<< view all Insights

A new wave of terrorism continues to strike at the heart of Europe

Editorial by Dr Christina Schori Liang

The terrorist attacks in Brussels last month confirmed that a new wave of terrorism is likely to plague Europe for some time to come.

It follows a similar wave of attacks in January and November 2015 in Paris, signalling the beginning of what will most likely be a prolonged struggle against terror in Europe, similar to the fight against the Baader-Meinhoff Group and the Red Brigades that terrorised the continent in the 1970s and 1980s.  This time terrorists are stemming from the Islamic State (IS), one of the many Salafist-Jihadist groups worldwide, marked by its wealth and success in establishing a so called “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq.

A principal concern is how large and complex the IS network actually is across Europe. So far almost two dozen people are being held in six different cities with connections to the Paris and Brussels terrorist cells. Moreover, European-based terrorists have developed new methods and approaches, including targeting criminals, developing sophisticated tradecraft, and adapting their modus operandi in order to stretch European security institutions to the limit. There is growing global consensus that new strategies need to be developed to address the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed violent extremism and lead to terrorism.

A new modus operandi to attack urban settings

IS appears to be planning complex, sequenced attacks focusing on multiple soft targets in the hopes of straining the ability for police and emergency services to respond -- similar to the terror attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015. Government officials and police throughout the world have worried about how to handle such complex attacks in city environments since the 2008 Mumbai attacks paralysed a city of 20 million people for three days. Since then, police across the world have developed specific training to combat complex attacks. While police can effectively control concentrated space, distributed attackers tend to extend over time and over large urban terrain. This strains police resources and weakens the response, challenging the ability of police to command and control and to keep pace with the rapid unfolding of events. Just like military special operations are designed to gain and maintain relative superiority at an early stage, today’s terrorists are focused on causing maximum possible damage at the very outset of an attack, rather than waiting for the media to pick up on the story. This puts a premium on the speed of a police response.

While police can effectively control concentrated space, distributed attackers tend to extend over time and over large urban terrain.

Speed and Agility 

IS also appears to have improved its ability to organise and mount attacks. It took a decade for Al Qaeda to conduct two major attacks in Europe: Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005. The Islamic State has managed three major attacks in a matter of 15 months.  The Islamic State is proving that fast, aggressive, and brazen attacks are the most successful. They choose as their points of attacks local venues that they know personally, such as an airport, a metro, a football stadium, or a concert hall. 

 

 

Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, stated in its 2016 report that the Islamic State has developed an “external action command” specifically developed to train operatives in preparing and carrying out “special forces style” attacks in the West. Rob Wainright, Europol’s Chief, maintains that 5,000 suspects who were radicalised in Europe and then travelled to Syria to fight may have now returned. This complex and concurrent threat to several countries will make it difficult for intelligence and police agencies to map the threats and the multitude of potential targets. The latest attacks have shown that even the most effective security measures will not be able to keep a democratic European city 100 percent safe, even when it is under high alert.

Why Belgium, why now?

IS has carried out over 21 attacks outside of Iraq and Syria that have killed more than 1,000 people around the world in 2015, reflecting a new turn towards psychological operations. This comes at a time when the IS main base in the Middle East is under pressure and is losing ground. IS has lost 22 percent of its territory in the past 15 months. By terrorising the airlines and public transportation, the Islamic State is sending a message to the world that whoever is willing to engage with it militarily will be subject to attacks at home. In November 2015, Iraq warned that the IS leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi had ordered retaliatory attacks on coalition countries. The attacks in Brussels are also meant to showcase the Islamic State’s geographic reach, strength and power in order to win more recruits from Europe and the MENA region.

IS has carried out over 21 attacks outside of Iraq and Syria that have killed more than 1,000 people around the world in 2015

Belgium has the biggest home-grown extremist problem in Europe, due to several reasons. First, Belgium has one of the most developed networks of radical extremist recruiters in Europe. Radicalisation in Brussels occurred long before the rise of the Islamic State. One of the largest recruitment sites, Sharia4Belgium, systematically channelled young people into jihadist movements. This effort picked up significantly after 2011-12, creating a massive surge of recruitment in the last five years. Belgium has had the highest number of foreign fighters who left for Syria. Belgian security services turned a blind eye to its nationals leaving the country to join terrorist groups in the hopes that they would never return. This wishful thinking did not bear fruit; many of the 500 Belgians who left are returning, too many for security services to monitor.

Secondly, parts of Belgium and other countries in Europe are home to migrant ghettos, where young people experience social marginalisation from their state as well as economic deprivation. Extremists have taken advantage of the youths who reside in these areas and are recruiting them to support their cause.

Sophisticated tradecraft

The attacks in Brussels revealed that Europe’s security agencies and especially its counterterrorist agencies are not sophisticated enough yet to deal with the Islamic States’ modernised tradecraft. European security agencies do not share the same levels of competencies and capabilities in aggregating and sharing intelligence and are stymied by different working cultures, domestic and international jurisdictions and international borders.

 

 

Intelligence agencies are increasingly going blind due to the so-called ‘Snowden effect’ of increased public awareness of government intelligence strategies. This has led to the growth of emerging technologies such as Apple iMessaging and Telegram that allow for end-to-end encryption making it difficult, if not impossible, for local and federal law enforcement to intercept and foil terrorist attacks. IS has also developed a disciplined communications strategy, using the most sophisticated encryption devices on the market. It shares best practices with its followers via social media, such as the use of ‘burner phones’ (pre-paid mobile phones that are used only once), making it impossible for intelligence agencies to intercept messages even while under attack. IS has also mastered the ability to construct explosives with triacetone triperoxide, known as TATP, whose ingredients include commonly available products such as nail polish remover and hair bleach.

Large European countries like Germany, France and the United Kingdom have dedicated counter-terrorism capabilities, but smaller countries have more limited capacity and have been trying to play catch up ever since the breakout of the Syrian war.  Lack of an effective European-wide security apparatus to deal with counter-terrorism adds to the burden. There is still no common EU database for DNA, fingerprints and car license plates on terrorist suspects. Europe lacks a joint database for IS fighters, and there is no regional agreement on the transliteration of names in Arabic or Cyrillic. Currently, Interpol is trying to fill the gap with a series of databases, including one dedicated to keeping track of foreign fighters.

Crime/Terror Nexus

The recent attacks also show that the Islamic State is active in recruiting criminals. A large number of terrorist recruits – some estimates as high as 80 per cent -- have criminal records, varying from petty to serious crimes. Recruiting criminals provides terrorists with the necessary skill sets needed to succeed -- a propensity to conduct violent acts as well as access to criminal markets for weapons and bomb building resources. A study conducted on extremists who have plotted attacks in Western Europe found that they most often relied on funding from cell members. Of the cells studied, 90 percent were involved in income generating activities and half of them were entirely self-financed, only one in four received funding support from international terrorist organisations.

Recruiting criminals provides terrorists with the necessary skill sets needed to succeed -- a propensity to conduct violent acts as well as access to criminal markets for weapons and bomb building resources.

For many extremist groups, prison has become an important recruitment location, where they especially target young petty criminals with Middle Eastern backgrounds. Prisons are places were recruiters and spiritual mentors have opportunities to influence inmates. In the eighth issue of Dabiq, the Islamic State’s online magazine, an interview of Boubacar Al-Hakim, one the mentors of the Kouachi brothers (perpetrators of the January 2015 Paris attacks), stated that putting Muslims in prisons is actually serving their cause, as it gives them an opportunity to spread their message. Mehdi Nemmouche, who killed four persons near a Jewish museum in Brussels in 2014, was imprisoned five times prior to committing terror. The Charlie Hebdo attackers met while serving prison sentences. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the mastermind of the 13 November 2015 Paris plot, and his co-conspirator, Salah Abdeslam, followed a trajectory from petty crime to armed robbery, both ending up in prison in 2010, where it appears they were both radicalised. Prison is where Abaaoud met Salah Abdeslam, one of the suicide bombers in the Belgium attacks; the Bakraoui brothers, the other two suicide bombers in the Belgium attacks, also spent time in prison.

What can we do to stop terror now?

European security agencies need to take a number of measures to prevent further attacks. Currently, European security services are overstretched by a multitude of tasks:

  1. maintaining public order;
  2. preventing citizens from being radicalised online, watching those that already are radicalised and preventing them from leaving;
  3. monitoring the battle-hardened fighters who are returning from Syria and Iraq;
  4. understanding, preparing for and foiling terrorist attacks;
  5. policing right-wing militants espousing xenophobia and Islamophobia; and
  6. dealing with the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe.

A first step towards strengthening security services is to invest more resources, personnel and specialised training. There also must be increased security cooperation between intelligence services, as sharing intelligence is vital to understand and map transnational networks. Creating and cooperatively maintaining a common database for air passengers entering and leaving the EU is also necessary in order to stop jihadists from traveling undetected. Europe is still scrambling to stem the tide of persons traveling abroad to fight in foreign conflicts including in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia. The IS military, as of September 2015, has attracted approximately 25,000 foreign fighters from over 100 different countries, including 4,500 Westerners.

More also must be done to prevent “Jihadimania” from spreading online.

More also must be done to prevent “Jihadimania” from spreading online. IS continues to improve its outreach and has strengthened its cyber-jihad campaign, reaching thousands of youth across the digital world. While the violent messaging campaigns get the most media attention, it is important to note that the majority of IS messages portray scenes of the caliphate as an idealised sun-drenched utopia with families and their children eating ice-cream. While coalition resources are largely directed towards fighting a kinetic war, the fact that IS has opened another campaign in cyberspace should not be overlooked. An acknowledgement of this fact has been the recent US declaration of a cyber warfare campaign against IS.

 

 

And finally, international cooperation in fighting terrorism needs to be strengthened. Extremist groups worldwide have profited from the new political order that has brought on the retreat of the state in certain parts of the world. The ongoing conflicts, particularly in Syria and Iraq, have led to long-term economic, political and social problems which have led to a record-setting 60 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees. Therefore extremism can no longer be tackled in just one region of the world but must be done in concert with all nation states.

There is a growing global consensus that the threat of groups such as the Islamic State requires not only security-based counter-terrorism measures downstream but also systematic steps to counter the appeal of violent extremism upstream and address the underlying conditions that drive individuals to radicalise and join violent groups.

There is a growing global consensus that the threat of groups such as the Islamic State requires not only security-based counter-terrorism measures downstream but also systematic steps to counter the appeal of violent extremism upstream and address the underlying conditions that drive individuals to radicalise and join violent groups.

Building upon this understanding, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon in January 2016 announced a ‘UN Plan of Action to Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE).’ His report mirrors the policy framework and issues raised by Swiss Federal Councillor Didier Burkhalter at the Countering Violent Extremism summit held in New York in September 2015, when he emphasised the importance of designing a comprehensive and holistic approach to preventing violent extremism that takes into account the spheres of peace and security, development, and human rights.

Building upon the Plan of Action and global momentum on PVE, the United Nations in partnership with the Government of Switzerland hosted the ‘Geneva Conference on Preventing Violent Extremism – The Way Forward’ on 7-8 April 2016. The conference helped to bring together the international community to share experiences and good practices at the national, regional and global level. The conference concluded that PVE measures must be based on principled leadership, effective institutions, fair and just government. The act of upholding human rights and rule of law has been proven to help reduce the appeal of violent extremism. It was noted that gender equality was important and that by empowering women and girls, societies will become more resilient against violent extremism. Also tackling socio-economic deprivation with education (cognitive development), skills training (vocational programmes) and employment especially among youth were important contributions to preventing violent extremism.

While governments have so far been mostly reactive to terrorist challenges, they are now beginning to realise that they also need to be more proactive, to think more preventively in order to get ahead of the terrorism challenge. Governments are waking up to the fact that hard security tools alone cannot reduce the wellspring of violent extremism. New strategies must be designed at global, regional and national levels to address the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed violent extremism and lead to terrorism.

Note: The author is Dr Christina Schori Liang Senior Programme Advisor and Senior Fellow, Emerging Security Challenges Programme, GCSP. The views expressed in this article are entirely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the GCSP.