Europe Terror: Hype or Reality

By International Institute for Strategic Studies

On 3 October, the American and British governments issued travel advisories on the threat of terrorist attacks in France and Germany. The United States government characterised the threat as 'high', while the United Kingdom raised the terrorist threat level for France and Germany from 'general' to 'high'. Shortly afterwards, the French government issued a warning to its citizens about the risk of a terrorist attack in Britain. Within the UK itself, the threat level in respect of Islamist jihadist terrorism has been set since January 2010 at 'severe', the second highest level, indicating an attack is likely but not yet judged imminent. This has remained unchanged.

There have been a number of major developments in recent weeks suggesting an upsurge in al-Qaeda attack planning, though it is far from clear to what extent - if at all - these are connected. First was the arrest in Kabul in July of Ahmed Siddiqi, a German resident of Afghan origin, who had travelled to the tribal areas of Pakistan to undertake jihadi training. Siddiqi, who has allegedly been cooperating with his captors, apparently revealed details of plans to undertake a 'fedayeen' attack - similar to the group attack on Mumbai in 2008 - in Germany. According to German security officials, Siddiqi's information appears to be credible but there is nothing in his story to indicate that an attack in Germany is imminent.

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Pakistani security officials subsequently reported that on 4 October, a CIA drone attack on a compound in Mir Ali, North Waziristan, resulted in the deaths of 11 jihadist militants, five of whom were German nationals. Husain Haqqani, Pakistani ambassador to Washington, said the deaths of these militants were related to their involvement in preparations for attacks in Europe.

On 11 September, Bernard Squarcini, head of the Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur, France's security service, was quoted as saying: 'Objectively, there are reasons to worry. The threat has never been higher.' The Eiffel Tower in Paris has since been evacuated on two occasions. And on 5 October, French police arrested 12 people in the southern cities of Marseille and nearby Avignon, three of whom were reportedly linked to a Franco-Algerian suspected bomb-maker who was recently arrested in Italy. The remainder were alleged to be part of a network supplying forged documentation to aspirant jihadists wishing to travel to Afghanistan. None of the 12 has so far been charged and it is unclear whether they are believed to be connected with al-Qaeda plots in France.

What is clear is that security and intelligence officials in the US, France and the UK are genuinely concerned about the imminence of some form of attack taking place in Western Europe, probably in the form of one or more fedayeen attacks. There has been much speculation in the media about the targets of these attacks, but in reality little is known. Security officials talk of levels of jihadi 'chatter' on a par with what was observed in the run-up to 9/11, indicating a widespread expectation in jihadi circles that one or more large-scale attacks may be imminent. Equally, there appears to be a consensus that the al-Qaeda leadership based in the tribal areas of Pakistan has devised and organised the attacks. There are indications that al-Qaeda's media arm, al-Shahab, has already prepared a video containing a message from Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader, to be released once the attacks have taken place. Whether recent drone strikes in North Waziristan have significantly disrupted these plots is by no means clear.

Weakness, not strength
That al-Qaeda's central leadership should be anxious to carry out a successful terrorist attack in either Western Europe or the US is hardly surprising. Since 2007, 'core' al-Qaeda, based predominantly in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, has endured a process of attrition which has seen many of its senior commanders killed by missiles fired from CIA unmanned aircraft. Drone strikes have grown dramatically in both frequency and effect: in 2008, there were 34 drone strikes in the tribal areas of Pakistan, 53 in 2009 and thus far in 2010, there have been 85. And as the attacks are increasingly targeted not just against al-Qaeda, but also against other militants operating out of Pakistan into Afghanistan, such as the Haqqani network, the tempo looks set to increase further.

Al-Qaeda has managed to replenish its leadership cadre and to continue attracting a steady flow of recruits from the Middle East and Central Asia. But its top leaders, including Ayman al-Zawahiri and bin Laden, have had to lie low, making few video appearances. Pressure from the drone attacks, taken together with all the attendant side-effects of a pervasive climate of insecurity and distrust - such as periodic witch-hunts to uncover those providing intelligence to the US and Pakistani authorities - has had a clear impact on al-Qaeda's capacity to orchestrate attacks overseas. Al-Qaeda has suffered a significant decline in overseas funding to the point where aspiring jihadists are now expected to pay for their own training and to generate funding for the group. Symptomatic of the group's difficulties is the case of Faisal Shahzad, a naturalised US citizen of Pakistani origin, who on 5 October was sentenced to life imprisonment for his abortive attempt to detonate a car bomb in Times Square, New York, on 1 May. Shahzad travelled to Pakistan to receive explosives training but a combination of financial and logistical difficulties meant that this training lasted only five days.

More serious than a loss of operational effectiveness has been al-Qaeda's loss of prestige, both among erstwhile supporters who are frustrated by its lack of operational success, and more widely within the Islamic world. Al-Qaeda has been unable to reverse the perception among moderate Muslimsthat its activities have harmed Muslims themselves. The extreme brutality manifested by al-Qaeda operatives in Iraq and by the Pakistani Taliban in Waziristan and Swat has repelled many in the Islamic world.

This may explain al-Qaeda's apparent focus on launching attacks in two countries, Denmark and France. In the case of Denmark, there has been a succession of attempts, including three in the past year, to attack the authors of a series of cartoons published in 2005 depicting the Prophet Muhammad, with a particular focus on the Aarhus-based newspaper Jyllands-Posten. In France, on 14 September the Senate endorsed a ban on the wearing of full-face veils in public, to come into effect in 2011. It is clear that attacks by al-Qaeda in these countries would, in its eyes, restore its standing with ordinary Muslims and would exact retribution on people deemed to have insulted the Islamic faith.

Dispersal and diversification
On the face of it, al-Qaeda's fortunes may, therefore, appear to be in decline. The hoped-for large-scale uprising in the Islamic world has not materialised, and al-Qaeda has become increasingly dependent for operational effect on groups that have similar ideological motivations, but different strategic objectives. Within Pakistan, the Haqqani network, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Lashkar-e-Tayiba have all shown some readiness to collaborate with al-Qaeda. For example, the December 2009 suicide bombing in Khost, eastern Afghanistan, which killed seven CIA officers was the product of a combined operation between the TTP and al-Qaeda, with the latter seemingly providing specialist counter-intelligence advice.

Meanwhile, affiliates such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), now based primarily in Yemen, and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), operating primarily in southern Algeria and the Sahel, have shown some disposition to promote the wider al-Qaeda agenda. A case in point is the 'underpants bomber', the Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab who was radicalised by Anwar al-Awlaki, a US national resident in Yemen, and was trained by AQAP in Yemen for his unsuccessful attempt to blow up a passenger jet over Detroit on 25 December 2009. Other centres of concern include Somalia, to which ethnic Somalis living in Europe and the US have travelled in numbers estimated in the low hundreds to fight with al-Shabaab, an Islamist militia seeking to take control of the country.

It is important not to make too much of the claims of affiliation between these groups and al-Qaeda. Such claims are often based on opportunism and a desire by groups with an essentially local agenda to claim to be part of a global movement. Within AQIM, for example, there have been fierce and as yet unresolved debates about whether the group's agenda should focus on the overthrow of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's government or whether it should work against a wider range of targets.

Nevertheless, the net effect has been a degree of dispersal of jihadist activity to a number of different areas. With this dispersal has come a diversification both in the composition of jihadist groups and the methods employed. Adherence to al-Qaeda has never been determined primarily by ethnicity, though there has always been a trend towards an informal hierarchy with Arabs at the top. There has more recently been a tendency towards groups in which no one ethnic identity has predominated - for example, a group arrested in Norway in May 2010 comprised a Uighur, an Uzbek and an Iraqi Kurd. There is also evidence of a greater reliance on converts to Islam, in particular from Germany. And there has been a greater diversity of techniques with less reliance on 'signature' bomb attacks on high-profile targets and more use of targeted assassinations and fedayeen assaults.

United States not immune
The world has become accustomed to the threat of jihadist violence taking place in and emanating from Europe. But it has become evident relatively recently that the US is starting to witness an upsurge in home-grown Islamist terrorism. The official American discourse held that the US had not suffered this problem because its Islamic minorities were much better integrated than those of European countries. This contention, which was never believed by the US security and intelligence community, has increasingly been disproved by a series of incidents over the past two years. In 2009, two army recruiters were shot in Little Rock, Arkansas, by a 23-year-old man who had converted to Islam as a teenager and felt angered by the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. In November of that year a Muslim US Army major went on the rampage at the Fort Hood military base in Texas. In addition, a 2009 plot by Najibullah Zazi, an American of Afghan origin, to attack the New York subway and the 2010 New York car-bomb attempt by Shahzad, both directed by al-Qaeda from Pakistan, showed a much greater level of seriousness than other previous home-grown efforts. With American Muslims now travelling to places like Somalia to undertake jihad, the US has found itself, like Europe, becoming an exporter of terrorism as well as a victim of it.

Uncertain prognosis
Transnational jihadist terrorism appears to be heading in an uncertain new direction. It seems likely that, over time, major complex plots developed and orchestrated out of Pakistan might diminish in frequency. However, there may be more lower-impact attacks emanating from different places and undertaken by a variety of people, including self-radicalised loners. An important factor in this evolution is the role of jihadist theology. It has developed into a coherent and robust ideology, which, while repudiated by mainstream Islamic opinion, continues to exercise a strong attraction for some. This theology both justifies jihad as an obligation for all Muslims on the basis that Islam is under attack and also sets out the basis upon which the deaths of Muslims can be condoned.

A recent study by the London-based Quilliam Foundation has shown that Arabic extremist websites are dominated by a set of jihadist theological principles. Though these principles have often been publicly repudiated by their authors, such as 'Dr Fadl', an Egyptian who was one of al-Qaeda's original leaders, any attempts to question or challenge them within these websites are not tolerated. It is difficult to know in which direction these might lead jihadists in the absence of the leadership and overarching strategy which bin Laden had sought to provide. In light of this developing vacuum, over-reactions by the West to specific terrorist threats and incidents could play into extremists' hands by enhancing the profiles of a new generation of leaders and ideologues such as Awlaki.

Copyright ©2006 - 2010 The International Institute For Strategic Studies

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