New Counterterrorism Trends in Europe

The intense media reaction to every terror attack in Europe is leading to public uproar and demand for a change in internal security policy. Meir Gershuni discusses the measures taken by European governments in their fight against terrorism

New Counterterrorism Trends in Europe

Photo: AP

A series of terror attacks rocked Europe over the past year. However, as the attacks became more violent and gruesome, the sense of surprise was replaced by displays of anger directed primarily towards the authorities, accompanied by calls for a reconsideration of the immigration policy and increased oversight of radical Islamic elements by security and intelligence agencies.

The fading of the element of surprise among the public can be interpreted as a departure from the age of innocence, as Muslim Europeans (some of them being the second and third generations in Europe) depart to join jihadi forces in Syria and Iraq. When other young European Muslims are increasingly involved in the religious fanaticism of ISIS’s branches in Europe, such terror attacks are no longer a surprise. It seems that among the security forces as well as large portions of the public the severity of the problem has been acknowledged. These youth return to their homes in France and the rest of Europe as alumni of ISIS’s jihadi operations, now instilled with the murderous ideology with which they have been brainwashed into along with the skills to carry out shockingly violent campaigns.
The disturbing images that were seen on television screens after the violent attacks over the past year are what they want.

The intense media reaction after every attack in Europe leads to growing public pressure on European governments, especially in France, Belgium, and Germany. There is a demand to change the internal security policy, especially the immigration policy, and that governments should take extreme measures to curb the increasing strain of terrorist attacks.

If governments found it difficult to internalize the message the media has presented to them, it becomes clearer with the public’s increasing shift towards the right wing as expressed in municipal and national elections in those countries (and not just in those countries).

Following the attack at the Christmas market in Berlin, politicians on both sides of the divide in Germany are collaborating on expanding governmental powers in order to restrict immigration and deport dangerous asylum seekers, while substantially improving the intelligence gathering and surveillance of extreme Islamist elements. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who initiated an open-door policy for immigrants (that has garnered widespread public criticism) promised after the attack in Berlin (which killed 12 people) to enact new laws that would give a wider leeway for security agencies, thus increasing the potential for the early detection and neutralization of terrorist elements.

In some of the European countries, the attacks evoked harsh expressions by politicians. In France the entire government was harnessed, starting with the president, the prime minister and his ministers. They announced a trend to empower the security forces over all other considerations, along with the legal system that backs these measures and of course the security forces that implement them. In late 2015, the French Prime Minister Valls warned about the danger of chemical and biological attacks and raised at the National Assembly the government's proposal to extend the emergency laws in France which were applied immediately after the wave of attacks that year. The proposal was approved by an unprecedented majority of 551 for versus six against the proposal.  Note, this is the first time since 1955 that France has applied these emergency laws and the first time since 1944 that public demonstrations are restricted, and the police can shut down businesses for security reasons. Belgium also enacted laws expanding police powers, including giving the police permission to detain suspects for 72 hours without the requirement to present evidence. In addition, there is an order to immediately arrest jihadists who return to Belgium after visiting certain countries and requiring terror involved suspects to wear ankle monitors. A ban on the sale of SIM cards for mobile phones without identifying the user is also enforced.

After the attack in Berlin, Germany approved the installation of security cameras in public places, which was very limited until recently. It should be noted however that in Nice the police still has no permission to use the information collected from the cameras installed at the promenade in order to aid the investigation of the ramming attack.

There is no doubt that many of the increased activities of the security forces in France, Germany, and Belgium are a function of the emergency legislation which was applied in order to stem the wave of attacks. But keep in mind that in terms of geopolitics that after decades of permissive immigration policies European countries are past the demographic momentum, significant percentages of citizens are immigrants or their descendants and religious freedom is maintained. It is impossible to restrict what an imam can say and monitor each and every cell or group of activists that crosses the line between religious faith and extreme ideology. Moreover, in opposition to this emergency mindset, there are European human rights activists who are protesting against the government's “aggressive” trend, calling to cancel the new emergency legislation. These activists claim that this trend discriminates and that it generally violates the right to liberty, particularly the rights of freedom of expression, religion, and movement.

Following the legislative support of these measures, the expansion of the security and intelligence services’ scope of action upgraded their intelligence capabilities as well as their ability for preventive actions at least that is what the European security agencies report.  Although there are still gaps in the area of physical security, such as a lack of permanent or temporary barriers against ramming vehicles and an inadequate security presence around sensitive locations, there is a considerable effort made regarding intelligence. And yet, as a consequence of the limitations mentioned earlier, there are also critical deficiencies, which are revealed time and time again in repeated cases of advanced intelligence collection regarding terror-related suspects, some of whom were even under surveillance. These suspects still managed to carry out attacks such as the ramming attacks in Nice and Berlin.

However, at the same time, actions such as the frequent arrests that were made ahead of New Year celebration events are evident of a massive intelligence effort, including measures that were previously limited by legislation. Alongside this improvement trend, there is an increased urgency to bolster security forces with Arabic speakers in order to reduce critical gaps in intelligence gathering and its utilization. In this context, special attention has to be paid to dealing with threats that may arise from reckless recruitment, such as internal threats (in other words, the possibility of having a mole in the organization). At the end of last year, an intelligence agent in the BfV (domestic German security agency) was revealed as having converted to Islam and active in global jihadi activities. The man is suspected of being involved in planning an attack on the BfV headquarters in Cologne.  On the one hand, this event shows a vetting failure, but on the other hand, this exposure indicates a good intelligence capability which is probably a result of targeted and sophisticated monitoring of the social network in which the man was active.

Another noteworthy and significant intelligence measure is the cooperation with the Islamic community, raising awareness of the threats and their implications for the public through ongoing contact with the community’s leaders. According to government reports it seems that such activities are bearing fruit through valuable intelligence and that according to security officials the community is becoming a force multiplier for law enforcement agencies.  A prominent example is last week's announcement by the chief of the Belgian Federal Police that several major terrorist attacks were foiled in the past year and the beginning of this year, some of them due to the increasing cooperation with Islamic communities in the country and the vast information that flows from the community to the police. According to the head of the Federal Judicial Police, Eric Jacobs, the police receives from the Islamic community 600 intelligence tips a day, directly aiding the thwarting of terror attacks. The cooperation between European intelligence agencies and those of other countries that have longstanding experience in fighting terrorism must also be noted. This is done in a manner that helps reduce security problems, despite the open borders in Europe. It is apparent that the intelligence effort is a significant factor affecting the opponent’s behavior and operational methods.

As NATO’s pressure on ISIS increases in Iraq, and increased attacks in Europe by the Islamic State are predicted, preparations are made to anticipate these attacks (especially suicide bombings), but it turns out shooting and ramming attacks are carried out more often than suicide bombings and the use of IEDs.

This change in the use of attacks that are not suicide bombings is due to a number of reasons.
First, the availability of such weapons and the ease of transporting it across Europe;  second, the terrorists are well experienced and trained in the use of weapons, this was evident in past attacks such as the recent attack at the Reina nightclub in Istanbul at the beginning of this month [January]. On the other hand, the terrorists have difficulty obtaining explosives and certainly manufacturing and storing them requires caution. Assembling the IEDs and handling them requires a unique professional skill, which leads inevitably to increasing the amount of conspirators, possibly allowing leakage that could lead to the terrorists being thwarted by the security forces.

Incidentally, the suicide attack last July in Germany in which only the perpetrator was killed and ten were injured may also indicate the difficulty in preparing the appropriate explosives in order to cause significant damage. It is noteworthy that Turkey, which is suffering from continuous suicide attacks, is not included in this trend. This is probably due to its geographical proximity to the Islamic state, ISIS’s wide infrastructure in Turkey and also due to the fact that many suicide bombing attacks (and other kinds of attacks) are made by the Kurds.

However, it is worth to note the significant efforts by the Islamic State to target aviation, with an emphasis on exploding planes in midair, and the impressive abilities they showed so far in detecting vulnerabilities, recruiting collaborators and preparing the appropriate explosive devices that would ensure the success of the attack. This was reflected in the attack on the Russian MetroJet plane that took off from Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, the EgyptAir plane taking off from the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris and the Somali aircraft that was able to resume landing despite an explosion of a concealed bomb in a laptop on board the aircraft. The limitations of producing explosives did not impede the terrorists in this case, due to the minimal amount of explosives needed to cause a plane to explode in midair.

Although there is no innovation in the modus operandi that was used, the world is still perceived as surprised. At least in the wake of the Egyptian plane crash, and the vigorous investigation that conducted (among others by American involvement), it was reported that the security authorities at the Charles de Gaulle airport revoked the passes of dozens of airport employees who were found to be associated with radical Islamic elements. It is worth mentioning in this context the thwarting of an attack against El-Al in November 2006 at the Frankfurt airport, where radical Muslims working in the sterile area at the airport intended to smuggle a suitcase of explosives onto a plane. This subsequently led the authorities to demand more strict security vetting for all airport employees.

The extreme sensitivity around aviation is effectively exploited by different opponents in order to disrupt routine airport operations and exhaust security infrastructures with anonymous messages. This usually leads to the immediate forced landing of the threatened aircraft, apparently to rule out the threat and to conduct a thorough search of the aircraft. This is a concrete example of a forced action that is made by decision makers due the absence of an effective skilled security infrastructure, which allows them to lean towards an alternative decision. This serves as an achievement for the terrorists since the planes are moved from their intended course.  What is terrorism if the seed of fear is not planted?

 Experience shows that the terrorists’ successes lead others to imitate and carry out more attacks. A senior Al Qaeda leader, Abu Musab al-Suri, in order to encourage lone wolf attacks published in 2004, a 1600 page essay titled  “The Call to Global Islamic Resistance,” which advocated a methodology of a “death by a thousand cuts.” This essay encouraged and guided the activities of individual attackers.

This approach has been adopted and has the blessing of al Qaeda leaders such as al-Zawahiri and others. Lone Islamic terrorists are fueled by religious incitement that urges them to carry out terrorist acts that would be considered successes and a source of pride for them, reinforcing this concept in the leadership’s eyes. This creates a kind of cycle through the presentation of these terrorist acts along with past actions as inspiring and worthy of emulating. Publications on social networks, blogs and forums intensify the problem, inciting and spurring activists to carry out attacks; this fact requires an appropriate doctrine and the capability to monitor potential threats.

As part of the disillusionment and improvement trends, it is unrealistic to expect the intelligence system to be able to trace every terrorist cell and emerging attack, and terrorist activities may slip off of the intelligence’s radar in the future. It is at this point where the security forces’ duty is to continue to improve their readiness and prepare adequately. This applies both to their proficiency as well as the technological and physical response required to enable the early detection and identification of the terrorists in order to thwart their attacks.


Meir Gershuni had served as a head of division in the ISA (Israel Security Agency). He is the owner of a consulting firm that specializes in the design and execution of security layouts for critical infrastructures.


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