‘Gilles de Kerchove, the counter-terrorism chief of Europol, estimates that there are now more than 50,000 jihadists in Europe — half of them in Britain’
When a mini-cab driver ploughed into 11 pedestrians on a footpath near the Natural History Museum last month, there was an automatic assumption that this was another deliberate act of terrorism. With good reason. Three such car-ramming incidents have occurred in London already this year and we have been warned that further terrorist attacks are highly likely. Those who assumed it was a terrorist attack were wrong. More surprising was the police announcement that they were investigating a mere traffic accident.
Two other assumptions have proved to be wrong: firstly, that after the death of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and the defeat of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, peace and tranquility would return to the world; secondly, after the physical manifestation of the Islamic State caliphate was routed in Iraq and Syria, another swamp of terrorists would be drained. Wrong again. IS no longer encourages potential activists to join its ranks in the Middle East. Instead, it is advising them to wreak havoc in their home countries.
The truth, according to Lord Evans of Weardale, director-general of MI5 from 2007 to 2013, is that Britain is fighting a generational struggle against terrorism that will continue for another 20 to 30 years.
Gilles de Kerchove, the counter-terrorism chief of Europol, the European Union’s law-enforcement agency, estimates that there are now more than 50,000 jihadists in Europe. Britain leads the way, with an estimated 25,000. Of these, 3,000 are said to be of particular concern to the overstretched MI5, with just 500 receiving “constant and special attention”. By comparison, France is estimated to be home to 17,000 Islamic radicals, while Spain has about 5,000 and Belgium around 2,000.
De Kerchove noted that many plots had been foiled, “but, of course, some have succeeded . . . There is very sadly nothing like 100 per cent security. You can never prevent someone picking up a knife in the kitchen, leaving his apartment, and killing someone in the street.”
In a recent address, Britain’s most senior counter-terrorism police officer, Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley, sounded a note of profound concern when he called on “every strand of our society” — universities, shop-owners, councils, hospitals and the public at large — to unite in defeating the threat of extremism. In the previous six months, he noted, 36 people had been killed and more than 200 injured in four separate terrorist attacks on British soil. The number of attacks rose to five a few days later when a home-made bomb was left on a London Underground train.
What made Rowley’s concern — and his appeal to his citizens — particularly poignant is that it was expressed not in London but in Herzliya, just north of Tel Aviv, where he was attending the annual conference of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism.
Once, Europeans regarded urban terrorism as an Israel-specific experience that had nothing to do with them. No more. What happens in Israel is now increasingly being regarded as a precursor of what is to come in Europe. Sure enough, the sort of low-tech terrorist attacks that have afflicted Israelis — suicide bombings, car bombings, car rammings and random stabbings — are now being copied across Europe. And senior security officials from most European countries are crossing the Mediterranean to see how Israel, now perceived to be in the front line of jihadist terror, is dealing with the scourge.
What would they hear? They would be told that, thanks to lightly armed Kurdish Peshmerga fighters on the ground and sophisticated American power from the air, the game is almost up for IS in Syria and Iraq. The dream of a caliphate will live on territorially in a clutch of North African states, from Libya to Somalia and Nigeria, and in the aspirations of jihadists in Europe, where they will carry on the fight. Their missions will be designed not only to destroy the infidel but also to ensure that IS retains its dominance over al-Qaeda, which is about to re-enter the frame.
They would also be told that two factors have prompted the current spate of attacks on European soil: firstly, the inflow to Europe of more than a million Muslim migrants in the past couple of years; secondly, the thousands of battle-hardened young Muslims who have returned to their European homes after fighting with IS.
European governments have tweaked their counter-terrorism systems in response to the uptick in terror plots, many of which have been quietly foiled but some of which have succeeded, with devastating consequences.
Much remains to be done. Europe’s policy-planners and decision-makers will need strong stomachs, and an abundance of good luck. They will need to understand — and then persuade their electorates — that the terrorists they now confront bear little resemblance to the IRA in Britain, the Basque separatists ETA in Spain, the RAF in Germany or the Red Brigades in Italy.
Those terrorists might have been brutal and deadly, but they were fighting for rational political goals, more or less. The radicalised Islamists, on the other hand, are seeking nothing less than the destruction of Europe, along with what they perceive to be its decadent democratic institutions and its debauched cultural traditions. Europeans are unlikely to give up their treasures or values easily, but there is a question mark over how hard or how long they will resist.
Resistance will mean far more intelligence gathering, more intrusive surveillance, tougher interrogation techniques, more airport-style security at cinemas, concert halls and sports events, more eyes and ears on Muslim communities. The corollary will, of course, be a reduction in civil liberties. How far would politicians dare go in tightening the belt of personal freedom? And how far can they push the issue while maintaining a semblance of inter-communal cordiality?
The mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, has urged the British government to abandon its advice to citizens to “run, hide, tell” if they are caught up in a terrorist outrage. Much better, he says, to fight back and engage the threat. Europe, he said, has been “soft” on extremist plotters: “We train our public to engage the terrorists,” said Barkat. “Even if you risk your life, engage because you are saving others. Sometimes you see Jerusalemites with a guitar, with a stick, with a broom . . . Engage, engage, engage.”
Barkat has led by example: two years ago, he successfully subdued a Palestinian radical trying to stab a potential Jewish victim.