The July wave of murderous jihadist attacks in France and Germany, for many of which Islamic State (IS) took responsibility, proves that Europe is not yet ready to challenge Islamist/jihadist terror.
Yet European intelligence services have been aware since 2012 of the massive number of European Muslim and converted citizens going to fight in Syria and Iraq, their radicalization and militarization and the potential threat they represented as returning "foreign fighters."
By April last year, the EU Justice Commission reported that some 5,000-6,000 Europeans were fighting with jihadist groups in Syria. A report by the French Parliament estimated that 1,430 French nationals have traveled to join jihadist groups in territory held by IS in Iraq and Syria.
A memorial at the site of July 14 terror attack in Nice in which 84 people were killed when Tunisian Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel drove his truck into a crowd. Credit: H. Murdock / VOA / Wikipedia
In an article written at the time, I evaluated, like many of my colleagues, that many of the foreign fighters who serve as cannon fodder in Iraq and Syria already represent a significant threat, as evidenced by attacks in France and Belgium and that the more IS or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are squeezed militarily in the territories they hold, more of their fighters will disperse to their countries of origin.
" Citizens of peaceful European countries will have to adapt to an atmosphere of permanent threat"
The first such attack, the May 24, 2014 killing of four citizens at the Jewish Museum in Brussels by Mehdi Nemmouche, a 29-year-old Franco-Algerian who fought in Syria with jihadist groups, should have served as a warning of what was going to happen, even before the declaration of the IS Caliphate in July 2014. Nemmouche was under surveillance by French counter-terrorism police, but succeeded in reaching Brussels for the attack and was arrested in Marseille by chance only a week later.
Unfortunately, this event did not alter the negligent practices of the French and Belgian authorities.
France was taken by surprise by the January 7, 2015 terrorist massacre at the Charlie Hebdo magazine’s offices in Paris by the two brothers Kouachi of Algerian descent who trained in Yemen, served in AQAP and were known to French security services.
Belgian police led a counter-terrorist raid in July 2015 in Verviers killing two local jihadists but allowing Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian-Moroccan who masterminded the November 2015 coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris which killed 130 people, to escape.
French police and security services, known for their professionalism and efficiency in the fight against terrorism, were understaffed and not prepared to penetrate the jihadist networks and monitor the huge number, 4,000, of identified potential jihadists in France, in spite of the decision after the Charlie Hebdo attack to recruit 2,800 new police and security personnel and invest 800 million euros to improve preparedness.
Belgian police decided to recruit 600 new personnel only after the murderous attacks this March on Brussels airport and underground.
The responsibility for this dire situation falls on the shoulders of the European political leaders who did not take timely measures to stop or minimize the growing threat of jihadist attacks in spite of the writing on the wall. Measures to stop the flow of combatants to Syria and Iraq were taken late and without coordination on the European level.
Even after the first major attacks the changes in the juridical and operational field were slow, the coordination between the various law enforcement and security agencies, not only on the European but even the local level, remains frail and there is no European common policy on border security and the flow of immigrants, some of whom represent an immediate threat.
The German authorities seemed unwilling to acknowledge that most of the July attacks were IS inspired, until the videos of the young terrorists were posted on the Internet.
There are signs of change. Although Chancellor Angela Merkel has not backtracked on her liberal policy toward refugees she promised new measures to improve security; such as information sharing, deciphering web chatter and tackling arms sales on the Internet and an early alert system.
Four hundred German police, “after months of preparation,” conducted raids July 27 at a German-speaking Islamic circle (DIK) mosque and eight apartments in Hildesheim, a town described as “a hotbed of radical Salafist” activity.
For its part, the French government announced the formation of a new National Guard composed of volunteers from the police, paramilitary police, and military to protect citizens from terrorist attacks. President François Hollande encouraged all “patriots” to enlist. France is also considering banning foreign funding of mosques.
The Europeans have lost two to three precious years in preparing to deal with the exponentially growing internal and external jihadist threat and it will now take much political will and several years to do it effectively.
Moreover, the political landscape in Europe is already changing and on the individual level the citizens of the peaceful European countries will have to adapt to an atmosphere of permanent threat.
Dr. Ely Karmon is Senior Research Scholar, International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya