some tinkering around the edges that you could do," he said, "But the foreign fighter community being as large it is in Europe, it's a 20- or 30-year problem — and no one wants to hear that right now."