Europe: The Next Front in the War on Terror?


150108113231-je-suis-charlie-ross-irpt-super-169Afghanistan. Iraq. Syria. These are countries that come to mind when one hears the phrase “War on Terror,” or “Overseas Contingency Operation” as President Obama renamed it. France, Germany and the United Kingdom? Not so much. But will they in the future? The recent terror attacks in Paris and security actions in Belgium show that Europe is becoming the next battleground in the War on Terror.

On January 7, 2015 two men with alleged Al-Qaeda connections stormed the office of the French satire magazineCharlie Hebdo, killing 11 people in the process. But this was far from the only attack in recent, post-9/11 European history. On March 11, 2004, Madrid, Spain was rocked by a series of bombs on trains that left 191 dead. On July 7, 2005, London incurred bombs on their public transportation system resulting in 52 fatalities.

The attackers in both were reported to have been inspired by Al-Qaeda. More recently, a shooter targeted civilians and soldiers in southern France in March 2012, amidst conflicting reports of his relationship with Al-Qaeda.

The two primary terrorist groups threatening Europe in this context are Al-Qaeda and ISIS, although it’s not that simple. In regards to the Charlie Hebdoattack, Gary J. Schmitt, co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at The American Enterprise Institute, says “We don’t know exactly [whom] on the French front they’re operating under.”

This analysis echoes reports of the disputed levels of Al-Qaeda involvement in the aforementioned attacks. There have also been reports that AmediCoulibaly, the gunman who sieged a French grocery store after the shootings in Paris, pledged allegiance to ISIS.

Europe, far away from the conflict in Syria, offers ISIS and Al-Qaeda the chance to work together. “It’s always overstated these tendencies to think that because there have been rifts people can’t cooperate. That’s historically never been the case,” Schmitt told the Rockland County Times.

The conflict between the two groups has certainly affected the outcome of the Syrian Civil War, but with reports stating the Paris perpetrators possible connections to both Al-Qaeda and ISIS, it appears their conflict will not prevent them from working together in Europe. If recent events are any indication, the countries of Western Europe are the most prominent targets in this conflict, especially France, as the two most recent of such attacks occurred there.

Earlier this week, reports emerged that Belgium had deployed troops for the first time in decades in an effort to protect potential terror targets. It was but one of many measures European states have taken to fight terrorism in recent years. The responses of European authorities to terrorism after the Charlie Hebdoincident have been more or less similar and typical. Stephen Biddle, director of the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies at The George Washington University says that European authorities are “doing the usual list of normal things,” which he labels as “espionage, counter-espionage, intelligence, police work” etc.

However, there are noticeable differences. According to Schmitt, “the French counter-terrorism system is probably the most robust among Europeans.” He elaborates that “While they (France) face the greatest threat in some broad sense of numbers, they’re probably more prepared to deal with it than Germany for example.” Germany, he says, “has a much more complicated federal system that makes coordination very difficult.”

The French response is unique in other ways as well. According to Biddle, “By contrast with the Bush administration back in 2001, which went to almost baroque lengths to avoid framing this as a war with Islam, the French in particular have been much less careful with their rhetoric.” He continues by saying that “In particular, the degree of identification that they’re promoting with Charlie Hebdo…is creating an arguably more widespread reaction in the Muslim world against western policy than Bush administration managed to do, at least prior to the invasion of Iraq.”

The identification with the newspaper he speaks of has certainly produced a large reaction, and one that has been polarizing at times. Just as soon as the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag became a trend on Twitter, the #JeSuisAhmedone emerged. Made famous in part by a tweet from @Aboujahjah which read “I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so.

It is further of note the counter-terrorism actions European states have undertaken abroad recently. Many NATO members participated in 2011 operations in Libya, and similarly in 2014-5 interventions against ISIS. Again, France has been particularly active in counter-terrorism operations. In defiance of the undeserved “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” stereotype, they launched Operation Serval in Mali in 2013. The operation, which lasted over a year, targeted Al-Qaeda and other militant groups.

The War on Terror in Europe is of particular importance for the United States due to the country’s similarities with the continent. First, European countries, like the U.S., pride themselves on being democracies, and therefore face the same freedom vs. security concerns. On the threat of European jihadists coming back to Europe from the Middle East, Schmitt said, “The best source for finding out who’s left the country and gone to Syria or Yemen, for example, is technical intelligence. But they (European Union member states) just spent a year being upset at the U.S.’s technical capabilities to keep track of people like that,” referring to European concerns over U.S. intelligence gathering in their countries.

Schmitt also notes the concerns of the European public weigh on their politicians willingness to cooperate with U.S. on security matters. The U.S. faces a similar debate with the NSA’s domestic surveillance program. Interestingly, Schmitt claims that “most European states’ laws are more forward-leaning when it comes to domestic counter-terrorism than even the U.S.’s. They have the capability to be much more intrusive on their own land than, for example, the FBI.”

Finally, it must be noted that the current threat in Europe is largely homegrown. It’s easy to look at the North African names of the terrorists in France and decry the threat as foreign, and immigration undoubtedly plays a role in this phenomenon. But at one point does someone cease being Algerian and start being French? The two shooters reportedly spoke fluent French as they shouted at their victims, and were also both born in France. The 2005 bombings in London were similarly carried out by three British citizens born in the English county of West Yorkshire, in addition to a Jamaican-born immigrant who converted to Islam after moving to Britain. The U.S. too faces the threat of terrorists from within its own borders, with Anwar al-Awlaki and others coming to mind.

The War on Terror in Europe is more than underway, and far from over.

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