Ghost of terrorism haunts Europe again

The shooting in Strasbourg, France occurred days after ISIS supporters shared propaganda online warning of attacks during the Christmas period
Saturday 15/12/2018
A French soldier from the Sentinelle security operation stands guard next to the Christmas tree on Place Kleber, in central Strasbourg on December 13, 2018
On alert. A French soldier from the Sentinelle security operation stands guard next to the Christmas tree on Place Kleber, in central Strasbourg on December 13, 2018. (AFP)

LONDON - A shooting at a Christmas market in Strasbourg, France, raised fears across Europe of terrorist attacks during the holiday period. Many European countries increased security around potential targets ahead of Christmas.

Police said Cherif Chekatt, 29, opened fire at visitors of Strasbourg’s famous Christmas market on December 11, killing three people and injuring at least 12 others, before fleeing. Hundreds of security personnel were involved in the manhunt for the suspect on both sides of the France-Germany border, which culminated on December 13 when police encountered Chekatt on a Strasbourg street and killed him following an exchange of gunfire.

The attack was days after Islamic State (ISIS) supporters shared propaganda online warning of attacks during the Christmas period, including a poster showing a picture of Father Christmas kneeling in front of a masked jihadist. “Do not leave your home because we are thirsty for your blood,” the tagline on the poster reads.

ISIS claimed responsibility for the Strasbourg attack, with Amaq -- ISIS’s propaganda wing -- describing Chekatt as a “soldier” who was responding to an ISIS “call.” ISIS used similar language in previous claims of responsibility to indicate that Chekatt was likely radicalised by ISIS propaganda but that he was not directly commissioned by the group or had direct ties with ISIS. 

“Our commitment against terrorism is total,” French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted after confirmation of Chekatt’s death.  

Rita Katz, director of SITE, which monitors terror activity, posted on Twitter that ISIS calls for attacks during the holiday period have become almost routine.

“Indeed, #ISIS initiated a campaign urging #lonewolf attacks in the West during Christmas celebrations -- evoking 2016 Berlin Christmas market attack,” she said. “However, it’s an easy point for ISIS supporters to hone in on as such threats are common this time of year.”

An increased security presence, including armed police, was reported across Europe. France raised its terror alert level and deployed an additional 1,800 soldiers to help patrol the streets and secure crowded events. Belgian authorities announced increased security around Brussels’s popular Christmas market and other European security forces followed suit. There were increased patrols around Christmas events in the United Kingdom, France, Belgium and Germany.

Berlin’s Christmas market, the site of a 2016 attack in which 12 people died and 56 others were injured, had seen the installation of 160 large square lattice-work frames costing $2.8 million to prevent a similar vehicle attack and authorities confirmed they would also be increasing patrols.

Security around Berlin’s Christmas market, particularly barriers to prevent vehicle attacks, could become a blueprint for protecting public events.

Despite heightened security, many questioned the Strasbourg incident, particularly how the French-born suspect evaded police for as long as he was able to following the attack. The suspect was known to authorities and was reportedly the subject of a “fiche S," a list of people who represent a potential national security threat. He had 27 convictions in France, Germany and Switzerland and spent a considerable time in prison, where it is believed he was radicalised.

Given the almost routine nature of terrorist threats in Europe this time of year, many question whether attending public events during the holidays can be considered safe. Britain’s Foreign Office updated its advice for a range of European countries in December, including warning tourists visiting Christmas markets to “remain vigilant.”

“There is a general threat from terrorism,” the Foreign Office advised. “There may be increased security in place over the Christmas and New Year period, including at Christmas markets and other major events that might attract large crowds. You should remain vigilant and follow the advice of local authorities.”

The guidelines were issued for countries including France, Germany, Belgium, Austria and Italy where traditional Christmas markets remain major draws for tourists.

Security around many Christmas markets, particularly barriers and bollards, have been increased since 2016 after a truck was driven into a Christmas market in Berlin. Following the Strasbourg attack, observers are asking whether human security -- armed police or security patrols -- also needs to be increased.

Strasbourg is France’s unofficial capital of Christmas and the city’s Christmas market is believed to be the oldest in Europe, dating to 1570. This is not the first time terrorists targeted the Strasbourg Christmas market; a bomb plot by four men suspected of ties with al-Qaeda was foiled in 2000.

Strasbourg Mayor Roland Ries expressed defiance after the attack. “We must continue to defend our values and not succumb to terror. The best resistance is continuing to live normally,” he said.