Europe continues to face ongoing challenges resulting from radical elements of Islam, non-state terrorist groups such as the Islamic State, a.k.a. ISIS, and immigration. The threats are exacerbated by the ease and speed of communication brought about by advances in social media. Unfortunately, examples abound. Last month, on 22 March 2017, London once again became the target of terrorist violence when Khalid Massod, a 52-year old British citizen, Birmingham resident, and convert to Islam, plowed into a crowd of people with his SUV. He killed three pedestrians with his vehicle and injured dozens more. Then, armed with a knife, he fatally stabbed a policeman before being shot and killed by other police officers.
On April 3, there was a bomb attack on the St. Petersburg Metro that killed 14 people and left dozens injured. The attack was carried out by Akbarzhon Dzhalilov, a Russian citizen from the mainly Muslim ex-Soviet Republic of Kyrgyzstan. A Moscow court, citing the results of an investigation into the incident, reported that the attack was financed by an international terrorist group in Turkey.
Just a few days later, on April 7, a hijacked beer truck crashed into an upscale department store in Stockholm, Sweden, killing four people and injuring 15 more, according to Stockholm police. People fled the area in a panic, two nearby malls were shut down, and the main train station was evacuated. Swedish prosecutor Hans Irhman confirmed that the suspect is a 39-year-old Uzbekistan-born man whose citizenship status is unknown at present. He has reported ties to international terrorist groups, including ISIS.
On April 11, it was Germany’s turn to face the unthinkable, as three bombs detonated in Dortmund near the bus carrying the Borussia Dortmund soccer team to a league match, shattering the bus windows and injuring one of the team members. German authorities suspect terrorism and are investigating possible radical Islamist involvement, according to a spokeswoman for the federal prosecutor’s office in Dortmund.
Just after I had finished writing this piece, a lone gunman opened fire with an assault rifle in the heart of Paris, on the Champs-Elysees Boulevard, an iconic tourist site. The Islamic State (ISIS) took immediate blame for the attack, which occurred on April 20, just days before a very contentious presidential election in France. The lone gunman killed one police officer and wounded three other people before he was shot to death by other police. Political leaders seemed determined to rise above these attacks, while at the same time sounding resigned to their repeated occurrences. Paris’ mayor Anne Hidalgo said via Twitter, “In the face of this ordeal, the determination of the Parisians to defend their way of life and their values is total.” President Trump, addressing White House reporters, stated, “It looks like another terrorist attack. What can you say? It just never ends. We have to be strong.”
U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, following the terrorist attack in London – the first of which she has had to deal with since becoming Prime Minster – said the following: “Tomorrow morning, parliament will meet as normal. We will come together as normal. And Londoners and others around the world will get up and go about their day as normal.” However, Islamic acts of terrorism have regrettably become the new normal in Europe. Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister of Sweden, wrote the following on Twitter: “Steal a lorry or a car and then drive it into a crowd. That seems to be the latest terrorist method. Berlin. London. Now Stockholm.”
Bildt’s observation that this method of terrorism is the latest to be used is not quite accurate. Vehicular-ramming has been – and continues to be – commonplace in Israel. Perhaps as this horror is now at Europe’s doorstep, its leaders will finally begin to understand the ever-present threat of Islamic terror. Unlike Israel, however, Europe seems ill-equipped and unable (or unwilling) to comprehend the challenges that Islamic terrorism presents, which, in the long run, may very well lead to a disaster scenario for the continent.
The recent killings in England, Russia, Sweden, and Germany and the others that will likely follow in other locations by radical Muslim citizens in Europe, coupled with the continuing mass migration into Europe, have renewed attention and debate regarding Europe’s identity and religious issues. It is critical that decision makers in each of these countries effectively address these concerns from a national security perspective.
European leaders are struggling to grapple with and mitigate the very real dangers that the migration and refugee crisis still pose for Europe – specifically, the importation of a political culture from countries whose citizens hold values and beliefs that are antithetical to those held by the majority of European citizens. It is also important for these leaders to examine and understand the role that religion, namely Islam, has played in shaping Muslims’ beliefs and thus their behavior. Foreign fighters from Europe also pose a domestic security threat, whereby citizens of Europe have traveled to Iraq and Syria to receive training from ISIS and other terrorist organizations.
The wave of mass migration poses a major terrorist threat in Europe, since the majority of these immigrants are from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, all Muslim countries that have a heavy presence of jihadist terrorism, including ISIS, al-Qaida, and the Taliban. As of last year, for instance, ISIS has allegedly smuggled thousands of its jihadist infiltrators into Europe. Exact numbers are not known and perhaps are not knowable. However, according to the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, Hans-Georg Maassen, it is certain that members of ISIS have been infiltrating Europe “camouflaged as refugees.”
Europe is also dealing with the rising threat of radicalization among its own Muslim citizens. There is growing concern over the alarming number of European Muslims traveling to Iraq and Syria who support, fight for, and receive training from ISIS and other jihadist organizations. These radicalized citizens pose a domestic national security threat when they return. According to the BBC, for example, “[A]pproximately 850 people from the UK have travelled to support or fight for jihadist organisations in Syria and Iraq, say the British authorities. About half have since returned to the UK.”
According to a survey released last September by the Montaigne Institute, 28 percent of French Muslims had adopted values “clearly opposed to the values of the republic.”
Europe has become such fertile ground for terrorism at least in part due to technological advances in modern information technology, in addition to the aforementioned reasons mentioned above. One doesn’t necessarily have to travel to countries where the threat of terrorism is high in order to receive training from terrorists. Members of ISIS do not need to infiltrate Europe disguised as refugees in order to pose a threat, just as long as violent Islamist ideology resonates within the individual, and he or she has a phone or computer with Wi-Fi.
Unconventional forms of warfare via the cyber world are beginning to occur on a daily basis. Non-state actors such as ISIS have had major impacts in Syria, Iraq, and the Middle East in general, and also in Europe, the United States, and other parts of the world. Since the creation of ISIS, there have been many jihadist groups from around the world that have pledged allegiance to this extremist military group. The speed at which ISIS has grown and has increased its ability to recruit sympathizers is largely due to the advantages provided by modern information technology. The Internet gives people seeking information a way to find things that they may have not otherwise been able to access – for better or for worse. Social media platforms serve as vehicles through which to channel propaganda, which enables ISIS and other similar groups to instill fear and wreak havoc on a local, regional, and global scale.
People typically surround themselves with sources that offer opinions and ideological worldviews that reflect and confirm their own beliefs and positions on issues. This behavior creates what is known as an echo chamber, whereby individuals view only like-minded content and avoid interacting with people who disagree with them. This leads to increased isolation and polarization. Moreover, according to a research paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Massive digital misinformation is becoming pervasive in online social media to the extent that it has been listed by the World Economic Forum (WEF) as one of the main threats to our society.”
This brings us back to terrorist Khalid Mossud, who was responsible for the March 22 attack in London referenced in my first paragraph. Members of the media are often quick to deny any link between ISIS or al-Qaida and “lone wolf” attackers such as Mossud, who give the appearance of having acted alone. However, Rukmini Callimachi, foreign correspondent for the New York Times and one of the most renowned journalists covering the terrorism beat today, believes, along with many counterterrorism experts, that the majority of these so-called “lone wolves” are not so alone. Rather, such terrorist incidents are often “remote-controlled attacks,” as Callimachi describes in a riveting read for the New York Times as “violence conceived and guided by operatives in areas controlled by the Islamic State whose only connection to the would-be attacker is the internet.”
In many cases, the extent of these online connections and support are not discovered until weeks later after an attack occurs, when authorities uncover encrypted online communication between the so-called “lone wolves” and ISIS personnel, thus identifying a link.
At present, there is not enough empirical evidence to confirm ISIS as the force behind Mossud’s actions, despite the group’s claims of responsibility for the attack. However, Mossud is believed to have used the encrypted messaging app service WhatsApp before his attack on Westminster Bridge in London, which may prove that, once again, ISIS was able to successfully orchestrate another terrorist attack from abroad.
There needs to be an honest dialogue regarding radical Islam, terrorist groups like ISIS, and immigration policies within the context of today’s Information Age. People’s fear of being labeled bigoted or Islamophobic may prevent such a discussion from taking place, leading to increased reticence and political correctness, which in turn further delays the honest dialogue that needs to take place. We are at war with ideas, not people.
It is crucial for decision makers in Europe and around the world to increase their ability to reorganize in response to a changing reality. As technology gets upgraded so should our ideas and our responses to the increased threat of global terrorism. If this shift does not occur, the world will continue playing a dangerous game of catch-up with such acts of horrifying mayhem like those we have seen in recent weeks. Prevention trumps picking up the pieces of death and destruction after the fact.