Home Society As the Middle East strains, fears of extremism rise
As the Middle East strains, fears of extremism rise

As the Middle East strains, fears of extremism rise

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Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.

Here we go again. From London to Berlin, Rome to Paris, security agencies are on edge, warning Europe’s governments to get ready for a resurgence of Islamist terrorism.

Turmoil in the Middle East routinely heralds a jump in extremist activity across the Continent, and counterterrorism bosses are busy ramping up surveillance and increasing precautionary measures as fears of a possible wave of future attacks start to rise.

FBI Director Christopher Wray joined in a chorus of alarm coming from security chiefs this week, telling a United States Senate committee that the terror threat has been raised to a “whole other level” because of ongoing conflict in the region. “We assess that the actions of Hamas and its allies will serve as an inspiration, the likes of which we haven’t seen since ISIS launched its so-called caliphate several years ago,” he said.

And according to security analysts POLITICO spoke to, the biggest threat currently rests with low-grade but highly vicious attacks mounted by so-called lone wolves — assailants who are radicalized, often online or by extremist preachers, but have no formal links to jihadist groups.

Nihilistic in their approach, these lone wolves can strike anywhere and anyone who can be linked with the West. Foiling such random attacks against targets that lack obvious symbolic significance and are mounted by a mixed bag of lone individuals — recently radicalized and more inspired by jihadist groups than operationally directed by them — is a hard ask of any Western security agency.

The sad truth is that Western governments can’t promise total security.

The alarm in Europe has only intensified since the October 16 gun attack by Abdesalem Lassoued in Brussels, who plunged the city into chaos after shooting at passersby with an assault rifle, killing two Swedish football fans and wounding a third.

The Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the shooting spree, referring to Lassoued as an “Islamic State fighter.” But it’s unclear whether there was any direct communication between him and the terror group — or whether he’d received instructions.

And just three days prior to that, French authorities had raised the terror alert to its highest level, after a teacher was killed and two others were seriously injured in a knife attack at a school in northern France. The knife-wielding assailant had shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest) during the assault.

Then, on October 25, German authorities arrested a 29-year-old German-Egyptian national over a suspected plot to attack a pro-Israel demonstration. The man, who had previously served time in prison for being an IS member, was arrested after a tip-off from Morocco’s intelligence service. However, again, it isn’t clear whether IS played any direct role in his plans, and so far, all signs indicate he was preparing to act on his own initiative.

Meanwhile, according to El Mundo, Spain is currently tracking more than 300 potential lone wolves. And many of the attacks on French soil over the past few years have been carried out by assailants previously unknown to the country’s authorities.

During the pandemic, jihadist assaults had subsided thanks to such restrictions, while the lack of crowds and public events also deprived militants of high-profile targets | Philippe Huguen/AFP via Getty Images

Certainly, jihadist groups are taking advantage, whipping up a frenzy online, striving to inspire these lone wolves to go out hunting. Organizations monitoring online jihadist and Islamist activity have noted an uptick in calls for attacks on Jewish and Western targets since the October 7 assault by Hamas on southern Israel. And the Israel-Hamas conflict is now the main recurring theme in jihadist propaganda.

“Every jihadist group is trying to leverage the Hamas situation,” said Veryan Khan of the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium.

And according to the nonprofit monitoring organization the Middle East Media Research Institute, between October 12 and October 17, leading al-Qaida supporter Sandar Al-Ghafiqi shared a sequence of three posters on the Rocket.Chat server operated by the group, calling for lone-wolf attacks to support jihad against Israel.

Then, on October 22, the pro-al-Qaida online group Jaysh al-Malahem claimed to have been behind a spate of bomb threats against eight French airports. In a statement, the group said the threats were part of their “electronic warfare” in response to Israel’s attacks on Gaza. Jaysh al-Malahem claimed to have sent over 100 false reports to emergency authorities in Berlin, Paris, Rome and Madrid, prompting airport evacuations and disrupting air travel.

Pro-IS groups have also been active in this time, praising the savage Hamas attacks and calling for action on European soil. On October 22, the pro-IS Tala’a al-Ansar Foundation released a video celebrating the Brussels shooting and urged its supporters to launch copycat attacks, according to the Counter Extremism Project.

However, it isn’t just the lone wolves preoccupying counterterror commands across Western Europe, said Olivier Guitta, managing director of the security and geopolitical risk firm the Middle East Media Research Institute. He assesses that the “terror threat level to Europe is above the 2015 level,” when a wave of gruesome attacks last shook the Continent.

Guitta agrees that lone-wolf attacks are more likely, “but on top of that, the much more sophisticated attacks similar to the November 2015 Paris coordinated attacks could happen,” possibly launched by sleeper cells maintained by major jihadist groups present on the Continent.

“The threats are coming not only from the usual suspects like Islamic State and al-Qaida but also, more importantly, from Iran through its proxies — especially Hezbollah — and do not forget Russia. The terror threat level is at the highest in France and at the second highest level in Belgium,” he said.

Adding to these worries is the fact that over the past few years, hundreds of jihadists have been freed from European jails, having completed their sentences.

Of the 500 such detainees locked up in France in early 2021, 58 were released later the same year, and around 100 more have been released since, according to POLITICO’s own tally. Most had been convicted for joining jihadist groups in Syria or Iraq, or assisting others in doing so.

“It is extremely difficult for security services to monitor the freed-up jihadists on a 24/7 basis because it requires huge manpower with a ratio of 30 officers for each terrorist,” Guitta noted.

Even before the Hamas attacks, security and counterterror agencies were already expressing concerns about a likely jump in Islamist terrorism as COVID-19 travel restrictions and lockdowns were being lifted.

During the pandemic, jihadist assaults had subsided thanks to such restrictions, while the lack of crowds and public events also deprived militants of high-profile targets. But counterterror officials did note heightened online activity by radical Islamists during this time, exploiting social isolation and furloughs to groom, proselytize and recruit.

Toward the end of the pandemic, Neil Basu of London’s Metropolitan Police told the Times newspaper that he feared large numbers of vulnerable and marginalized young individuals had been trapped online during lockdowns, exposed to increased amounts of propaganda. “I don’t know what effect that is going to have on people who are vulnerable to that kind of message, who may want to take action, who may have been sitting on that suppressed feeling for 12 months or more,” he said.

And despite efforts to reduce the jihadist “virtual footprint,” extremist groups have still been able to widely disseminate their propaganda, calibrating their online messages to better groom and mobilize followers and test new ideas as they shape narratives for whatever they consider tactically appropriate.

Joshua Sinai, an intelligence and global security professor at Capitol Technology University, said he assesses the threat as critical. There will “likely [be] lots of plots to attack Jewish targets, especially in the U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Turkey and Greece,” he warned.

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