BEIRUT, March 20 (UPI) -- When the external operations arm of the Islamic State, the Amniyat al-Kharji, got into high gear in 2015, it sharply escalated the terrorist threat by moving away from having untrained sympathizers carry out what became known as lone-wolf attacks, which frequently failed, to mass-casualty attacks planned and directed against civil society to cause panic and fear in the West.
The Amniyat is now focused on coordinating sleeper cells established by key planners operating from Syria and Iraq. As the jihadists come under ever-growing military pressure on their shrinking caliphate, terrorism experts say the Amniyat is setting up alternative command nodules in less threatened sectors, using end-to-end encrypted Internet channels to direct its killer cells.
EU Counterterrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove said in a December report that one-third of the estimated 5,000 European jihadists who went to Syria and Iraq have returned to their home countries, an unknown number of them undetected.
Some of the 1,750 believed to have returned will have been "sent back on specific missions" to participate in IS terror attacks, de Kerchove said. Returnees played key roles in the November 2015 slaughter in Paris and the Brussels bombings in March 2016, Western intelligence sources say.
The Amniyat alumni from Syria and Iraq keep in touch with their handlers, who are believed to be based mostly in Syria, through the encrypted one-to-one messaging app known as Telegram, along with WhatsApp and other digital channels that foreign intelligence services cannot penetrate.
The head of Amniyat al-Kharji controls several theatre commanders, who U.S. analyst Bridget Moreng said "seem to be assigned an area according to their language abilities and nationalities — enabling them to draw on extensive knowledge of the area when organizing plots."
Various sources say these operatives were directly controlled by the Amniyat chief, Abu Mohammad al- Adnani, the most trusted aide of the IS caliph, an Iraqi religious scholar known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Adnani, a Syrian and a prime target for the U.S.-led coalition, was killed Aug. 30, 2016, in a U.S. airstrike on Raqqa in northern Syria, de facto capital of the IS caliphate.
Up to that point, Adnani's immediate deputy in the Amniyat was a French national known as Abu Suleyman al-Firansi — real name Abdelilah Himich — who functioned as director of external operations.
Baghdadi is reported to have promoted him to that post as a reward for organizing the November 2015 bloodbath in Paris, highly coordinated attacks on several targets simultaneously that transformed IS's terror wing from a worrisome irritant to a strategic threat.
Abu Suleyman has been identified as a Moroccan born in Rabat in 1989 who spent his adolescence in Lunel, a small town in southern France that security officials say has produced up to two dozen jihadists who joined IS in Syria.
What made him stand out was that he joined the French Foreign Legion in November 2008 and saw combat during a six-month tour in Afghanistan.
He was identified by an IS defector as the brains behind the November 2015 Paris attacks, the first major multi-target IS operation organized by the Amniyat, and the bombing of Brussels airport and a subway station on March 22, 2016. Between them, 152 people were killed and 660 wounded, a terrorist toll unprecedented in Europe since the second world war.
Another pivotal figure is Rachid Kassim, a 29-year-old Frenchman believed to be of Algerian descent who joined IS in 2015 and was seen in several IS videos beheading hostages.
He is seemingly constantly online with a Facebook page and a Telegram channel, through which he exhorts IS supporters to attack Western targets and, when they agree to do so, channels them into the encrypted apps to plan the operations.
Kassim's virtual fingerprints were all over the fatal stabbing of a police chief and his female companion at their home in Magnanville outside Paris on June 14, 2016, and the gruesome killing of 85-year-old Catholic priest Jacques Hamel in his church in the Normandy village of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray on July 26, 2016, investigators said.
Moreng said: "It is highly likely that Kassim was responsible for directing other plots throughout France, especially ones that have been accompanied by posthumous video messages from the attackers."
She identified Kassim, 29, as "one of the Islamic State's most dangerous virtual planners... who has published a number of guides for ISIS supporters in which he specifies the name and location of recommended targets and gives tactical and strategic advice to ensure the success of the operation."
French authorities say that among the operations Kassim masterminded were the July 14, 2016, carnage in the French resort city of Nice, when a French-Tunisian petty criminal named Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel drove an 18-ton delivery truck into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day, slaughtering 86 people and injuring hundreds more.
This article originally appeared at The Arab Weekly.