Nine days before the Paris attacks, Islamic State leaders gathered in the Syrian town of Tabqah to talk about what was coming next for the terror organisation. Senior officials from across the so-called caliphate had made difficult journeys under constant fear of airstrikes to the small town west of Raqqa.
In what marked a critical phase in the group’s evolution, there was to be a new focus on exporting chaos to Europe, the assembled men were told. And up to 200 militants were in place across the continent ready to receive orders.
Details of the meeting have been relayed to the Guardian by two Isis members who are familiar with what was discussed. Both said the mood in Tabqah that evening in early November was triumphant. Senior leaders said they were turning their focus to European capitals, and had dispatched foreign fighters back to their homelands to prepare attack plans. And wait.
... In essence, Isis had begun to prioritise controlling populations over geography. While it hadn’t given up its grip on the large swath of Iraq and Syria it had seized at the expense of each sovereign state, the original area it controlled was now less important than the faraway societies it could influence.
... The men were to form classic sleeper cells, and wait for orders. Isis leaders saw opportunity wherever it may arise, but this new wave would place emphasis on wreaking havoc in Italy, Belgium, France, Germany and the UK.
“They said the UK was the hardest to get to,” one Isis member said. “But Belgium was easy. Spain was also mentioned, but not as much as the rest.”
... While the group is clearly on the back foot militarily in some corners of its “caliphate”, its strategic goals are now perhaps more in reach than ever before.
“They think a lot about this. They think they know you better than you know yourselves.”
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