Europe's decades-long neglect of terror

Right now, Europe is not dealing with the terror in its midst.

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld

OpEds Manfred Gerstenfeld
Manfred Gerstenfeld
Manfred Gerstenfeld

American authorities expect additional terror attacks in Europe. The State Department has alerted US citizens to potential risks of travel throughout the continent writing: “Terrorist groups continue to plan near-term attacks throughout Europe, targeting sporting events, tourist sites, restaurants, and transportation. This Travel Alert expires on June 20, 2016.”[1]

However, many European countries still do not take the risks of random mass terror attacks seriously. This form of terrorism reared its head again in the Paris attacks of November 2015, and in Brussels in March 2016. After the Brussels killings much information on the failures of Belgium’s intelligence community came to light, together with the neglect of its security infrastructure. The feeble structure and inadequate equipment of Belgium’s law enforcement bodies contributed significantly to Belgium’s failure in this crisis. Following the Paris attacks existing terror databases were not even updated concerning local terrorists,.[2]

Europe’s counter-terrorism apparatus needs still major improvement. Many in the political system seem to believe that better intelligence services and more adequately trained police forces may largely resolve terrorism. It is indeed true that some European countries are gravely lacking in these areas. In the Netherlands, for example, the special police units deployed to protect that country against terrorism and serious crime are understaffed and have a conflict with the top management of the Dutch police.[3]

European governments sought agreements with terrorist bodies in return for promises not to attack targets in their countries. 
Over the past fifty years, terror attacks in Europe aimed mainly against specific targets. Attacks were directed against Israel, for example, or Israel-related targets. This “targeted” form of terrorism also emerged in the murders of prominent people by the German Baader-Meinhof group, the Italian Red Brigades and the French Action Directe. Targeted terrorism was also practiced by the Muslim murderers of Charlie Hebdo magazine staffers in Paris, and Jews in Toulouse, Paris, Brussels and Copenhagen.

It was the targeted terrorism by Europeans in particular which aroused a response of European governments during several decades of the past century. Surviving members of the Baader-Meinhof group, the Red Brigades and Action Directe were largely arrested. The super-terrorist Carlos “The Jackal” is serving a life-sentence in France. Anders Breivik, who attacked a gathering of the AUF Labour Party youth movement at the Utoya island in Norway in 2011 murdering 69, has been condemned to the maximum 21 years of detention in Norway. Breivik also randomly killed eight people with a bomb he planted in a van in Oslo prior to arriving at the island.[4]  

Such action was far from evident concerning the Palestinian terror organizations which attacked Israelis in Europe in the last decades of the previous century. Several European governments sought agreements with terrorist bodies in return for promises not to attack targets in their countries.  These agreements meant that Palestinian murderers were freed, and terrorists were allowed operational freedom in part of Europe. In a lethal twist of irony, Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro who had approved such an agreement for his country with the PLO was later kidnapped and murdered by the Red Brigades.[5]

Some of the random terror attacks in Europe yielded many victims, but they were carried out by different perpetrators. The bombings in the Bologna train station massacre in 1980 were probably carried out by neo-fascists and killed 85 people, wounding 200. [6] The Omagh bombing in Northern Ireland by the Real Irish Republican Army in 1998 killed 31 and wounded 220.[7] The explosion of a Pan Am plane above Lockerbie in 1988 was ordered by Libya’s then ruler Muammar Gaddafi killing 243 passengers and 16 crew, together with 11 more on the ground.[8]

The first random mass killing in Western Europe by Muslims took place in Madrid in September 2004 in the Atocha train station, killing 191 and injuring over 1800.[9] This was followed by the London underground and bus bombings of June 2005 killing over 50 and injuring hundreds of others.[10] 

As no further major random attacks followed until the massacres in Paris November 2015, European governments took little action, and in particular avoided the next, immediate step – systematic profiling. One look at the picture of the three terrorists at Brussels airport indicates that if professional profile specialists had been positioned outside Brussels airport, the killers would have been stopped and their luggage thoroughly examined. Yet there is great resistance in Europe against profiling because of its ethnic aspects, even if not all profiles of those to be specially checked are ethnically determined. 

If major random terror attacks in Europe become more regular, as the American authorities suspect, significantly more personal data will have to be assembled, filed in data banks and shared with authorities in other countries. Furthermore a number of current democratic rights will have to be gradually curtailed to some extent. One such is privacy, as more surveillance of communications would be required. Those who preach Salafism would be prime candidates for limitations on free speech. Although it is predictable that citizens will resist such limitations of democratic rights, the increasing threat of cyber terror also necessitates such measures.  However, although even now some express concerns of a police state, given the current criticized inefficiency of police in Western countries, such a police state is light years away.

Many Europeans find it hard to acknowledge that the situation would have been better if European governments had not tried to negotiate agreements with the Palestinian terror organizations decades ago. Not only did they transgress their own countries’ laws in entering into such agreements, they also did not learn from the “success” of Palestinian terrorism. The same is true for the Madrid and London random bombings from which, again, Europeans apparently learned little.

Israel has been the target of far more terror attacks than any European country, yet no attack has come close to the number of dead in Madrid, London and Paris. There is no guarantee that this will not happen in the future.  Israel however shows that random terrorism can be effectively limited, with vigilance, highly trained anti-terror forces, and a democratic society with the cultural ability and a sufficient sense of clear and present danger to accept, if necessary certain limitations of democratic freedoms.

Such preparedness will only come about in Europe as a consequence of further attacks. This time period may be shortened and lives saved if Europeans begin to recognize the reflection of the current Israeli reality emerging in their own countries. Yet, as indicated above, in order to implement lessons learned through Israel’s experience, Europe’s culture in dealing with terrorism has to change in a major way.