Several high-profile attacks in the last month have brought public attention back to the threat from Islamist terrorism in Western Europe and could signal a growing threat from transnational terrorism in the coming months. The threat will likely come from radicalized individuals, rather than from major organized groups, which both limits the threat and increases the challenges of combating it. While any attacks that take place will likely be very high profile, they are less likely to result in large numbers of casualties.
Attacks in Paris, Nice, and Vienna
Recent terrorist incidents, which authorities have linked to Islamist extremism, include the killing of Samuel Paty, a high school teacher in Paris, who was targeted as he left his place of work Oct. 16. In Nice, three people were killed in a Catholic Church Oct. 29, and in Vienna at least four people were killed and 22 injured in a gun attack in the city center Nov. 2. These attacks prompted a quick response from law enforcement, which likely prevented further casualties. These incidents could signal an uptick in attacks in the medium term, which could be spurred further by French President Emanuel Macron’s strong rhetoric on Islamism following the Paty killing. Macron went as far as to call Islam a religion in crisis and stated the need to free Islam in France from malign foreign influence. This was met with criticism by many Muslims throughout the world and has prompted civil unrest targeting French interests and diplomatic missions as far away as in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Turkey. This negative sentiment was exacerbated when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly stated that Macron and French society treat Muslims poorly. Such diplomatic statements from political leaders are likely to inflame Islamist actors around the world, particularly those within France and its Western European allies.
The Persistent Threat from International Terrorism
The threat from international terrorism in Western Europe has generally decreased since a peak in 2015-2017. The reduction in number of militant strongholds in the Middle East and the consequent weakening of transnational terrorist groups, such as Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS), has improved the regional security environment by depriving would-be militants of resources and training. However, the process of radicalization in Western Europe has not stopped, and with no opportunity to fight in foreign conflict zones, radicalized individuals throughout Western Europe might be more willing to commit attacks in their immediate surroundings, especially in the aftermath of contentious developments such as Macron’s remarks. There is a possibility that terrorist incidents could inspire already radicalized individuals to carry out copycat attacks. With no direction or support from a wider terrorist network, the capabilities of any potential attackers are likely to be limited, and they are likely to act alone. This is likely to generally limit the likelihood for sophisticated mass-casualty attacks, though high-impact incidents involving rudimentary weapons, such as the 2016 Berlin and Nice vehicle attacks, remain possible.
Robust Capabilities of Security Forces in Western Europe
While individuals acting on their own are liable to pose challenges for law enforcement in preventing terrorist plots, regional security forces generally have robust capabilities to deter, detect, and respond to such activity, which will likely limit the number of successful attacks and minimize their impact. In the wake of the latest attacks, security forces throughout Western Europe will likely be on high alert and will treat all incidents with an abundance of caution. The escalation of the UK’s national terrorist threat level Nov. 3 also demonstrates that authorities recognize the scale of the threat and a visibly increased security force presence is possible around potential soft targets such as churches, markets, transport hubs, and shopping centers. Police will likely also increase surveillance at public gatherings and popular outdoor locations. In conjunction with the higher public sensitivity to the terrorist threat, this is likely to lead to an increase in security alerts, arising from reports of suspicious objects, abandoned luggage, and hoax bomb threats. As security forces will take all such alerts seriously, there will be a high likelihood of sporadic, short-term disruptions around public facilities and transportation hubs in the medium term.
In anticipation of short-notice security alerts, consider the following:
- Report all suspicious behavior and objects to the authorities.
- Be alert to sudden increases in police or security activity and move away from suspected security incidents.
- Move through security checkpoints quicklye and leave the immediate area; do not congregate near security cordons.
- In the event of a security incident, vacate the area immediately. Do not stay and take photographs.
- Obey all instructions from emergency responders without hesitation; do not ask questions or offer assistance.
- Be prepared to evacuate an area or building quickly if ordered to do so by security forces.
- In the event of a suspected terrorist incident near your accommodation or place of work, remain inside and stay away from windows. In the event of an explosion, seek shelter in a bathroom or an interior stairwell. Remain sheltered in a secure location until you are certain the danger has passed.
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