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“Military Engagement Is What IS Wants”


There are lessons to be learned from the terror attacks on Paris, says ROBERT MUNKS, Editor of IHS Janeʼs Intelligence Review. Military budgets and more manpower alone will not tackle IS’s dark appeal to vulnerable youths.

A Belgian soldier patrols in Brussels' Grand Place as police searched the area during a continued high level of security following the recent deadly Paris attacks, Belgium, November 23, 2015. REUTERS/Yves Herman TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTX1VFFQ

REUTERS/Yves Herman

The ringleader of the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, travelled freely within Europe and back and forth to Syria. For instance, he was allowed to fly from Cologne to Istanbul in January 2014 even though there was a Belgian alert notice. What went wrong? Abaaoud appears to have been under intermittent surveillance by the authorities, such as when Belgian authorities tipped off their Greek counterparts in January about his likely presence in Athens. Greek police then raided an apartment where Abaaoud may have been, but there was no trace of him. However, the surveillance appears not to have been systematic, and his travel would also have been aided by the borderless nature of the Schengen zone, meaning that he appears to have enjoyed an operational advantage in countering any surveillance. There also appear to have been some failures in sharing operational intelligence and information between national security services.

There were the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in January, and at least two failed attempts over the summer – on a church in Villejuif, and in the Amsterdam-Paris Eurostar train. Were French and European authorities not alert enough? Our baseline assessment is that the scale of the jihadist threat facing Europe – in terms of numbers of active and potentially willing militants – now exceeds the capabilities of most European security services to carry out comprehensive surveillance and assessment. Under these circumstances, it is inevitable that a number of plots will come to fruition, or will be foiled by luck near the point of execution. It is also entirely feasible – although there is no direct evidence as yet – that small plots such as the Villejuif church attack and the Eurostar attempted shootings were actually an intentional stratagem by the jihadists to distract the authorities from the much larger and more “spectacular” Paris attacks. The massive amount of “chatter” intercepted by intelligence services means that accurate prioritization of plots likely to succeed necessarily involves a degree of subjective assessment.

Is it more a hardware or a software problem? Do the intelligence services have the right (surveillance) tools, or is there a lack of understanding of the so-called Islamic State and how IS jihadis operate? The problem is largely not one of hardware or software: most of Europe’s security services have the requisite technical ability to monitor jihadists, with legal frameworks in place. Some deficiencies have been noted, leading to reforms after the Paris attacks – such as new databases and financing in Belgium, as well as the expansion of search and detention powers, alongside new counterterrorism legislation in France that includes bolstered powers for data collection and intrusive surveillance and an increase in personnel dedicated to counterterrorism. The basic problem is the substantial scale of the threat, which is not matched by the necessary human resources within most security services to carry out analysis and assessment. Moreover, the problem is compounded in Belgium – a key center for jihadist activity – by the country’s complex federalist structure, multiplicity of police services, and its relatively small security service also keeping tabs on more “traditional” targets in the major international city of Brussels. In sum, the issue is one of the threat likely now being greater than the deployable security resources.

Over 5,000 fighters from Europe have joined IS, compared to about a hundred from the United States. Where is the real failure – our intelligence concerning their activities, or our inability to prevent radicalization? The effort to prevent radicalization has largely lost ground in recent years to the Islamic State in particular due to the jihadists’ effective use of social media. Many models analyzing the radicalization of young people predate the explosion of Twitter onto the social media scene and are now outdated, since they assume the physical presence of an individual who guides the radicalization process (extremist imam, fellow prisoner, etc). Most of that radicalization now happens online. Moreover, since the Edward Snowden revelations, a lot of jihadists appear to have increased their operational security online by using legal encrypted chat applications such as Surespot, Wickr, and Telegram, even though this was also happening before. In short, the online government response through counterradicalization narratives has been comprehensively outmaneuvered by the Islamic State, which moves to get potential recruits off open media and onto encrypted channels as quickly as possible.

Are we really doing worse than the US when it comes to fighting homegrown terrorism? If so, why? There are certain countries in Europe, such as Bosnia, Belgium, Kosovo, and France, from which a high pro capita number of jihadists travel to the Iraq and Syria battlefields, and this certainly suggests that efforts to counter homegrown terrorism have been less successful than in the US. There are likely to be several reasons for this, including a more integrated and affluent Muslim community within the US that identifies with US nationality, greater levels of disenfranchisement among Muslim youths in many European countries, and easier physical access to the principal jihadist theater in Syria. That said, and even though the risk of a successful “swarming” attack in the US is almost certainly lower than in Europe, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the US remains a key target for extremists from both the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda (witness the 9/11 attacks), and there is therefore little room for complacency.

After the Paris attacks, there have been calls for improved collaboration between existing European intelligence services; Schengen seems to make this an obvious requirement. Why are EU intelligence agencies still so reluctant to work together? And how could they cooperate better? EU intelligence agencies are not, on the whole, reluctant to work together – this is a media myth. On any given day, numerous joint operations will be running in various bilateral, trilateral or multilateral formats according to the “need to know” principle, and operational intelligence is routinely shared where a common threat has been identified. The reluctance in EU agencies is to share operational intelligence (as opposed to assessed strategic intelligence) at a multilateral institutional level – such as the EU, Europol, or NATO – given concerns about handling and potential leakage.

Tracking suspects is personnel-intensive. Do European intelligence services have enough manpower? No Western democracy will ever have the necessary ratio of security/police personnel per capita to ensure total surveillance of all suspects and to prevent all terrorist attacks; that would necessitate a police state surpassing even the former East German Stasi. The challenge for national authorities is to ensure that suspects are accurately prioritized and given the necessary level of surveillance, in line with personnel availability, and that is where the Paris attacks have shown that counterterrorism manning in both Belgium and France, is probably less than it now needs to be.

The Paris attacks have spurred calls for a central European intelligence agency. Would such an agency really improve our security? Or would we create a paper tiger? There is already a central EU body charged with collating strategic intelligence from EU states and producing threat assessments for EU policymakers – the EU Intelligence Analysis Centre (INTCEN) based in Brussels. However, INTCEN does not direct its own operations or carry out intelligence collection, which remain the prerogative of nation-states. As things stand at the moment, a central EU intelligence agency would be highly unlikely to improve security, given that the nature of the threat differs between states – and states are therefore best-placed to carry out their own assessments and allocation of targeting priorities. Moreover, different states have different intelligence capabilities and histories of handling classified information, meaning that pooling sensitive intelligence at an EU-28 level is not going to happen any time soon.

Expenditures on police forces, surveillance, internal intelligence, and counterterrorism have risen over the last decade, while defense spending has gone down almost everywhere across the EU. The US has long seen the lack of European military spending – and a lack of engagement when it comes to stabilizing countries in Europe’s neighborhood – as the real reason for the heightened terrorism threat. Is Washington right? The issue of European states’ defense spending has long been a transatlantic bugbear, with only a handful of European states meeting the NATO target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense. Yet the internal response to terrorist threats needs to come largely from a non-military perspective, accepting that conventional military operations to degrade the Islamic State (such as airstrikes in Iraq and Syria) will largely be ad hoc decisions by the more militarily powerful European states. Where European states arguably need to be smarter is in directing some of their finite defense resources towards procuring kit with a counterterrorism application, such as drones, and burden-sharing on the development and procurement of intercompatible high-cost platforms. This is now complicated by the resurgence of Russian assertiveness in foreign policy, which means that any tilt toward defense procurement in asymmetric warfare also needs to be balanced against more traditional interstate considerations.

How, in your view, will IS react to being fought harder? Drawing the West more closely into military engagement is precisely what the Islamic State wants. It feeds into their narrative of the West as aggressor; civilians will be killed as a result of Western airstrikes and this will be exploited for propaganda purposes on social media; and military intervention remains unpopular with large segments of European populations. We have seen the Islamic State expanding substantially in the past year through its wilayat (province) model, and a further expansion is likely before any rollback starts to take place. Countries to watch include Libya, which is likely to be a locus for future Islamic State activities, and Morocco, which has contributed a large number of participants to the battlefield in Syria and which has avoided major attacks in the last 18 months only because of its relatively efficient security services.

It is often said that “there is no military solution to IS” – do you agree? And what else is needed? There is indeed no uniquely military solution to the problem – to retake Raqqa, for instance, would require a substantial military ground force that is currently not in the cards. Many politicians talk of a “generational struggle”, and I think that’s largely the case. What is needed is a much more coordinated and comprehensive roll-out of so-called “counter-narratives” on social media to dissuade potential recruits, and that requires theological engagement to debunk some of the Islamic State’s doctrinal justifications for its actions. Increasing security budgets and manpower may help to mitigate the threat somewhat, but they do nothing to challenge the Islamic State’s powerful appeal to susceptible youths.

Read more in the Berlin Policy Journal App – January/February 2016 issue.

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