For Europe, no hiding place from ISIS death squads
BEIRUT - As Europe braces for more attacks by the Islamic State (ISIS) in the aftermath of the November 13th slaughter in Paris — and possibly even a killing contest between ISIS and its ideological rival al-Qaeda — the West, along with Russia, is having to come to terms with a harsh new reality: There is no hiding place from the jihadist death squads.
Brussels had been for days in an unprecedented lockdown as security authorities have been trying to track down jihadists, veterans of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq or home-grown, after Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel warned that there was a “serious and imminent” threat of Paris-style gun and suicide bomber attacks in the city.
But the primary objective of a whirlwind of police raids throughout Belgium, Salah Abdeslam, a 26-year-old Belgian and one of the Paris attackers, remained elusive. He hails from the grimy Molenbeek quarter of Brussels, a hotbed of radical Islamist activity where the French intelligence service says the Paris massacres were planned.
At least some of the weapons and explosives used in the Paris attacks were apparently acquired from a thriving illegal weapons business in Molenbeek, close to Brussels’ main railway terminal.
How known jihadists were able to operate and arm themselves under the noses of Belgian security authorities is one of the key unanswered questions of the bloodbath in Paris and it points to a series of serious intelligence failures that led up to the horrors of November 13th.
For the French, who have been battling Islamic terrorism in various guises since the 1980s, the failure seems to be not acting on massive amount of data on known and suspected activists they have accumulated over the years.
Security authorities in Iraq and Turkey alerted Paris about potential attacks or about the return to France of Syrian war veteran Omar Ismail Mostefai, one of the Paris attackers who was killed, weeks before November 13th, but these warnings were ignored.
It must be acknowledged that the French intelligence service has 11,000 known or suspected activists in its databases, but only 500- 600 operatives to keep them under round-the-clock surveillance.
Keeping tabs on one person needs 30-40 watchers and clearly the French service simply didn’t have the manpower for such operations.
The arithmetic of this deadly equation pretty much says it all. As many as 30,000 foreign fighters from 100 countries, many of them marginalised and disaffected European Muslims, have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight with jihadist groups since 2011, according to the Global Terrorism Index compiled by the Sydney-based Institute for Economics and Peace think-tank.
In the last two years, more than 1,200 European jihadis have returned from the wars in Syria and Iraq. They included all four French Muslims who killed themselves with bombs on Bloody Friday and another now on the run.
But that said, the French did know about Mostefai and two more of the suicide attackers, Abelhamid Abaaoud, the alleged mastermind of Moroccan descent and partner of two jihadis killed in Belgium in January, and Sami Amimour, who was detained in 2012 on suspicion of having terrorist links.
Abaaoud, linked to several other terrorist operations including a failed attempt to slaughter passengers on a high-speed train between Amsterdam and Paris in August, was literally shot to pieces in a ferocious gun battle with French police commandos on November 18th.
Another serious failure was the lack of communication between the intelligence services around Europe, and with their counterparts in the United States and the Middle East, particularly Turkey whose intelligence service has shady links with jihadists.
And the French seem to have ignored their long and troubled history with Algeria, which won its independence in a brutal 1956-62 war whose violence extended to mainland France and which has infected several waves of Arab terrorism since then, including the present atrocities.
Mostefai, among others, was a scion of France’s million-plus, largely marginalised, Algerian community. So were the Kouachi brothers, Said and Cherif, who killed Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris in January.
November 13th shocked Western Europe out of its complacent belief that, as Financial Times commentator Philip Stevens observed, “political pluralism would become the default system of governance… the international order would be remade in the image of European multilateralism.”
But, if the intelligence failures may be rectified in part by long-withheld infusions of funding, the prospect of the intellectual failures to recognise the threat posed by Muslims driven to savagery by Europe’s indifference at home and abroad being rectified seems remote as French President François Hollande declares war on the ISIS caliphate, tackling the symptoms rather than the causes of this ferocious phenomenon.
“Fighting an insurgency requires a lot more people than terrorism does,” observed terrorism expert Emma Graham-Harrison. “If the ISIS state falls, especially to an outside invasion force, the short- to medium-term result will likely be a massive wave of terrorist attacks.”