BRUSSLES: ISIS military losses in Syria and Iraq may prompt some of its leaders to relocate to Libya where they will face less pressure, the EU’s counterterrorism coordinator said Thursday.
In an interview with AFP, Gilles de Kerchove also warned that the raids by the U.S.-led coalition and Russian warplanes as well as operations by Iraqi and Syrian ground troops could lead ISIS to stage more Paris-style attacks in Europe.
De Kerchove cited the extremist group’s recent ouster from the Iraqi city of Ramadi and heavy airstrikes in Syria where he said the organization is now on the defensive.
There could be “some movement of senior leadership from the caliphate to Libya,” he said, referring to the so-called caliphate declared by ISIS in 2014 and based in the Syrian city of Raqqa.
De Kerchove said Western powers should cooperate on counter-terrorism with the new Libyan government of national unity that was formed this week under a U,N,-brokered deal aimed at ending years of bloodshed.
It would be easy at present for ISIS to operate in strife-torn Libya, where there are an estimated 3,000 ISIS fighters, “because there are no airstrikes for the time being in Libya and not a fully functioning government,” he said.
– ‘Perfect chaos’ –
“We know that the senior leadership in Syria is really monitoring what is happening in Libya. So if they feel the pressure is too high, there might be a temptation to move to another hotspot,” de Kerchove said.
“There, for the time, being it’s the perfect chaos they like.”
He added that a number of setbacks suffered by ISIS in Iraq and Syria in recent months had already prompted the group to inspire or launch attacks in Beirut, Ankara, Istanbul, Tunis, Egypt’s Sinai desert, and Paris, where 130 people were killed on November 13.
“The more there is pressure on Daesh (ISIS), the more the organization will first decide to mount attacks in the West, in particular Europe, to show successes,” de Kerchove said.
“More boots on the ground will be needed to get rid of them in Raqa and Mosul (in Iraq) but I think the (U.S.-led) coalition has had successes.”
He also said it was his understanding that Russian warplanes are increasingly attacking ISIS targets after initial charges from Washington that they were mostly hitting Western-backed groups opposed to Moscow’s ally Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The increased airstrikes – which are also destroying trucks carrying oil that finances ISIS activities – could force more ISIS foreign fighters to return to their homes in Europe, he said.
Separately, Hans Bonte, the mayor of Vilvoorde, told AFP that three people from his Belgian city just north of Brussels have died in Syria or Iraq in the last several weeks, bringing the total deaths of foreign fighters from Vilvoorde to at least eight since mid-2014.
“It’s clear the number of people being killed are (being killed) at a higher frequency than it used to be,” Bonte told AFP.
De Kerchove said he would not be surprised if European fighters were dying at an increasing rate because of the intensifying airstrikes, but he had no independent confirmation.