It seems paradoxical, just as Islamist terror brigades are being eradicated in Syria and Iraq, the threat of terrorist mayhem in Europe is gathering momentum.
Emergency meetings by European Union security chiefs last week following the Brussels attacks were given even more urgency by warnings from Europol that as many as 5,000 terrorist operatives were primed to bring war onto the streets of EU capitals.
There were also several arrests of terror suspects in France, Germany and Belgian, with one man shot by police in Brussels believed to be connected with the suicide attackers who struck the Belgian capital days earlier.
A report in the Washington Post noted: «As European governments scramble to control the expanding terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State, on the battlefields in Iraq and Syria the group is a rapidly diminishing force».
The Post attributes the defeats for the terrorist brigades to the military support afforded by Russia to the Syrian army and from the US to Iraqi forces. Advances against ISIS in the ancient city of Palmyra as well as in its eastern Syrian stronghold of Raqqa underscore the dramatic collapse of the terrorist self-proclaimed Caliph.
But, ironically, the gains made in Syria and Iraq against the jihadists are placing Europe at greater threat than at any time before.
The fact that the terrorists could strike last week in Brussels, the political heart of Europe – killing more than 30 people – underscores the danger. Furthermore, the Belgian capital is also the headquarters of the US-led NATO military alliance.
If terrorists can strike in this place – with one of the three explosions at a metro station shaking the foundations of the European Council’s building – it demonstrates that nowhere is beyond the terrorists’ reach.
In the aftermath of the Brussels bombings, security forces recovered more explosives at an apartment that had housed the suicide attackers. Six people have reportedly been arrested amid warnings that more terror assaults are likely.
Meanwhile, French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced that an imminent terrorist attack had been foiled with the arrest of one man in the Paris suburb of Argenteuil.
There is indeed a foreboding sense of European authorities grappling with the scale of the problem.
The organizational links between the Brussels attackers and those who carried out the Paris atrocity in November, when 130 people were killed, shows that the EU has a serious cross-border security issue. The ease of movement by the terrorists is mismatched by the cumbersome liaison between state security services.
Brussels may have for now acquired the notoriety of «incubator of terrorism» in Europe. But there are indicators that terminating the Brussels cell will not bring a solution to Europe’s wider terror threat.
Europe is facing a «perfect storm» of terrorism due to several factors. One is that thousands of European citizens are known to have travelled to Syria and Iraq out of some misplaced notion of «fighting jihad» for the Islamic State’s self-professed Caliph. Over the past five years, these European jihadists have gained skills in bomb-making and weapons use. How many have returned to Europe is not known, but as Europol indicates it is probably in the order of several hundreds.
Proportional to population, Belgium has seen the biggest number of its citizens going to Syria and Iraq as mercenaries. But there also large numbers from France, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Netherlands, Britain and Germany.
Although EU countries have tightened border restrictions in recent months over the refugee crisis, the jihadists are mostly EU-born or naturalized citizens who are thus able to travel easily across the bloc owing to visa-free regulations.
Salah Abdeslam, the 26-year-old man who is believed to have orchestrated the Paris attacks but was arrested in Brussels on March 18, four days before the latest atrocity, is known to have previously travelled to Germany, Hungary and Austria along with others belonging to the Brussels cell. It can be assumed therefore that other jihadists have likewise coordinated between EU states.
Besides, apart from the hundreds of returning jihadists, there are plenty of terror recruits «at home» among Europe’s radicalized Muslim communities. While the vast majority of Arab-Muslim citizens living in Europe have nothing to do with radicalism, a tiny fraction out of several million people computes into several hundred potential jihadists.
The process of radicalization leading to terrorism is given full vent because many of Europe’s Muslim communities have been marginalized over many years through institutionalized racism and poverty. Deteriorating social conditions in the EU are by no means confined to Muslim communities. It is an EU-wide endemic problem for all citizens as economies systematically founder. But that malaise intersects sharply with other jihadist factors in Arab-Muslim communities.
Molenbeek, the suburb of Brussels, is a case in point. This is where the Paris and Brussels attacks were organized from. Molenbeek has a population of around 100,000 of which about half are Muslim of Arab descent with most of them from Morocco. Brussels has been described as the most Muslim city in Europe in proportion to the population. Many of its Arab citizens descend from workers who were brought to Belgium in the 1960s and 70s as cheap labor. But over the decades, future generations of these Arab people have become marginalized through chronic unemployment, which has in turn fueled alienation and resentment towards the authorities. Youth unemployment in Molenbeek is said to be as high as 40-50 per cent. In this stagnant milieu, recruitment to radical networks is made so much easier.
The same pattern can be seen in other European cities. The marginalization is worsened by recent years of unrelenting economic austerity which has driven up poverty and unemployment. This has produced a phenomenon of «states within states».
Another factor is that European governments have over many years welcomed financial donations from Saudi Arabia and Qatar for investment in sprawling ethnic Arab ghettoes. This has led to the building of mosques preaching a fundamentalist Salafist or Wahhabi version of Islam, which, in turn, feeds into terrorist recruitment. Belgian authorities welcomed donations from Saudi Arabia in a bid to lure cheap oil contracts from the Persian Gulf, while France courted billions of dollars from Qatar’s monarchial rulers, partly as a cost-cutting measure for French governments who felt that they could then withdraw public spending on its Arab-populated inner-city districts.
So we have large Arab-Muslim communities marginalized within the EU, influenced by fundamentalist ideology, and which have seen large numbers of their disaffected youth travel to places like Syria to become «blooded» in the craft of terrorism.
Of course, why these young jihadists have gone to Syria in the first place is because European governments targeted the country for regime change and poured weapons into militant groups to wage proxy war. Instead of resisting Washington’s policy of regime change in the Middle East, the Europeans went fully along with it.
As noted, Brussels may have taken the lead in the new front of jihadist terrorism in Europe. But there is every reason to believe that similar terror cells are incubating in several other EU states. As the jihadists witness the collapse of their hallowed self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq, it stands to reason that they would seek revenge within Europe.
One significant indicator is that one of the suicide bombers in the Brussels airport attack was Najim Laachraoui. He is said to have been the bomb-maker for the terror cell. His DNA was also found on bomb remains from the Paris massacre, although he was not personally involved in carrying out that attack. The question is: why would the terror group sacrifice their bomb-making expert in last week’s operation in Brussels? His fatal involvement in carrying out that attack could be a sign that the Molenbeek cell was under strain and lacking in volunteers. That might suggest that his death forecloses the capability of the jihadists to mount future bombings.
However, a more disturbing inference is that the Brussels cell is only one of many autonomous terror cells that are active in other European cities. If that is so, then the loss of the Brussels bomb-maker presents no big deal, from the terrorist point of view. And therefore that could be why he was permitted to join the suicide mission. Because, the logic goes, there are many more such cadres in other European locations with the same bomb-making expertise.
Europe’s porous borders for its citizens, including jihadist citizens, plus the inertia of security services, as the Belgian case starkly reveals, means that the bloc has an onerous task on its hands.
The disclosure by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Ankara sent back one of the Brussels bombers last year, due to «terror suspicions», to the Netherlands and then to Belgium, without any arrest in either of these jurisdictions, shows how vulnerable Europe is.
The implication is that European states, as with the Turkish authorities, have for too long turned a blind eye to jihadists crossing their borders because of their bigger geopolitical game to destabilize Syria.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov put his finger on the issue following the Brussels attack, when he denounced the EU for «playing geopolitical games» over terrorism. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was also spot-on when he said that atrocities like Brussels and Paris are «inevitable» consequences of Europe’s covert intrigues against his country.
Far from dealing with isolated terrorist events, Europe is heading into a perfect storm of more carnage – a storm that it has largely created.
And, ultimately, European civilians are paying a macabre price for their governments’ culpability.