Najim Laachraoui died in the Brussels airport bombing. Photo: AP
There is increasing concern among Western security agencies that as Islamic State suffers military reverses and loses territory in Syria and Iraq, it will retaliate in frustration with more attacks on the West – and lash out against countries like Australia that are part of the US-led military coalition. IS leaders have already called for retaliatory strikes and there is credible reporting that IS has set up an international attack planning unit.
IS carrying the fight to the enemy makes sense from a propaganda point of view – as well as being a religious imperative – and helps to divert attention from its territorial losses.
IS' main appeal in Syria and Iraq had been its success, apparently favoured by God, in defeating its enemies and seizing large tracts of land for the caliphate. The call for young Muslims to join the caliphate was based on IS' expectation of continued expansion and consolidation of its governance – and its concomitant need for more foreign fighters. Like most brutal occupiers, it is now finding it hard to hang on to its territorial gains – and convince potential Arab recruits that it still has God's backing.
While IS was advancing, it held the initiative in choosing when and where to attack. Now that it has lost momentum, its enemies have the initiative and opportunity to pick off IS outposts and interdict its road communications and logistic support.
In January 2016, Europol highlighted the fact that IS had developed an external actions command, trained for "special forces style" operations in countries outside the Middle East. This suggests making more use of experienced foreign fighters and fighters who have returned to their home countries.
IS international attacks outside the main theatre of operations in Syria and Iraq seem to reflect either top-down direction or bottom-up initiative. This means that attacks often have a momentum of their own, not fully under the control of IS leaders. (Investigations into recent IS-related attacks in Ankara, Sinai, Beirut, Paris, and Istanbul are in their early stages so it is not yet clear who organised them.)
It is evident that IS has the reach to mount attacks against the nationals of coalition countries wherever it has affiliates or sympathisers. (In our south-east Asian region, for example, IS is certainly capable of initiating attacks in Malaysia and Indonesia, and, to a lesser extent, the Philippines).
Most of the IS attacks on foreign nationals in the past year have been in the Middle East. They include: the March 2015 attack on the Bardo National Museum in Tunis killing 21 mainly European tourists (but also one Australian); the June 2015 shooting attack on a tourist beach in Sousse, Tunisia, killing 39, most of whom (30) were British, and; the October 2015 bombing of the Russian Metrojet over Sinai killing 224, mainly Russians.
Closer to home we saw the January 2016 IS-inspired attacks in Jakarta that killed eight people, including a Canadian.
IS also has the capability to orchestrate attacks within coalition countries using disaffected young Muslim men, and sometimes returned foreign fighters. In the past year, the most damaging attacks on coalition countries have been in France and Belgium, which have large, poorly integrated Muslim communities. There, the 2015/2016 death toll is approaching 200.
Despite the high level of security intelligence in Britain and Australia, another attack seems inevitable, simply because there are too many persons of interest to monitor effectively. It is assessed that there are as many as 1000 Islamist extremists in the UK, and perhaps 200 in Australia. Many of them want to go and fight for IS, but are being prevented from carrying out what they regard as their religious duty – so inevitably their focus is on attacks closer to home.
Among the new targets for IS followers are the 22 "apostate" Muslim clerics identified in the latest copy of IS' online magazine Dabiq. Ominously, the list includes "Australia's Tawfique Chowdhury".
From a US police study we know that would-be fighters from Western countries are made up of losers, adventure seekers and those who have become "enlightened".
The losers are looking for "zero to hero" empowerment, the adventurers are looking to break the mould of their uneventful lives, while the enlightened see everything they achieved before enlightenment as meaningless. In Australia, Faheem Khalid Lodhi, a newly qualified architect with a new wife, who planned attacks in Sydney, seems to fall into that category.
The female IS cohort are usually fellow travellers of radicalised husbands, girls wanting to find husbands among the heroic fighters of IS in Syria, or women wanting to move to the caliphate for religious reasons. They do not pose a lethal threat directly in the domestic context but they can be a valuable support element.
What can we do about a potential IS attack in Australia? Sadly, not a lot more than we are already doing. We just need to continue to encourage the public to remain alert (but not alarmed) and be prepared to call the security hotline if they have security concerns. Some of the attacks in Europe could have been prevented if people had either reported their concerns – or the authorities had followed up on them.
Before the March 2016 Brussels airport bombing, an overpowering chemical odour coming from bomb-maker Najim Laachraoui's sixth-floor apartment and odd happenings at the apartment caused a neighbour to call police, but the police did not follow up on the call. Later, the taxi driver who drove the three attackers to the airport noticed their suitcases smelt strongly of chemicals, but did not mention it until after the bombings.
Bombs, or IEDs, are the most lethal terrorist weapon and there are several indicators of a bomb plot in progress. They include the buying of large quantities of chemical precursors, noxious fumes from the mixing of chemicals, young men seeking medical attention for chemical burns, and the testing of explosive devices in remote locations.
Clive Williams is an adjunct professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy and a visiting professor at the Australian National University's Centre for Military and Security Law.