Issue Briefs

Europe and the ISIL Threat

Europe and the ISIL Threat

Metehan Demir

May 26, 2016

Europe did not understand the ISIL threat

In the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks against U.S. soil, Europe seemed willing to follow the American strategy of targeting the terrorists in their strongholds. To further these goals, Europe contributed limited military assets for U.S. led operations in Afghanistan and then Iraq.

Unfortunately, the strategy of fighting terrorism and targeting Al Qaeda operatives in distant lands, (Iraq and Afghanistan), created the wrong belief that the terror threat would be effectively dealt with and contained at its source. At the time, small numbers of foreign fighters traveling from the rest of the world to Afghanistan and Pakistan to join Al Qaeda did not raise serious concerns within most European security services. While the U.S. was in hot pursuit of terrorists and their associates, many European allies underestimated the magnitude of these counter terror efforts and offered only very limited cooperation.

The roots of today’s problem

 The roots of today’s Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) were planted during those days of limited anti-terror fight in which Europe’s governments did not take the troubles brewing in Iraq very seriously.

Indeed, Germany and France did not contribute any active military forces to the Iraq war that began in March 2003, and they did not actively participate in intelligence operations in Iraq. There would be a price to pay for this inaction; but the Europeans were unaware of it, at the time.

In the course of the Iraq war, the U.S. lost more than 4000 soldiers[1] in its fight against the resistance groups and insurgents formed mostly by Saddam loyalists supported by Al Qaeda terrorists and by the Syrian regime. These resistance groups were created mainly by Sunnis. Unfortunately, the U.S. military response to the resistance groups, through operations which included large numbers of civilian casualties, created deep anti-American hatred among almost all Sunnis. Overtime, the deep anti-Western Al Qaeda ideology slowly became the strong bond that united all Sunnis, including secular Sunnis that became all united to protect themselves from Shias, Kurds and U.S. troops.

The U.S. war in Iraq

While Europe was trying to keep out of the Middle East troubles, the war in Iraq intensified. In Iraq, U.S. military forces and intelligence services tested and developed counter terror and counter insurgency tactics. They planted agents inside terrorist cells, increased the number of informants, created methods to help understand terrorist aspirations and intentions, worked on strategies to neutralize terrorist actions, compiled tons of biographic information and data on the terrorists.

As a result, the U.S. forces and intelligence services gained extraordinary experience, obtained enormous amount of information on insurgents, terrorist strategies, terrorist tactics, terrorist communications and logistics, terrorist recruitment, cross-border terrorist activities, terrorist infrastructures and foreign fighters. In other words, the U.S. was getting prepared for today’s war against ISIL, while Europe and other US allies had no clue as to how terrorism would evolve, after its Al Qaeda phase.

Apart from the UK, almost no other European country was part of those early efforts in the fight against terrorism, and therefore they missed the opportunity to learn about the terrorists’ mindset. Did the U.S. make a serious effort to share intelligence with its European allies? Not much of an effort since most of the terrorists at the time operated within Iraq. There was no real understanding at the time that the terror threat would expand outside the Middle East. Indeed, at the time no one knew that those who were at the core of the anti-American insurgency in Iraq, including Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, would later on become ISIL leaders.  Because of all this, there was only minimal information and intelligence sharing with the allies. When we put all this together, it is easier to understand why Europe is so far behind in acknowledging the size and the seriousness of the ISIL threat.

The situation today

It is extremely important to note the four pillars of the EU Counter Terrorism Strategy: Prevent, Protect, Pursue and Respond.  This strategy underlines the importance of developing collective capabilities, and promoting international partnership.[2]

However, despite a strategy based on close cooperation, the European governments chose to devise their own national strategies against ISIL and Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs), with little or no cooperation with one another. Unfortunately, fragmented individual efforts would not yield the desired results in the fight against international terrorism. Without real cooperation it is much harder to discover plots. For example, the preparations for the Paris attacks took place in Belgium; but nobody found out.

It is clear that in order to be able to “pursue” you must develop strong intelligence gathering skills and capabilities. Otherwise, you will not understand the terrorist mind-set. And if you lack this knowledge, you cannot predict. Prediction is key to develop the ability to prevent, protect and respond.

Many European governments have difficulties in acknowledging the seriousness of the ISIL threat, mostly because they do not understand  it.

Whatever happened until now, the road to future success has to be based on strong international cooperation. Unfortunately, the European governments would rather keep a low profile in the fight against ISIL hoping that this mild response may reduce the chances of being targeted by ISIL. But this will not work. ISIL is a clear and present danger and it needs to be dealt with via international partnership and cooperation.

The main constraints and limitations

We owe to Gilles de Kerchove, the EU Counter Terrorism Coordinator, the creation of the expression Foreign Terrorist Fighter, or FTF. These are the willing fighters who are radicalized in Europe, and then travel to Syria or other Middle East destinations to take part in the jihad. The identification of this FTF phenomenon is helpful. However, while the Europeans are good at conceptualizing phenomena, they are unprepared when it comes to taking action against approaching threats.

Today, we still see Europe unable to cope with international terrorism, while international terrorism is now represented mostly by the ISIL threat.

The main problem within Europe is that there is no unified strategy that can be executed by a central body created to wage the fight against international terrorism. Although information and intelligence exchanges are possible through mechanisms such as Europol and the meetings of intelligence services of the European Union, these efforts do not yield the desired result in terms of cooperation and framing joint strategies. Given the challenge of establishing a strong cooperative mechanism, it is clear that end-user intelligence and information-sharing alone would not help create a unified strategy on how to deal with this threat.

Inadequate border controls

The other constraint is lack of proper and focused border controls. European citizens are not subject to proper documentation checks at the border when they return to their home countries. This makes it difficult to detect FTFs when they arrive at the border.

For example Moussa Coulibaly, a French citizen who stabbed three French soldiers in Nice in February 2015, was denied entry in Turkey on the grounds that French security services had warned Turkey that he could be a potential FTF on his way to Syria to join ISIL[3]. Turkish authorities had responded to this request by the French authorities, and Moussa Coulibaly had been stopped at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport and sent back to his country, France[4]. However, the French authorities were so unresponsive to the threat he posed that they failed to detect him upon his re-entry into France.

Similarly, Brussels attacker Ibrahim El Bakraoui was another suspect who had been deported to The Netherlands from Turkey on suspicion that he could be a potential FTF on his way to Syria to join ISIL. It also appears that he was on a U.S. counter terrorism watch list[5]. Still, neither The Netherlands nor Belgium used this valuable intelligence. Right after the Brussels attack, Turkey identified the attacker as Ibrahim El Bakraoui, adding that Belgian authorities had released him because “no links with terrorism” were found[6].

All European countries and security services are aware of the fact that Turkey does not deport any European citizen if there is no solid evidence that a European citizen is a criminal or a potential FTF. So, if any European citizen is deported from Turkey, this person should be carefully monitored by the European security services. But often this is not the case.

Turkish policy

Turkish authorities claim that they share information not only with the destination country but – in cases where the suspect does not want to be deported to his/her home country – also with the deportee’s country of origin, through police liaison officers.

So, if there were proper border checks and a robust information exchange among European security services, these terrorist attacks could have been averted.  In addition to this, police liaison officers of European countries in Turkey should take their jobs more seriously and establish stronger communications with their Turkish counterparts.

The role of social media

Another constraint is that European security services do not have adequate resources analyzing social media in order to effectively monitor on-line radical activities. Many radicals, suspects and possible terrorists reveal their true intentions and extremist thoughts using social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Social media are also widely used by extremist groups as recruitment tools. Security and intelligence services should focus more on training and deploying experts on social media in order to detect and track potential terrorists.

Information sharing

Finally there is the problem of European countries unwilling to share information about their citizens who want to travel to Syria to join the jihad in the ranks of ISIL. Germany is one of them. According to German law, police and security services cannot share information about German citizens with other countries. This creates a serious problem when a radical German citizen is on his way to Syria. It is clear that this lack of cooperation is a critical barrier for the international community in the fight against ISIL.

Unfortunately, Syria is an easy destination. Turkey has a very loose visa policy; almost all European citizens can have easy access to Turkey. This easy access opportunity is widely abused by radicals who plan to access Syria via Turkey. Turkey’s 911 km border with Syria is long and extremely difficult to protect. All this makes access relatively easy. Given all of the above, cooperation with Turkish authorities becomes critical –in fact vital.

Indeed, some European countries would like to establish stronger cooperation with Turkish authorities that would go beyond information exchange. They would like to have joint intelligence operations that would lead to the neutralization of terrorist elements.

However, this is difficult. There just isn’t enough mutual trust. Turkey has bad memories of lack of cooperation from Europe when it came to its fight against PKK terrorism, when so many Turkish diplomats and officials were murdered in European cities by PKK terrorists. This negative record regarding lack of cooperation on PKK terrorism creates another constraint for Europe to and Turkey to work together in the fight against ISIL.

What’s next?

ISIL is now hit by the U.S. led coalition forces in Syria and by the Russian air campaign. They lost territory and manpower. However, there is no evidence to support the conclusion that radicalization in Europe is in decline. Even though effective measures against foreign terrorist fighters show that the number of radicals travelling to Syria is in decline, it does not mean that radicalization within Europe is disappearing.

In the future, ISIL will probably devise a new strategy. ISIL may decrease its profile in Syria and disperse its activities worldwide. It is possible that ISIL may launch its jihad elsewhere, encouraging potential FTFs to travel to other countries. In this regard, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and many other countries in the Middle East and continental Africa may become possible targets.

In conclusion, in the future ISIL may change strategy, devise new tactics and surprise us once again. Europe should take this terror threat very seriously. The FTF phenomenon, its dynamics and dimensions have to be clearly understood.

If this threat is taken seriously, and robust measures against foreign terrorist fighters are devised and implemented via diligent and coherent intelligence cooperation, European capitals will not have to witness more terrorist attacks.

Metehan Demir is a Global Policy Institute Fellow. Demir graduated from Turkish Air Force Academy and served in the Turkish Air Force until 1994. He started his journalism career at Turkish Daily News. He had been in many prestigious positions as a journalist, including Ankara Bureau Chief of Hurriyet Daily Newspaper and various media outlets.

Demir is currently a political commentator of Haberturk TV and some other international media outlets, he writes articles for online platforms and attends seminars as a speaker about Turkish domestic politics and risk analysis.


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