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Earlier today, we brought you the official statement in which ISIS claims responsibility for the attacks that left 34 people dead in Brussels on Tuesday. The group promises “black days for all crusader nations” and an attack “more devastating and bitter” than those that have come before (“Allah permitting,” of course).

Paris fugitive Salah Abdeslam has been variously characterized as the “ringleader” of the cell that was behind this week’s attack on Brussels. That’s probably because he’s now a household name in Europe and officials want the public to think a kind of field general has been captured. In reality, Abdeslam aborted his martyrdom mission in Paris and got himself arrested instead of dying for the “cause.” That’s not exactly behavior consistent with that seen in confirmed commanders like Abdelhamid Abaaoud and Omar al-Shishani. Rather, it would appear that Abdeslam effectively inherited Abaaoud’s cell upon returning to Belgium after backing out of the Paris attacks. ISIS likely saw some utility in keeping him around and Tuesday’s bombings suggest retaining him as a kind of organizer was a prudent decision. Or perhaps he was never meant to die in Paris. Who knows.

(Abaaoud – left – and friends, in “better” times)

Whatever the case, the important takeaway from Tuesday would appear to be that Abaaoud’s cell continued to operate and expand five months after his death and indeed, the group appears to have been using at least one of the very same bomb makers, Najim Laachraoui (who, incidentally, authorities now claim died in the Brussels airport).

(From left: Abaaoud, Abdeslam, Laachraoui)

Here’s what we said just this morning:

The thinking now is that ISIS cells have been given a certain amount of autonomy from central command in Raqqa and Mosul because, well, because there’s really no telling if there even is a central command at this juncture. One gets the impression that al-Hayat Media Center just kind of waits to see what happens and then if there’s a “successful” attack (Allahu akbar), then the propaganda arm simply claims it after the fact.

That dynamic in many ways makes the group more unpredictable, as semi-autonomous cells do not need al-Baghdadi’s approval before carrying out attacks.

In reality it’s probably not a more spectacular attack that Belgians should fear, but rather a series of “small” attacks like what unfolded Tuesday, perpetrated by a collection of individuals who do not need to appeal to a central authority and thus are free to hit soft targets spontaneously.

So if you were looking for analysis on the state of the group’s thinking and their operational capacity as it relates to attacks in Western Europe, you could have simply read the above or, you could have consulted with European and Iraqi intelligence officials and a French lawmaker, who together – and presumably after countless hours of hand wringing over chatter gathered from surveilling jihadists – came to exactly the same conclusion. Here’s AP:

Security officials have told The Associated Press that the Islamic State group has trained at least 400 attackers and sent them into Europe for terror attacks.

The network of interlocking, agile and semiautonomous cells shows the reach of the extremist group in Europe even as it loses ground in Syria.

The officials, including European and Iraqi intelligence officials and a French lawmaker who follows the jihadi networks, describe camps designed specifically to train for attacks against the West.

The officials say the fighters have been given orders to find the right time, place and method to carry out their mission.

Right. So exactly what we said this morning and precisely the conclusion that anyone who closely monitors the evolution of Sunni terror networks would have come to some 12 months ago after a police raid in Verviers proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that what happened at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in May of 2014 was no isolated event.

In any event, since AP has reported it, it’s now officially true we suppose, which means there are 400 well-trained Islamic State fighters embedded throughout Europe and organized into semi-autonomous cells (let’s call them proto-caliphates) just waiting for the “right” time and place to strike.

For any “intelligence” officials who may read this we would only add one thing: there are probably a whole lot more than 400…

(Soufan Group estimates)

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