With the caliphate in peril, Western officials bracing for ISIL’s ‘hardened killers’ to take mayhem to Europe

WASHINGTON — As loses territory in Iraq and Syria, U.S. and other say they are bracing for large numbers of battle-tested terrorist fighters to flee the conflict and prepare attacks after returning home.

Some of the fighters will head north to Western Europe, officials said, posing a threat that many there still seem ill prepared to combat.

“When they return and connect with the radicals in Europe, it’s going to be a very tense situation for our national security,” said Dick Schoof, the Dutch counterterrorism coordinator.

AP Photo/Susannah George
AP Photo/Susannah GeorgeOil wells on the edge of Qaraya, Iraq burn Sunday, Aug. 28, 2016 – days after the town was retaken from the Islamic State group by Iraqi ground forces backed by U.S.-led coalition airpower. The operation is part of a strategy to isolate Mosul.

A U.S.-led coalition is closing in on the last major Islamic State strongholds — Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria — and officials say and counterterrorism face an urgent challenge in devising plans to deal with the consequences of that success.

“Hundreds of hardened killers who are not going to die on the battlefield” will flow out, James B. Comey Jr., the FBI director, said this month, adding that the fallout from “crushing the caliphate” would dominate the bureau’s attention for the next five years. The FBI has agents in Europe and elsewhere working with foreign counterparts to track and combat the global threat.

Even top Islamic State leaders acknowledge the inevitable collapse of their declared caliphate, and they appear to be shifting to a new strategy that threatens Europe on multiple fronts: with cells developed in Europe over the past two years, with , and with inspired followers who heed the jihadi group’s recent call to carry out attacks in their home countries.

Many of the attacks conducted in Western Europe and the over the past six underline the reality that returning fighters would be just one element in the Islamic State’s larger strategy to remain relevant after losing territorial control.

“Their ability to motivate troubled souls, to inspire them, remains a persistent presence in the States,” Comey said in May.

U.S. military officials say the battles to seize Raqqa and Mosul could be well underway within the next two or three months, flushing out thousands of and forcing them to make hard choices. Some may disconnect from the fight, but others will pose a threat.

About Eric Schmitt, The New York Times