After years of watching and worrying about the prospect of terror attacks as hundreds of residents returned from Syria with fresh combat skills, security officials across Europe moved Friday to roll up jihadi cells they’d apparently been monitoring for months.
In other words, officials have declared game on in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks.
Over 48 hours, police in France, Austria, Belgium, England, Germany and Slovakia arrested or killed more than two dozen terrorism suspects. Investigations have stretched into several other European nations.
“In the security services, it’s been known for a while that it was only a matter of time before all hell broke loose,” said Magnus Ranstorp, an international security expert at the Swedish National Defense College. “Paris was the moment it happened.”
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After Paris, security services across the continent were under enormous pressure to make sure there were no repeats, no copycat attacks. At the same time, the attention the attack brought to the jihadist narrative increased pressure on cells to act, as well.
“Expect this to continue for a long while,” Ranstorp said. “Expect arrests, plots or attacks every couple of weeks.”
Scotland Yard’s assistant commissioner for counterterrorism, Mark Rowley, said 2014 had seen a 32 percent increase in terror arrests and he expected that to rise in 2015. “In light of the attacks in Paris last week, we have been reviewing, alongside our partners, our overall security posture,” he said.
EUROPOL, a Europe-wide policing organization, said 5,000 Europeans were thought to have traveled to fight in Syria or Iraq, either with the Islamic State or other terrorist organizations. That number is up from an estimate of 2,000 made in June, and experts caution that such estimates are likely minimum numbers, since official counts comprise only those people whom security services know about. Many more sneak by without notice, they say.
The reasons are well-known: There’s a generation of disaffected youth growing up at a time when the European economy is retracting. There’s increasing xenophobia on the continent, with anti-immigration groups growing, from France’s Front National to Germany’s Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West.
There’s a generation of young Muslims in a post-9/11 world who’ve grown up consuming propaganda that the West is at war with their faith. And there are estimates in Germany that a full 10 percent of so-called “jihadi tourists” are recent converts to Islam and immediately opt for extremism and violence, as a way to take part in something greater than their normal lives.
“Getting invited to Syria is like getting invited to play in the Super Bowl,” Ranstorp said. “We’re looking at a perfect jihadi storm.”
In Belgium, police reported that on Thursday evening they’d foiled a plot aimed at killing police officers throughout the country. When they raided the building in Verviers, near the German border, they found weapons, explosives and police uniforms. They killed two men known to have trained in Syria and arrested a third.
Belgian prosecutor Eric Van der Sypt said at a news conference that the suspects had been stopped only hours before launching their plan.
“This group wanted to kill police officers on the streets and in police stations,” he said. “They were planning attacks all over Belgium.”
He noted that Belgian police had carried out 11 other raids.
In Germany, Berlin police spokesman Stefan Redlich said that one of the arrests there had targeted an organization dedicated to recruiting and sending new fighters to Syria. Seized was the self-appointed emir of the organization, who, in keeping with German privacy laws, was identified as Ismet D., 41.
Redlich said the arrests in Berlin had been planned weeks ago and the focus of those arrested was joining the fight in Syria, not attacking within Germany.
“We carried them out now because we received information that Ismet D. was leaving for Istanbul this weekend,” he said. “We found his plane tickets.”
Police think he was planning to fly to Istanbul, then get to southern Turkey and sneak across the Syrian border into the area controlled by the Islamic State. That’s the usual route for European jihadis.
Berlin police raided 11 sites and arrested five people in all. They’re preparing charges of “serious subversive violence in Syria and suspicion of money laundering.”
Ismet D. is accused of running a radical Salafist organization that recruited Berlin residents by holding classes that taught violent jihad. Redlich said the members of the organization were close in ideology to the Islamic State and appeared to be tied to Chechen terrorists.
Ismet D. led a cell of “mainly Turkish and Russian nationals of Chechen and Dagestani origin” in Berlin. The organization is suspected of having sent others to Syria, including a man police identified as Emin F., 43. Redlich said police had recovered a considerable amount of money in the raids and that in the past the cell had provided those fighting in Syria with “military night-vision equipment.”
Arrests elsewhere included an 18-year-old woman in London, a 14-year-old in Austria who’d talked about his bomb-making skills and desire to travel to Syria, and Hamzat Sh., 32, suspected of terrorist acts in Russia, who was arrested in Slovakia as he was trying to cross the border into Ukraine with a Swedish passport.
As was the case in Belgium, German police said there were no direct connections between the arrests and the three days of terrorist attacks last week in Paris that left 17 victims and three terrorists dead. Those attacks began at 11:30 a.m. Jan. 7 with an assault on the French weekly satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that left 12 dead.
Mark Singleton, director of the International Center for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague, Netherlands, said in an email that that sort of chaos was part of the purpose of a terrorist attack.
“Paris was intended to destabilize the Western world; seen from the terrorists’ perspective, it succeeded in doing so: a relatively small-scale attack had a huge impact on people’s mind-sets,” he said.
The raids in a number of countries suggested Europe may soon overcome a reluctance by the continent’s national intelligence agencies to cooperate with one another, Singleton said.
“There’ll always be an in-built resistance to sharing carefully collected info with others,” he wrote. “The phenomenon of the foreign fighter – returnees as well as those intent on traveling to join the fight – has reinforced the need for greater cooperation and coordination.”