A detained Islamic State recruit unveiled the existence of an internal intelligence unit tasked with identifying terrorists who can be deployed abroad to carry out the group’s jihadist attacks across the world, the New York Times reported Wednesday.
Harry Sarfo, a German prisoner who joined ISIS last year, said when he first arrived in Syria to train with the group, a masked secret service official quickly told him they no longer wanted European fighters traveling to the region. Instead, Sarfo said, ISIS needed ground assistance for operations in the West.
Recent Stories in National Security
"He was speaking openly about the situation, saying that they have loads of people living in European countries and waiting for commands to attack the European people," Sarfo told the Times from a maximum-security prison in northern Germany. "And that was before the Brussels attacks, before the Paris attacks."
The secret service official, part of an ISIS intelligence unit called the Emni, said while the group had a solid presence in some European countries, the group needed more terrorists in Germany and Britain.
Emni is made up of an internal police force and an external operations branch that is charged with coordinating terrorist attacks abroad, the Times reported, citing thousands of pages of European intelligence and interrogation documents.
The Times reported:
Reinforcing the idea that the Emni is a core part of the Islamic State’s operations, the interviews and documents indicate that the unit has carte blanche to recruit and reroute operatives from all parts of the organization–from new arrivals to seasoned battlefield fighters, and from the group’s special forces and its elite commando units. Taken together, the interrogation records show that operatives are selected by nationality and grouped by language into small, discrete units whose members sometimes only meet one another on the eve of their departure abroad.
Emni trainees spearheaded the November attacks in Paris that killed at least 130 people and built the suicide bombs deployed at a Brussels airport and subway station, which killed 32 people in March.
"They always said they wanted to have something that is occurring in the same time: They want to have loads of attacks at the same time in England and Germany and France," Sarfo said.
Emni has also exported ISIS foot soldiers to Austria, Germany, Spain, Lebanon, Tunisia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Malaysia, according to investigative records. Intelligence and defense officials told the Times that ISIS has sent "hundreds of operatives" back to the European Union with "hundreds more in Turkey alone."
Sarfo confirmed the U.S. assessment was accurate, saying that "hundreds" have "definitely" returned to their home countries.
Emni members told Sarfo that the group has struggled infiltrating the U.S. with operatives who have traveled to Syria, and instead turned to social media to recruit Americans.
Sarfo began planning his escape from ISIS soon after he discovered the group’s propaganda videos were largely staged. He was arrested at Bremen Airport in July 2015, where he voluntarily confessed to terrorism charges. He is expected to serve three years in prison.