The terrorist threat in the EU: expect the unexpected

EU and Europol flags. Photo: Europol. Blog Elcano
EU and Europol flags. Photo: Europol. Blog Elcano
EU and Europol flags. Photo: Europol.

Little more than two weeks after members of Islamic State (IS) carried out a series of coordinated attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015, which resulted in 130 dead and more than 350 injured, police experts from various EU countries especially affected by threat of the Jihadist organisation, as well as officials from Europol’s European Counter Terrorism Centre (ECTC) met in The Hague, within the framework known as the First Response Network (FRN), to evaluate what had happened and to anticipate what lies in store.

And what lies in store, in the wake of what happened in Paris, boils down to the advice that Europeans should ‘expect the unexpected’, in the words of the document that emerged from the meeting, titled Changes in modus operandi of Islamic State terrorist attacks. The report says that ‘IS is preparing more terrorist attacks’ in the countries belonging to the EU and ‘in France in particular’.

The unexpected does not necessarily refer to events that have never occurred before, however. The unexpected can also refer to a repeat of Jihadist attacks whose modus operandi is already well-known within the European context –such as those of 11 March 2004 in Madrid and 7 July 2005 in London– or beyond Europe. Thus, the November 13 attacks in Paris closely resemble –in terms of the procedures used by the terrorists, the types of target chosen, the number of individuals involved and their impact– those carried out in Mumbai in November 2008. Even more to the point, the second half of 2010 saw the foiling of a plan masterminded by the central core of al-Qaeda and prepared in collaboration with the organisation known as the Haqqani Network, operating out of Afghanistan and Pakistan, to reproduce a situation similar to the one created in Mumbai but in large French, German and British cities.

In any event, the terrorist threat to the EU from IS is a varied one. The spectrum of its possible manifestations ranges from, at one end, this type of attack, namely one that is centrally-planned from the outside, prepared by the heads of local operating cells, paying attention to the specific circumstances of the place where they are going to be carried out and highly lethal in their execution –as in the case of Paris– and, at the other end, those carried out by individuals acting in isolation who are exclusively inspired by the propaganda put out by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s organisation.

Furthermore, as far as the current Jihadist terrorist threat is concerned, the unexpected may befall European countries other than France, although the probability of terrorist attacks hitting France is thought to be relatively high compared to other countries in the region. For Spain, the significant facts in this context are that more than 130 individuals have been detained on Spanish soil during the current Jihadist recruiting campaign for the wars in Syria and Iraq, and that a similar number have travelled from Spain to those parts of the Middle East and North Africa where IS operates. Also relevant is that Spain is often the target of hostile Jihadist propaganda, especially with regard to the historical Muslim dominion over al-Andalus; this is something that emanates both from IS and from al-Qaeda, which has by no means ceased to be a terrorist threat to Western Europe.

Another point made in the Europol report that is worth highlighting relates to European antiterrorist cooperation. Policing authorities from the EU member states and from Europol itself agree that the exchange of information on antiterrorism issues ‘needs to be improved’. This exchange of information between member states, above all in the multilateral arena, where they are equipped with promising but underused instruments –for example within the framework of the Schengen Agreement– is still well below the level that is needed, because the countries concerned do not always act in accordance with the commitments they have signed up to. And this makes all of us more vulnerable, even if we are aware that we need to be more resilient and be prepared to expect the unexpected.