December 1, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Ease of Terror Travel

• There are unconfirmed reports that Salah Abdeslam, a suspect in the November 13 terror attacks in Paris, has escaped an EU-wide manhunt and traveled to Syria

• If such a high-profile suspect did manage to escape to Syria, it is a devastating indictment of EU nations’ ability to deal with what will very likely be an increasing flow of fighters out of Syria

• The lack of timely intelligence sharing is just one of the many counterterrorism roadblocks the EU faces

• With an estimated 3,000-5,000 EU citizens thought to have traveled to fight in Syria, confronting this issue will require systemic change.


Within 12 hours of the November 13 terror attacks that killed 130 and wounded more than 300, authorities had begun to piece together the small cell that conducted the attacks. By the time officials had determined that Salah Abdeslam played a significant role in the plot, and that his body was not among the seven dead attackers, he had already crossed over into Belgium. Despite being the most wanted man in Europe, Abdeslam remains at large and there are unconfirmed reports from French officials that he has escaped into Syria.

If Abdeslam did manage to evade multiple agencies across multiple countries—despite the resources devoted to the manhunt—it would be a massive indictment of the capability of the European Union (EU) to integrate its security and intelligence sharing as much as it has integrated its travel and commerce networks. At least four of the known attackers had apparently traveled to Syria, even though some were already on the radar of their respective local and national security services. More worrisome is that they were also able to travel back undisturbed, plot, and then execute the worst terrorist attack in Europe in more than ten years.

Even if the reports suggesting that Abdeslam is now in Syria prove to be false, the intra-EU security and intelligence coordination and execution has shown itself to be fatally flawed at many levels. Numerous ‘known wolves of terror' have clearly exploited gaps in the security coverage, in both this most recent attack and previous ones such as the Charlie Hebdo attacks last January. Given the complexities and difficulties inherent in creating and sustaining a truly effective system and culture of information sharing—the U.S. has more than its share of problems just dealing with its own internal agencies—the breakdowns in a 28-country construct were as predictable as they were tragic. Given the near certainty that the threat of returning foreign fighters will increase before it subsides, these breakdowns will need to be considered inexcusable and preventable. At the very least, the most obvious failings, such as slow intelligence sharing on local extremists cells, need to be remedied immediately. In the EU, there is no such thing as a purely local terror cell.

The threat of the round-trip nature of extremist travel to and from Syria and the EU is not restricted to the Paris plotters. Interpol estimates that between 3,000 and 5,000 EU citizens have traveled to Syria to fight with extremist groups such as the so-called Islamic State or al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. Even if a very small percentage of these fighters return to conduct future attacks in the EU, the continent will experience an unprecedented level of threat.

Looming over all the counterterrorism shortcomings revealed by the Paris attacks and others is the issue of refugees fleeing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. Though none of the attackers were actual refugees, it is now apparent that the EU has lost meaningful control over the inflow of people into its borderless zone. Government assurances that the strict screening of massive numbers of unknown people will ensure public safety are undercut by repeated instances where people already well known to authorities were able to travel and attack without disruption. The issue, already ripe for exploitation, will likely worsen, making the EU’s counterterrorism objectives ever more difficult.


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