January 26, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Europe’s Heightened Terror Concerns

• A report issued by Europol on January 25 found that Europe—and France in particular—is at high risk for attacks similar to those in Paris and Mumbai 

• The report noted the difficulties in detecting and disrupting small cells operating with a large degree of autonomy, as well as the ever-present threat of lone wolves

• The establishment of the European Counter Terrorism Center in response to the security flaws exposed by the Paris attacks will have a difficult task in enhancing effective information-sharing within a construct as expansive as the EU

• Meanwhile, the threat of foreign fighters returning undetected to Europe was highlighted once more, as the Islamic State released a video depicting several of the Paris terrorists in Syria prior to the attack on November 13, 2015.


The threat of terrorism in Europe is at its highest level in a decade, according to a report released January 25, 2016 by Europol, the European Union’s agency for law enforcement coordination. The EU has been on a heightened threat level since the November 2015 Paris attacks that killed 130 people and exposed critical flaws in the continent’s security procedures and assumptions. The report points out that Europe—and France in particular—is likely to experience another attack along the lines of those in Paris in 2015 and Mumbai in 2008, in which multiple well-trained and well-equipped terrorists attacked multiple soft targets in the heart of a city.

The report notes that these assault-style attacks will be difficult to prevent due to the small-cell nature of such plots and the likelihood that these cells have a degree of operational autonomy that cuts down on detectable communications and direction from a place such as Raqqa, Syria. Compounding the challenge is the reality that foreign fighters can and have traveled to and from Syria without disruption, meaning that the threat of combat-trained terrorists constitutes a real and present danger to the EU.

To highlight this roundtrip capability, the so-called Islamic State released a video on January 24 showing nine of the Paris attackers’ ‘martyrdom’ videos, including the leader of the plot, Abdelhamid Abaaoud. Evidently filmed in Syria, the video showed several of the alleged Paris attackers also killing a prisoner. The video proceeds to directly threaten the United Kingdom and includes a fake display of encrypted messages that will further cloud the debate on encryption and terrorism. 

To address these flaws, the EU has established the European Counter Terrorism Center (ECTC), run out of Europol. The stated goals of the ECTC are ‘tackling foreign fighters, sharing intelligence and expertise on terrorism financing, online terrorist propaganda and extremism, illegal arms trafficking and international cooperation to increase effectiveness and prevention.' The press release announcing the start up of the ECTC specifically mentioned the need to raise trust among the counterterrorism agencies of the various EU member states. The understandable reluctance of most intelligence agencies to share information with not just another agency but with one from another country—EU rules notwithstanding—is a challenge that the ECTC will struggle with moving forward.

Of the estimated 5,000 EU citizens believed to have traveled to Syria to fight for extremist groups such as the Islamic State, an unknown number have returned undetected. Combined with the persistent issue of violent extremism in places such as France and Belgium, EU security agencies will be stressed to proactively counter the threats. Unfortunately, the threat is not just a near-term concern. The conditions that have led to the heightened terror threat across Europe are unlikely to be mitigated anytime soon. Even if peace talks move ahead, Syria will continue to serve as a terrorist incubator, and countries such as Libya are also primed for further gains by the Islamic State. Meanwhile, the refugee crisis, driven in part by persistent conflicts, will continue to test the EU for the foreseeable future.


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