THE military-style attack in Paris has made clear that Europe faces an evolving, ever-more complex terror threat no longer dominated by a few big players.
It’s not just al-Qaeda, or Islamic State (IS). It’s not just the disciples of some fiery, hate-filled preachers.
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Instead, security experts say, it’s now an internet-driven, generalised rage against western society felt by radicalised Muslims that can burst into the open at any time – with a slaughter in Paris, an attack on a Jewish museum in Belgium, or the slaying of a soldier in the streets of London.
This evolving hydra-headed beast bedevils security chiefs, who have to deal not only with al-Qaeda planners looking for another 9/11-style hit but also with, as in Paris, well-trained, well-armed killers intent on avenging perceived insults to their religion by gunning down journalists.
In a rare public speech, Andrew Parker, director of the domestic British security service MI5, said on Thursday that thwarting terrorist attacks had become more difficult as the threat becomes more diffuse.
It is harder, he said, for agents to disrupt plans of small groups or “lone wolves” who act spontaneously, with minimal planning but deadly effect.
“We believe that since October 2013 there have been more than 20 terrorist plots either directed or provoked by extremist groups,” he said, citing deadly attacks in Europe, Canada and Australia.
He said security services had stopped three potentially lethal terrorist plots inside Britain alone in recent months.
“The number of crude but potentially deadly plots has gone up,” the M15 chief said, warning that small-scale plots carried out by volatile individuals were “inherently harder for intelligence agencies to detect”.
The individuals are not part of disciplined, sophisticated networks, Mr Parker added, and often act with little or no warning.
Some 600 Britons have gone to Syria to join extremists there, with most embracing IS, Mr Parker said. Some 550 Germans have done the same, with about 180 known to have returned, including a core of about 30 who are judged to be extremely dangerous, according to German interior minister Thomas de Maiziere. About 1,200 French citizens have left for Syria, including about 400 still in the war zone and 200 on their way, French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve said last month.
Mr Parker said they had learned how to hate and how to kill.
Concentrating solely on these volatile individuals wouldn’t work, he said, because at the same time rival al-Qaeda and IS groups inside Syria were trying to orchestrate broader attacks in Britain and Western Europe.
Open societies everywhere have difficulty protecting against terrorism, whose perpetrators are aided by the very freedoms and openness that they often despise.
In Europe, there are several factors which further complicate the situation. The main one is a large Muslim population in many countries – France first among them, but also Belgium, Sweden, Germany, Britain and even Spain and Italy. The size of these communities enables the radicals among them to better hide.
The issue is compounded by the fact – only recently the source of angst in Europe – that many immigrants are not well-assimilated into western society.
While most immigrants are law-abiding and non-hostile, it seems that many have not absorbed its liberal values, including freedom of expression up to and including satire of religious figures. This creates an atmosphere in which radicalism can survive and sometimes thrive.
Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism specialist with the Swedish National Defence College, said a new generation of Muslim youths had grown up in Europe’s cities in the post-9/11 era and had, to a degree, embraced the al-Qaeda view that the West is at war with Islam – first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq and now in Syria.
At the same time, he said, the IS’s brazen proclamation of a caliphate had caught the imagination of many young European Muslims, who want to go to Syria to join the battle and then bring it back home.
Mr Ranstorp added: “The sectarian tensions in the Middle East are mirrored in our cities in Europe. There is more strident activism in Muslim communities.” The terrorism expert said many Muslims felt segregated in disadvantaged communities on the fringes of major cities and were willing to fight back.
“There is a much sharper polarisation of society,” he added, citing the corresponding rise of right-wing, anti-immigration political parties opposed to the growth of Islam in Europe. “The people carrying out the violence work in small groups but they all join up and know what direction they are travelling in. They are very clear on the goal. The caliphate provides that common purpose, unity, momentum,” he said.
The law-enforcement challenge is exacerbated by the free movement of people that is a cherished ideal of the European integration project. It is an item of faith that open borders will spur trade, job creation and spread prosperity.
But it also makes it much easier for anyone with criminal intent and an EU passport to cross borders to carry out an attack, as happened in May when a Frenchman linked to IS in Syria crossed into Belgium and killed four people at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels.
US politician Adam Schiff, a member of the House of Representatives intelligence committee, said US officials were making a strong effort to track Americans who have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq. The challenge for European officials is much more daunting, he said.
“It’s tough, though, particularly when we don’t have great intelligence in places like Syria to identify what’s happened to Americans who have gone overseas to fight,” he said. “Very opaque and difficult to track. That problem is magnified 100 times in Europe, where people can travel freely with a passport.”
In the UK, steps have been taken to tighten up border checks at ports and train stations, and Spain has raised its terror threat level, not because of a specific plot, but because of a general sense that all of Europe – not just France – is at heightened risk since the attack in Paris on the newsroom of the satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, that left a dozen people dead. Spain stepped up security at transport hubs such as airports and train stations, nuclear power plants, energy networks and water sources.
“The current international scenario means we can talk about a generic threat that is shared by all western countries in general,” said interior minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz.
He said the rivalry between the two main terror organisations – which are vying for primacy in Syria and elsewhere – is being felt in Europe.
“There is a clear battle between al-Qaeda and the IS to become terror leaders. And this increases the risk of attacks,” he added.
Pointedly refusing to use the IS’s chosen name in his address, Mr Parker said the group’s effective social media strategy had allowed it to spread its “message of hate directly into homes across the United Kingdom”.
He said the group posed a three-pronged threat. It had murdered innocent Britons inside Syria, it was using Syria as a base for directing terrorist attacks against Britain, and it was using its sophisticated propaganda to provoke Britons to carry out attacks at home.
The brothers suspected in the Charlie Hebdo killings were known to France’s intelligence service and were on the US no-fly list, yet authorities were unable to prevent the attack, in part because the planning group involved may have been quite small and operating under the intelligence radar. The same was true of the two al-Qaeda-inspired British extremists who hacked to death soldier Lee Rigby on a busy London street in May 2013.
Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London, said the smaller attacks seen of late reflected a change of strategy among jihadi groups, who have previously harboured ambitions to create incidents as big as the 11 September attacks on the US or the London bombings on 7 July, 2005.
“Now what has happened since last year is that everyone has realised that you can cause as much terror if you do very small attacks that do not require you to build a bomb,” Mr Neumann said. “They’ve been incredibly effective.”
He said that there would be other similar attacks in the future.
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