IS has steadily lost ground in the Middle East, including territorial defeats and physical losses, yet still increasingly maintains the ability to direct and coordinate terrorist attacks in Europe. Thursday’s tragedy in Barcelona that left 13 dead and a 100 injured was the latest reflection of this seemingly perverse relationship. The fact that the dead and injured belonged to over 34 different countries exhibits the indiscriminate nature of the attackers’ violent ideology.
The fact that the dead and injured belonged to over 34 different countries exhibits the indiscriminate nature of the attackers’ violent ideology.
The ensuing rhetoric in Europe debates whether IS is directly leading the operational planning of such attacks or merely inspiring extremists to commit such grievous attacks. The reality is that such perpetrators are mostly EU residents (as opposed to recent migrants or refugees). These are not isolated attacks but in fact, the middle and lower tiers of Al-Qaeda in Europe have merged into IS. Several previously dormant foot soldiers have been galvanized into a network of organized sleeping cells. Particularly, their recent visits to Syria and Iraq have transformed extremists into combat-trained terrorists. They have returned to their homes in Europe, spreading their plague in a new battleground.
On the other hand, Europe has been caught unawares (mentally and physically) about the War on Terror coming to their doorstep. Enhanced security measures throughout Europe have been directed at public spaces and prominent buildings. France has even had national emergency declared in the aftermath of the Bastille Day attack. Spain has had its threat level as “high” (second highest level: Level 4 out of 5) and before this attack, had already detained 51 suspected jihadists in 2017, 69 in 2016, and 75 in 2015. But such tragedies have continued to unfold.
The EU had established the European Counter-Terrorism Center (ECTC) through the Europol for specifically “tackling foreign fighters, sharing intelligence and expertise on terrorism financing, online terrorist propaganda and extremism, illegal arms trafficking and international cooperation to increase effectiveness and prevention”. But coherent and simultaneous counter-terrorism launched on the same frequency across an entire continent is tough work. The understandable scarcity of trust, assurances and confidence amongst Europe’s intelligence agencies to exchange security information across borders continues to be an impeding challenge for the ECTC.
The understandable scarcity of trust, assurances and confidence amongst Europe’s intelligence agencies to exchange security information across borders continues to be an impeding challenge for the ECTC.
The bottom line is that it is almost impossible to stop a person in a vehicle from causing harm. The recent attacks and plots in Europe are as elementary as it gets, with deadly results. And the simpler the terrorist plot, the harder it is to detect, disrupt and foil. Terror, in the case of Europe, is coming in one of its crudest forms: a motor vehicle. A combat-trained terrorist using a car in a premeditated manner to spread chaos, death and destruction was unthinkable in Europe a couple of years back. Simply, the motor vehicle is a weapon that is not designed to be a weapon. Therefore, to secure venues, protect civilians and chalk out contingency plans for a ‘vehicle attack’ in the heart of Europe is almost inconceivable and impractical. This is a debate that will occupy the European people and the EU governments long after the victims of Thursday’s gruesome attack are buried and gone.
Soft targets, be it symbolic tourist spots, high-value government buildings or mass transit are almost impossible to harden. They are meant to facilitate easy access and efficient movement; strict security measures would curtail their designated functions. Critically, when the threat is cross-border, boosting security around a soft target merely changes the target zone. Importantly, terrorists have long targeted soft targets but what is alarmingly new is that the baseline threat is now perilous in present-day Europe. Each vehicle terrorist attack in Europe rattles the already precarious balance between normalcy and public safety and security.
Importantly, terrorists have long targeted soft targets but what is alarmingly new is that the baseline threat is now perilous in present-day Europe. Each vehicle terrorist attack in Europe rattles the already precarious balance between normalcy and public safety and security.
The broader national and European mindset needs to focus on where and why this threat is emanating from; in short, Europe is under threat from its own. The quicker this realization occurs, more swift and effective will be the counter-terrorism response. News sources repeatedly use phrases such as “broad network”, “dozen suspects” and “organized sleeping cells” which emphasize that the threat has metastasized and is here to stay, unfortunately.
Particularly worrisome is that the breadth of the European terror attacks, from France, Germany and the UK to Sweden and Finland to Spain, reflects how IS is shifting its focus from
consolidating territory in the Middle East to spreading terrorist operatives throughout Europe. As IS is being pushed back territorially in the Middle East, the group’s European fighters are returning home and dispersing, which contributes to these heightened attacks within Europe.
Finally, returning to Spain, the Iberian Peninsula occupies a dangerously special place in the lore and propaganda of IS. Spain’s history as Al-Andalus governed by Muslims for nearly 800 years until the 15th century is used by IS to “justify” their claim to Spain. Moreover, the fact that the Iberian Peninsula serves as a frontier of the European continent and is a crucial transit hub from North Africa into the EU presents additional footing for why Spain needs to stay alert and prepared to execute counter-terrorism operations at the need of the hour.
is Senior Non-Resident Fellow of CSCR. A Graduate from Grinnell College and Pursuing his masters from Brown University through Harvard Brown Program in Public Affairs. His area of expertise is Nuclear non-Proliferation, International Security and Civil-Military Diplomacy.