Terrorist threat still looms over Europe, Europol expert warns

A German police officer remains on guard at a Christmas market, on the Breitscheidplatz in Berlin, on December 21, 2016, after the attack in which a truck killed twelve people in a similar market. [EFE / Bernd Von Jutrczenka]

The threat of terrorism “has not diminished and still persists” in Europe, despite the loss of Islamic State territories in Syria and Iraq, according to the head of Europol’s Counter Terrorism Centre, Manuel Navarrete. EURACTIV’s partner Euroefe reports.

“In Europe, we continue to be very vigilant. The threat is significant and takes many forms. We are talking about more than 20 incidents in 2017, from well-planned attacks such as in Barcelona and Manchester to less prepared ones”, Navarrete said in an interview at Europol’s headquarters in The Hague (Netherlands).

The colonel from the Guardia Civil (the Spanish police force) has been at the helm of the European Counter Terrorism Centre since January 2016, and his department works to “strengthen (the EU’s) response to terror”.

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Internet platforms are coming under more and more pressure in Europe, and now face a potential legal threat if they do not remove posts with terrorist content within one hour.

According to Europol (which has not yet submitted its annual report), 980 arrests linked to jihadism were recorded in Europe last year, slightly below the 1,000 arrests a year earlier.

On the consequences of terrorism, Manuel Navarrete pointed out that “even if the threat persists, the number of victims has decreased,” in 2017 there were around “68 deaths” as a result of Islamic attacks in Europe, compared to 135 in 2016.

Al Qaeda

International attention is focused on the Islamic State’s (ISIS) loss of territory and loss of its self-proclaimed “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, but Manuel Navarrete warned that this does not mean the terrorist group Al-Qaeda has disappeared: “the two threats are simultaneous,” he warned.

For this counter terrorism expert, the threat of ISIS “takes various forms, is difficult to establish and has many tendencies even abroad”, but it continues to maintain “links, competition and conflicts” with Al-Qaeda.

“Talking about ISIS and Al-Qaeda as one and the same is wrong. We cannot say that there is collaboration between them, but there is a link,” Navarrette stated.

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What matters for the security forces is “the way it is manifested in terrorist attacks or actions,” in Europe and in the rest of the world.

ISIS has “a trademark, it’s more aggressive and ruthless,” as shown by the propaganda the group broadcasts on social media with videos and photos of their crimes.

However, Al-Qaeda, which carried out large-scale terrorist attacks such as on 11 September in New York (3,016 deaths) or on 11 March in Madrid (193 deaths), is an “equally aggressive and ruthless group, but with a certain degree of sophistication and planning,” said Navarrete.

Nowadays, three sources of terrorist threats can be identified: solitary actors who “go from 0 to 100 in a very short time”, Al-Qaeda’s more sophisticated and longer-term plans”, and the complex action system of ISIS, he added.

Growing threat outside Syria

The retreat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria “does not reduce the terrorist threat” in Europe, and even increases a risk factor: extremists who fought in the “caliphate” and are confronted with the siege of their territory will seek to return to the European countries they came from.

“Over the last few years, we were getting ready and preparing for how to deal with this issue. Information sharing data has been improving, and police operations are getting better and better and are aligned with the fight against terrorism and online propaganda.”

Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency, now concentrates on “the identification, the prevention and the pursuit” of those wanting to enter Europe from jihadist groups in the Middle East.

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