On Monday evening, an unknown driver ploughed a truck into a crowd at a Christmas market in Berlin, killing at least 12 people. Hours later, the German police arrested a suspect at the defunct Tempelhof airport, which now houses Berlin’s biggest refugee accommodation centre.
"IS aims to provoke EU member states to put even more restrictions on the number of refugees taken in from the region"
According to multiple German media outlets, the suspect is a 23-year-old migrant from Pakistan, and an alleged member of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) - although reports emerged on Tuesday afternoon that German police think they may have the wrong man.
If these reports that the attacker is an alleged member of IS prove to be true, they will underscore EUROPOL’s most recent warning that as IS loses territory in the Middle East and North Africa, the group is adopting new tactics to perpetrate attacks – both by lone actors and groups related to IS - in the EU.
Furthermore, the authors of EUROPOL’s European Counter Terrorism Centre report released earlier this month, believe that terrorists directly led by the group’s leadership – such as returning foreign fighters – may soon start executing these attacks specifically to compromise the future of Middle Eastern and North African refugees seeking a safe heaven in the EU.
Through these attacks, the group aims to capitalise on European anxiety and provoke EU member states to put even more restrictions on the number of refugees taken in from the region with the ultimate goal of generating an anti-Western sentiment among the Muslim ummah.
IS’s shifting strategy
Initially, IS’s primary goal was to seize territory in the Middle East and North Africa. The group’s involvement in terrorism was limited to attacks against Shias and other minorities living in Muslim countries where the group had a strong presence, including Syria and Iraq, or in Muslim countries neighbouring IS’s realm of influence, such as Turkey.
However, as IS loses territory in Syria, Iraq and Libya, the group’s leadership has opted for a broader strategy: the group’s leadership is encouraging its followers to perpetrate attacks against “non-believers” in Western countries, particularly against nationals of countries participating in the US-led coalition against IS, according to the report. The group is also encouraging attacks against “infidels” in other countries such as Kenya and Bangladesh.
As part of this new strategy, the group has recently increased its investment in propaganda addressed to Muslims living in the West or in Muslim areas where there are significant Western communities.
In the past, IS mainly used its media outlets to inform followers about the group’s military victories on the battleground or to enlist new recruits, but now these outlets are encouraging terrorist attacks on Westerners, a shift in the group’s strategy that poses a direct threat to EU member states – and beyond.
Two months ago, for example, IS started publishing a new magazine called Rumiyah, which is a shorter version of Dabiq, the group’s previous magazine. The new magazine is published in a variety of languages, including English and French, and encourages IS followers to perpetrate logistically simple – yet very effective – terrorist attacks against Westerners and other perceived enemies.
A special issue of Rumiyah released last month focused on how to perpetrate knife attacks. Addressed mainly at IS’s East African followers, the authors explain how to choose a knife to commit a successful terrorist attack, arguing that knives are relatively easy to conceal and use. The issue also covers how to choose potential targets.
The current threat
According to EUROPOL, in the recent past, there have been IS-related attacks in France, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, and the UK, although it is believed that the group is now focusing its efforts on all countries that are part of the US-led coalition against IS.
Most of these attacks were committed by lone actors who were inspired by IS’s narrative, but thought to be acting of their own accord without contact with the group.
Until recently, these actors typically chose symbolic targets, including EU forces, as in the case of the stabbing attack of a French police commander and his wife near Paris on 13 June 2016, and, most recently, the attack on two female police officers in Charleroi, Belgium.
More recently, following IS directives, these lone attackers have started targeting civilians while, in contrast, attacks believed to have been directed by IS’s leadership in Syria and Iraq have been exclusively aimed at civilians, aiming to cause indiscriminate mass casualties and turn Europeans against refugees from the region trying to seek asylum.
In addition to the loss of life, these attack have also had economic and political impact. IS’s ultimate goal, according to EUROPOL’s report, is to capitalise on the latter.
The unit dedicated to EU attacks
The majority of terrorist attacks perpetrated in Europe in the name of IS appear to have been masterminded and performed by individuals who were inspired by IS, and not directly related to the organisation itself, according to EUROPOL.
Yet EUROPOL’s open source intelligence suggests that IS has created a unit dedicated to planning and executing attacks in the EU. According to a former jihadist interviewed by the New York Times, at least 10 terrorist attacks against Westerners have been directed or coordinated by this special unit.
It is believed that this unit began sending its fighters abroad about two years ago, and that its fighters have entered the EU using both legal and illegal routes.
According to EUROPOL’s report, there is “no firm evidence that confirms whether or not terrorists systematically use the flow of refugees to enter Europe unnoticed”. However, the report also states that it is “indisputable that some terrorists have entered the EU posing as refugees”.
The extent of this threat is unknown. Nevertheless, the subject has already been susceptible to exaggeration and exploitation, especially by populist factions and right-wing parties that aim to further restrict the access of Middle Eastern and African refugees to the EU.
And this is precisely what IS’s leadership wants: to generate anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe that can, in turn, be used to generate anti-Western sentiment in the Middle East and North Africa.
Integration not intolerance
One major danger is the possibility of elements of the Middle Eastern and North African refugee diaspora becoming vulnerable to radicalisation once in Europe, where they might struggle to feel at home.
So it is now when we, Europeans, must continue to invest in the full integration of immigrants, and advocating against Islamophobia and racism, rather than resort to hateful rhetoric and the promotion of intolerant policies.
We must challenge IS’s intentions: we must remember that the vast majority of refugees fleeing the region do not pose a security threat. They are desperate human beings risking their lives to escape violence and economic hardship in their respective war-torn countries – as we would do if we were them.
Also, we must remember that our security services are already strengthening their collaboration to address the actual threat: returning fighters and other individuals who might be vulnerable to IS’s narrative.
Let us not make this threat bigger than it is.