How Europe Found Itself At The Center Of A Perfect Terrorism Storm

A spate of recent attacks have centered on Belgium

Tenir bon: Hold fast. — REUTERS
Mar 23, 2016 at 8:35 AM ET

The perfect storm of terrorism that has swept over Europe for more than a year continued its destructive path this week with bombings at the Brussels international airport and a city metro station that killed more than 30 people and wounded dozens more. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) once again claimed responsibility for the attacks, which like the massacre last November in Paris bore a familiar signature — synchronized suicide attacks against soft targets in the heart of a Western capital.

Terrorism trend lines that have worried counterterrorism experts for years have now culminated in one of the worst spates of attacks in Europe in a decade. Besides the mass-casualty attacks yesterday in Brussels and Paris last November, there was the attempted terrorist attack on a high-speed train in France last August that was barely thwarted by three American passengers; the attack that targeted the Paris offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in January, 2015, that killed 12, and a follow-on attack on a Kosher supermarket in Paris where an additional four people were killed; and an ISIS-inspired attack on the Jewish Museum of Belgium in May 2014 that killed four people.

The current spate of attacks are reminiscent of the al-Qaeda-inspired mass casualty attacks on the Madrid transportation system in 2004 (which killed 191 people), and the July 2005 attack on the London transport system that killed 52 people. Both occurred at the height of the Iraq war, when al-Qaeda was using the narrative of a war between the West and Islam to incite an anti-Western jihad, and finding numerous recruits in the restive Muslim diaspora in Europe.

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A similar dynamic is occurring today with the rise of ISIS and its call for jihad against the West. Counterterrorism experts understand that a sectarian civil war in Syria now in its fifth year, and post-Arab Spring instability throughout the Middle East and North Africa, has given rise to a host of Islamic extremist groups, most menacingly ISIS. With its sophisticated appeals on social media, ISIS in turn has attracted thousands of willing recruits from the poorly assimilated Muslim populations in Europe, training them on arrival in secure communications, weapons, explosives and killing. According to U.S. intelligence estimates, the number of foreign fighters who have flocked to ISIS’s black banner has increased from 20,000 to an estimated 36,500 just since last summer, with roughly 6,600 of them coming from Western countries.

Upon their return from the battlefields of the Middle East, significant numbers of those foreign fighters have begun establishing safe houses and weapons caches in the impoverished neighborhoods of their youth. Some extremists have hidden their movements and avoided detection by joining the influx of more than one million immigrants from war-torn countries that entered Europe just last year, creating the worst refugee crisis on the continent since World War II. And once inside Europe, the free movement of extremists bent on terrorism is facilitated by porous national borders in the European Union region, weak national laws against aiding and supporting extremist groups, and insufficient intelligence sharing and law enforcement coordination among European nations.

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“The attacks in Paris and Brussels indicate that the terrorist infrastructure and support network in Europe is more deeply embedded and extensive than we understood,” said Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism expert and author, and director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. “The fact that the terrorists behind those attacks were able to travel between the continent and Syria repeatedly in one case, or hideout without detection just blocks from his family home in the other, despite being the most wanted men in Europe, also strongly suggests that the continent’s defenses are insufficient, and only as strong as the most vulnerable nation. And Belgium is looking like a weak link.”

Indeed, looked at in microcosm the attacks in Brussels and Paris reveal many of the negative trend lines in terrorism so evident in recent years. They were both committed, for instance, by Brussels-based ISIS cells. According to the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, Belgium has more citizens fighting in Iraq and Syria per capita than any other European country (40 for every million people, or 440 total). Independent Belgian researcher Pieter Van Ostaeyen estimated last October that 516 Belgians had fought in Iraq or Syria, far higher than official figures.

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The ringleader of the Paris attack last November that killed 129 civilians and wounded scores more, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was a Belgian national who grew up in the poor immigrant section of Brussels called Molenbeek. Despite being involved in four failed terrorist plots in France, Abaaoud was able to travel between the continent and Syria multiple times without being detected, reportedly becoming close to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He was killed in a raid by French police after the Paris attacks. Salah Abdeslam, who was arrested in Belgium last week in Molenbeek, just a few blocks from his home, also took part in the Paris attack. Counterterrorism experts believe Abdeslam’s arrest and interrogation likely led other members of the Belgian cell to accelerate their plans for yesterday’s nearly simultaneous attacks before information he surrendered to police could be used to foil the plot.

Some U.S. intelligence experts believe the crux of Europe’s current problem is a failure to assimilate. “The problem with Muslims in Belgium and many other countries in Europe is that they are second-class citizens. The young people have a slim to zero chance of going to the elite schools that will lead to good jobs and promising careers, so they end up either collecting trash or welfare,” said Robert Baer, a former Middle East and counterterrorism analyst for the CIA. “So for thousands of the young, unassimilated Muslim men in Europe who long to do something significant with their lives, ISIS offers them an opportunity to defend orthodox Islam. It gives them a sense of purpose, which ISIS exploits by turning them into suicide bombers.”

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Concerns that those extremists would try and use the exodus of Syrian refugees to Europe as cover for their movements were heightened when the BBC and other media outlets reported that two of the suicide bombers in Paris entered the continent from Greece, a favorite route of refugees and smugglers. One extremist carried a fake passport identifying himself as “Ahmad al-Mohammed.” The other had with papers identifying himself as “M al-Mahmodk.” Both entered Europe with Syrian refugees traveling from the Greek Island of Leros.

U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials say that once inside Europe, terrorists can more easily evade detection because of the lack of border controls or a central counter-terrorism command center. After studying al-Qaeda’s September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, for instance, the 9/11 Commission recommended the creation of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) specifically to close those gaps between local, state, federal and international law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Today the NCTC serves as a central clearing house for all intelligence on terrorism, which is carefully prioritized in a “threat matrix” that is shared throughout the intelligence and law enforcement communities.

“Europe lacks any centralized agency or apparatus to systematically coordinate counterterrorism activities across national borders. In theory Europol should perform that mission, but it has a list of a dozen different law enforcement priorities, and terrorism is at the bottom of the list,” said Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown. “As a result counterterrorism intelligence sharing is done on a more piecemeal and bilateral basis, with no central authority that can insure cooperation.”

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U.S. officials have also been lobbying their European counterparts to enact tougher laws that provide more severe penalties for anyone who joins a designated terrorist organization. “It’s no secret that Belgium does not have existing laws that are tough enough to deal with this really serious problem of foreign fighters,” said a recently retired, senior U.S. intelligence official. “They need something like the United States’ post-9/11 ‘providing material support for terrorism’ law, which makes it a federal crime to support terrorism groups. That’s the only the Belgian authorities are going to be able to lock these returning ISIS foreign fighters up, and take back their country.”

U.S. officials can take some solace from the fact that the U.S. homeland is much further from the conflicts that have given rise to ISIS, they have a centralized counterterrorism command center in the NCTC, and the population of American Muslims is much better assimilated than their European counterparts. Given the current terrorism trend lines, however, few U.S. counterterrorism officials feel confident that they can avoid the storm that is coming.

“Frankly, I’m shocked we haven’t seen this kind of mass casualty attack on U.S. soil already,” said the retired U.S. intelligence official.