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IS group unit known as 'Emni' aims to export terror around the world

AFP file photo | Screengrab of an Islamic State (IS) group propaganda video.

A report published by the New York Times on Wednesday has shed light on the workings of a critical but little-known branch of the Islamic State (IS) group tasked with recruiting fighters to carry out terror attacks on foreign soil.


The special unit, known as the Emni, was established in 2014 with the double objective of policing the IS group and exporting terrorism beyond its territory, according to the report, based on European intelligence, interviews with US officials, and the confessions of a jihadist militant turned whistleblower.

Emni’s leaders are in charge of recruiting, training and deploying combatants abroad, the NYT said, adding that recruits 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”.

Describing the secretive branch as the “crucial cog in the group’s terrorism machinery”, the US daily said there was substantial evidence that Emni trainees were involved in recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels and Tunisia.

“Records from French, Austrian and Belgian intelligence agencies show that at least 28 operatives recruited by the Emni succeeded in deploying to countries outside of the Islamic State’s core territory, mounting both successful attacks and plots that were foiled,” the NYT wrote.

It added that officials believed dozens of other operatives had slipped through and formed sleeper cells in European countries.

‘Don’t worry about France’

Harry Sarfo, a former IS group militant who travelled from Germany to Syria in 2015, told the NYT that hundreds of Emni recruits had “definitely” returned to Europe to carry out attacks.

Sarfo, who is being held in a maximum security prison in Germany for terror offences, said Emni wanted “loads of attacks at the same time in England and Germany and France”.

A former postman from Bremen, he said that when he arrived in Syria he was told he was no longer needed in the country, but should go back to Germany to plot an attack there.

Describing an encounter with a masked member of the special unit, Sarfo said: “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. (…) And that was before the Brussels attacks, before the Paris attacks.”

The 27-year-old said several recruits in the UK and Germany had “chickened out” before carrying out attacks. However, they had plenty of volunteers to attack France.

“My friend asked them about France,” Sarfo said. “And they started laughing. But really serious laughing, with tears in their eyes. They said, ‘Don’t worry about France.’ ‘Mafi mushkilah’   in Arabic, it means ‘no problem.’”

That conversation, the NYT added, took place in April 2015, seven months before jihadist militants killed 130 people in coordinated attacks on several Paris night spots on November 13.

Criminal histories

Sarfo, who attended a radical mosque in Bremen, said he had been radicalized while serving time in jail for his involvement in an armed robbery.

He said Emni looked to target people with criminal histories, “especially if they know you have ties to organized crime and they know you can get fake IDs, or they know you have contact men in Europe who can smuggle you into the European Union”.

The German national was drafted into one of the IS group’s elite special forces that is used as a recruiting pool for operations abroad.

He explained that when recruits to the special forces finished their training, they were blindfolded and driven to meet Emni’s commander, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, to whom they pledged allegiance directly. Adnani, the subject of a $5 million bounty from the US State Department, is also known as the IS group’s official spokesman.

Sarfo said he started doubting his allegiance to the jihadist group during training, and finally chose to quit after taking part in a propaganda video aimed at a German audience that involved filming repeated takes of other German fighters shooting Syrian captives.

At one point, Sarfo recalled, one of the shooters turned to him immediately after killing a victim and asked: “How did I look like? Did I look good, the way I executed?”

‘Clean men’

Sarfo’s remarks, both in the NYT interview and in records of his interrogation from German police, suggest the perpetrators of recent “lone wolf” attacks in Europe who claimed allegiance to the IS group may have deeper links with the jihadist outfit than is commonly believed.

He explained that Emni’s underground operatives in Europe “act as nodes that can remotely activate potential suicide attackers who have been drawn in by propaganda”, the NYT wrote.

To avoid getting caught, the operatives use new converts with no established ties to radical groups – whom Sarfo described as “clean men” – as go-betweens, passing on “instructions on everything from how to make a suicide vest to how to credit their violence to the Islamic State” group.

“These people (the operatives) are not in direct contact with these guys who are doing the attacks, because they know if these people start talking, they will get caught,” Sarfo told the paper, explaining that the go-betweens helped relay propaganda, including videotaped pledges of allegiance.

Online propaganda has also been earmarked as the group’s best chance of striking the one key target it has struggled to penetrate: the United States.

While the IS group has succeeded in recruiting dozens of Americans, “they know it’s hard for them to get Americans into America” once they’ve been to Syria, Sarfo said.

“For America and Canada, it’s much easier for them to get them over the social network, because they say the Americans are dumb   they have open gun policies,” he added. “They say we can radicalize them easily, and if they have no prior record, they can buy guns, so we don’t need to have no contact man who has to provide guns for them.”

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