In recent weeks, British investigators have arrested nine men on terrorism charges. Spain, with help from Morocco, arrested another nine. Germany nabbed one.
What these cases have in common is substantial: The suspects were all European residents. All were thought to be involved with or supporting radical elements fighting in Syria and Iraq. And all were thought to pose a threat in Europe.
But what these cases do not share is perhaps more instructive: In the United Kingdom, British investigators handled the case and pursued their suspects under British law. In Spain, it was a Spanish case. In Germany, German investigators used their own tactics and laws passed in the German Parliament.
Despite European officials’ expressions of concern that thousands of European residents have flocked to Syria and Iraq to fight with the Islamic State, there appears to be little overt coordination in dealing with the problem of the hundreds who are thought to have returned to their homes – from which, officials fear, they’re positioned to bring jihad to the continent.
“The problem is there never will be a European FBI-style organization to coordinate anti-terror efforts,” said Magnus Ranstorp, an international security expert at the Swedish National Defense College. “Most national security agencies, by nature, distrust the security organizations of other nations. If there is coordination, it’s bilateral at best, and that doesn’t address the very real concerns we’ve got today.”
Gilles de Kerchove, the European Union’s counterterrorism coordinator, doesn’t actually have a counterterror investigative force of his own. He relies instead on the work of the agencies of the EU’s 28 member nations. Last week, speaking with the BBC, he noted that the number of Europeans who have taken part at some level in the fighting in Syria and Iraq – either with the self-proclaimed Islamic State or other radical groups, including al Qaida affiliates – is “more than 3,000.”
This comes at a time when the CIA has estimated the total Islamic State force to be about 31,000. And it comes just as the Islamic State has issued a call to supporters to carry out “lone wolf” attacks in their native lands to punish those who oppose the fledgling caliphate.
As European nations join in the U.S.-led coalition bombing campaign against radical groups in Iraq and Syria, de Kerchove admitted that raises the threat level. This was immediately visible in Europe with the beheading last month of Herve Gourdel, a French tourist in Algeria. A former arm of al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb that recently switched allegiance to the Islamic State – Jund al Khalifa, or Soldiers of the Caliphate – claimed responsibility for the murder and tied it to France’s involvement in the bombing campaign.
But while the number of those who’ve headed to the Middle East rises, officials admit there are holes in the net to catch them upon their return. Specifically, the open-borders reality of the European Union makes it difficult.
German authorities try to track Germans who’ve gone to take part in, or at least somehow support, the fighting. But if those who’ve returned evade German watchers, there’s nothing to stop them from ending up in any of the other member states of the European Union.
Laurence Nardon, a security expert at the French research center Institut Francais des Relations Internationales, said it very rightly raised concerns.
“We don’t believe (the Islamic State) will be conquering southern France anytime soon,” she said. “In fact, the belief is that they are engaged in their attempt at state building and will be unable to launch any large-scale attack anytime soon. But the smaller attacks, the lone wolf attacks, those they can manage, and those tend to be very effective at creating terror within a population.”
Effectively defending against the small attacks can require a highly coordinated security policy, experts say, and Europe appears ill-equipped to form one. France, the United Kingdom and Germany are pursuing different approaches at different times depending on what the local conversation is. France and the United Kingdom are discussing, for example, lifting the passports of suspected jiahdis; Germany is talking about somehow marking their identity cards.
The extent of the potential threat is unknown. British officials this year have been looking into claims that violent radicals attempted to spread their ideology in public schools in Birmingham and private schools in London. Germans remain worried about violent elements in Salafist mosques throughout the country.
Ranstorp noted that the call for lone wolf attacks was “a game changer” for Europe. A few so-called “ jihadi tourists” who’ve returned have engaged in attacks or threats around Europe. The suspect in the slaying of four people at Belgium’s Jewish Museum in May is a Frenchman who fought in Syria with the Islamic State.
But many of the returnees aren’t likely to be threats, Ranstorp said. Most, he said, are “burned out, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or simply terrified of what they’ve seen.”
“With this call to action, people are going to start wondering if they’re really just biding their time and remain a threat,” he said. “What we’re looking at is a much more fragmented threat, and that requires a much more comprehensive security approach.”