National Security & Defense

Germany Takes Down an ISIS Cell: Five Takeaways

Dusseldorf, Germany (Claudiodivizia/Dreamstime)
What can we learn about ISIS’s strategy and the Western response?

Earlier today, launching simultaneous raids in three German towns, counter-terrorism officers arrested three Syrian men. Another Syrian man was detained in France in February, after apparently surrendering to authorities. Those detained are believed to be Daesh (or ISIS) terrorists who intended to massacre civilians in Dusseldorf’s bustling old town. Here are five early takeaways.

1. The plot proves Daesh’s threat to the West is nothing new.

According to investigators, the plot originated in the spring of 2014, when two of the suspects were deployed to Germany via migrant routes from Syria. The bombmaker was then sent to Germany in October 2014. This timeline is important for a few reasons. First, it proves that in early 2014, Daesh was already actively planning to attack the West. Unfortunately, too many ignored the warning signs. In January 2014, President Obama referred to Daesh as a “jayvee team.” As late as March 2014, I was debating former National Counter-Terrorism Coordinator Richard Clarke on this exact issue.

But at a deeper level, the plot is further evidence for Daesh’s strategic prioritization of Western terrorist attacks. Daesh intends to smash the West into political retreat, spark a global civil war between Muslims and all others, and from that scorched platform conquer the world. It will fail. But today — just as in 2014 — too many continue to underplay the threat. In doing so, they invite the deaths of more innocents.

2. The plot proves Daesh has impressive operational security.

According to the authorities, the Dusseldorf plot was detected only after the suspect in France surrendered in February. That can be explained in part by the careful manner in which the terror cell operationalized. First, the various suspects entered Germany in three different ways and at three different times. Infiltrating migrant routes, the first two suspects traveled from Syria to Turkey, then to Greece, and then into Germany. The bombmaker traveled separately later on — likely as a precaution to see whether the first two suspects were detected. The fourth suspect was recruited while in Germany.

In the various infiltration routes and timings employed, and in the separate locations of the suspects when arrested, we can see Daesh’s immense planning. Its strategic planners know Western intelligence services look for groups, unusual patterns of travel (i.e., a desire to travel straight to Germany rather than following traditional migrant routes) and communication, and that young men will attract extra scrutiny. While there may have been other intelligence information supporting these arrests, it’s easy to see the complexity of what EU counter-terrorism services are facing.


3. The plot proves Daesh has patient confidence.

It has been seven months since the Paris attacks and approaching three months since the Brussels bombings. Both of those incidents led to unprecedented security operations across Europe. Yet the fact that these plotters did not rush forward their plan out of a fear of being detected if they waited is both positive (in that the attack never took place) but also troubling in what it tells us about Daesh’s confidence. After all, it proves Daesh leadership believes its various cells can evade massive Western intelligence and detection efforts.

As I discussed with Buck Sexton recently, this dynamic explains why EU authorities are so concerned about this month’s European soccer championship (Euro 2016). They believe unknown cells are already pre-positioned and waiting for a pre-designated moment to attack. Just today, authorities in Paris requested government approval to close fan zones near the Eiffel Tower. Why? Because of their fear that terrorists may infiltrate the crowds and then detonate explosive devices.

4. The timing of the arrests suggests patient intelligence work.

A positive consideration. Some are questioning why the arrests were only made today when one of the plotters surrendered back in February. There’s a very good answer: intelligence opportunity.

As I’ve noted about British domestic counter-terrorism efforts against Daesh, intelligence services have been keeping Daesh cells that they know about “in play,” in the hope those cells will illuminate other cells we do not know about. This is dangerous but critical work, and we should salute the political courage of choosing to continue to surveil the Dusseldorf cell instead of conducting immediate arrests. That decision may save lives beyond Dusseldorf. But why the arrests now? Probably so as to interrogate these plotters on any intelligence relevant to possible Euro 2016 plots.


5. The plots show Daesh’s astute understanding of European politics.

A sustaining theme of the Daesh plots in Europe has been their ambition of sparking public fury and a backlash against Muslims on the continent. Consider the Dusseldorf plotters’ strategy of deploying Syrian men via migrant routes to massacre families on a German street: Had the terrorists succeeded, they would have fueled already significant tensions in Europe over migration from the Middle East. They might also have endangered Chancellor Angela Merkel’s political stability. (She is, after all, the leader who has staked her reputation on accepting hundreds of thousands of refugees.)

Daesh knows this. And just as its evolving strategy in Iraq and Syria is designed to spark sectarian tensions, so too is its strategy in the West.

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at

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