Terrorist attacks in France and Vienna underlines enduring threat facing Europe
For much of 2020, the threat of terrorism appeared to fall by the wayside as the world focused on the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. While the virus justifiably occupied the attention of policymakers, terrorists did not go underground. Attacks by groups around the globe continued. Last month, terrorism returned to headlines in the West with a series of attacks in France.
Brutality on the Streets of Paris
On 16 October 2020, high school teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded in a Paris street. The attack came after he showed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo during a lesson on freedom of expression. A terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in 2015 left 17 dead. The father of one of the students in the class called for Paty’s ouster on social media and had published a YouTube video condemning the teacher a few days before the attack, prosecutors said.
The perpetrator, identified as Abdoulakh A., was shot dead by French police shortly after the attack. An 18-year-old Russian refugee of Chechen descent, he was said to have IS connections. He claimed responsibility for the attack and shared a video online. On 25 September, another youth had stabbed two people near the former offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The victims survived. The attack came as the suspects in the 2015 Charlie Hebdo assault were on trial. Due to the location and timing of the attack, authorities considered it an act of terrorism. Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin called it “Islamist terrorism”. The suspect was arrested shortly after the attack. He reportedly had arrived in France three years previously as an unaccompanied minor from Pakistan.
Another Attack in Nice
France suffered another terrorist attack before October was over. On 29 October, a lone attacker, who reportedly shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest), killed three people in a knife attack at the Notre Dame Basilica in Nice in southern France. The attack inside the church lasted less than 30 minutes and took place before the first mass of the day.
The suspect was identified as 21-year-old Tunisian national, Brahim Aioussaoi, who had arrived in France earlier in the month with a document issued by the Italian Red Cross. He had apparently traveled by boat from Tunisia to the Italian island of Lampedusa in September. After coronavirus quarantine he was released and ordered to leave Italy. As with much of Europe, he was able to purchase knives (a foot-long blade and two spare knives were found on him) and cellphones and take advantage of asylum provisions. Police did not immediately suggest a motive for the attack. However, it came after days of protests in some Muslim-majority countries after President Emmanuel Macron defended the publication of cartoons showing the Prophet Muhammad. Depictions of the prophet are offensive to Muslims because Islamic tradition forbids imagery of Muhammad and Allah.
Nice is no stranger to terrorist mass murder. On 14 July 2016 — Bastille Day, the French national holiday — a Tunisian drove a truck at full speed into crowds in the main street, killing 86.
Elsewhere on 29 October, a man who threatened police with a handgun was shot dead in Montfavet near the southern French city of Avignon and a guard was attacked outside the French consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Macron quickly designated the assault in Nice as an “Islamist terrorist attack” and ordered the deployment of an extra 4,000 troops to protect churches and schools in addition to the 3,000 already stationed outside sensitive venues. In support of the president, the French Bishop’s Council said that the three victims were targeted “because they were inside the Basilica”. In addition, the terrorist threat level in France was raised to “emergency” — its highest level.
The French president had angered Muslim countries by describing the domestic threat as “Islamist separatism,” among them NATO ally Turkey. Ankara threatened to boycott French goods after Macron’s comments. Following the Paty beheading, the French government carried out a series of raids and sought to deport Muslims on police files. Some observers believe Macron is positioning himself further to the right heading into a presidential campaign, to counter support for far-right candidate Marine le Pen.
Violence in Vienna
Terror in Europe did not end there. On 02 November, four people were killed and 22 wounded in a series of shootings by a gunman in Vienna, the Austrian capital, which had previously avoided the scourge of terrorism that has struck other major European cities. Described by authorities as a jihadist-inspired attack, a 20-year-old IS supporter, Fejzulai Kujtim, was shot dead by police close to the city’s central synagogue. Born in Austria of Macedonian descent, he had been released early from jail the previous December after being sentenced in April 2019 for trying to join IS in Syria.
Austrian authorities shut down a mosque and an Islamic association frequented by the perpetrator. Caution was noted to prevent what Integration Minister Susanne Raab called “the goal of terrorism … to drive a wedge into our society between Muslims and non-Muslims.” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz avoided aiming his ire at Muslims, saying: “Our enemy is extremists and terrorists.”
A Fatal Intelligence Failure
The attack confirmed the vital role of intelligence in combating terrorism. Days after the assault, Erich Zwettler, the head of the Viennese Office for Protection of the Constitution and Anti-Terrorism, was suspended at his own request after intelligence failures were revealed. Authorities said that intelligence provided by Slovakia in July, where the attacker had attempted to buy ammunition, had been mishandled. Many such attacks are initially seen as committed by “lone wolves.” This is rarely the case: there is usually a small network supporting an attacker. Officials said that Kujtim had met two people from Germany who were also under investigation and had contact with other individuals already under surveillance.
Following the attacks in France and Austria, the U.K. raised its terror threat level from “substantial” to “severe,” meaning an attack was judged to be “highly likely”. According to MI5, the terrorist threat from ISIS “persists at scale.” The agency’s new head, Ken McCallum, warned in October that tens of thousands of IS followers “at any given moment might be mobilizing towards attacks.” In terms of tracking their movements, he emphasized that “having someone ‘on our radar’ is not the same as having them under detailed real-time scrutiny”.
Terrorism continues to threaten societies around the world. From right-wing ethnonationalists to militant Islamists and beyond, adherents seek to implement their worldviews through violence. The latest attacks in Europe illustrate the difficulty authorities have in monitoring and responding to potential threats. In the case of the Vienna attacks, the mishandling of intelligence prevented security forces from potentially averting the deadly assault.
The COVID-19 pandemic has not stopped terrorist activity. While fewer attacks may have been attempted due to national lockdowns, influence operations online have increased. IS and other extremists have taken advantage of the situation to spread conspiracy theories, incite mistrust in governments and recruit new followers. This online radicalization is a serious threat. As noted by CNN reported Nick Paton Walsh, it can be “a 24-hours turn from a sedentary ISIS internet fanboy into a hire-car driver mounting the curb with a machete.”