17 November 2016

A year after Paris attacks, Europe’s extremism problem shows no signs of going away

Rick Noack and Jennifer Amur
November 14, 2016

A year after Paris attacks, Europe’s extremism problem shows no signs of going away

PARIS — In a series of attacks on “precisely chosen targets,” nine Islamic State militants wrought devastation in Paris on Nov. 13, 2015, killing at least 130 people.

A year later, the world is still grappling with violence exported from Iraq and Syria and carried out by those influenced by the missive to build an Islamic caliphate, even as the group’s footprint shrinks.

How did Europe get to this point? And why is it so hard for authorities to stop it? This is a look back at The Post’s reporting on a year of attacks, and an attempt to explain how we got there.

How it began

The attacks in Paris began at just after 9 p.m. Nov. 13, a Friday night that began like any other. More than 80,000 packed the Stade de France to watch the French national soccer team take on Germany. The City of Love, home to 2.2 million, was bustling.

Most of the dead were killed at the Bataclan concert hall, a Paris landmark where the Eagles of Death Metal, an American band, was performing. Cléophée Demoustier and Kevin Sullivan reported for The Post days after the attack:

Louis H., 26, said he sometimes works as a technician at the club, but Friday night he went as a spectator, taking his mother to see the California-based rock band, Eagles of Death Metal.

About 9:40, he said he heard what sounded like firecrackers coming from the entrance at the rear of the hall.

“Then a lot of people started screaming, I realized something was wrong,” Louis said. “The band stopped playing and the lights went on. Some people were on the ground, some of them were running.”

He and his mother had been in the “theater pit,” a standing-room area in front of the stage, when the shooting started. He said he grabbed his mother and pinned her to the floor, using his arms to try to protect her head.

“We were lying down on the floor, trying not to move, pretending we were dead,” he said. “Meanwhile, we could hear gunshots, screaming, and the gunmen reloading their weapons. I did not look at them. This was the last thing I wanted to do. Looking at them would have increased my chances of dying.”

Twenty minutes before gunmen entered the Bataclan, a suicide bomber blew himself up, killing a passerby outside the Stade de France. Gunmen killed 39 at three different eateries across the city.

An anxious Europe

Young survivors from the Bataclan struggled for months to recover.

Alexis LeBrun, who survived the terrorist attack on the Bataclan Theater, says it took him a long time to go to another concert. The coordinated terrorist attacks across Paris on Nov. 13, 2015, killed 130 people and raised questions about the effectiveness of France’s counterrorism strategies. Students from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism spoke with French millennials during a time of uncertainty in their country. The Washington Post in partnership with Medill produced this video series. Young voices in Paris: Terrorism and its effects (The Washington Post)

“You will not have my hate,” many Europeans declared on social media following the attacks, in a message directed toward the Islamic State. On talk shows all across the continent, anchors and experts cited numbers that average citizens were still more likely to drown than to be killed in an attack.

The message of European authorities and leaders was and continues to be: The attacks won’t change the way we go about our daily lives. But they did.

Within months, Europe had turned into an anxious continent. It was what the Islamic State had hoped for, terrorism researchers warned.

Even now, almost 50 percent of the French population thinks about the Paris attacks once a week. About half of all French believe it would be worth giving up some civil liberties to stop future attacks.

Europe was not the only continent affected by the Islamic State, of course.

In total, the group has killed thousands of civilians across the globe since that day in November; hundreds have died in the West in attacks that dominate headlines for days, but many more have died in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia as the group’s footprint dwindles in Iraq and Syria.

What Europe did not know at that point back in November was that attacks would soon resume there, as well.

Europe under attack: The new state of normal?

In the U.S., the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a June attack on a gay nightclub in Florida that killed 49 people. In Europe, at least 30 people were killed in Brussels in March in two attacks, a suicide attack at a metro station and a double suicide attack at the Brussels airport. And in July, 86 people were killed in Nice when an Islamic State attacker plowed a truck through throngs of people on a busy promenade at the city's Bastille Day festival.

“ISIS has specifically called for its supporters to use any means conceivable to cause as much devastation as possible,” said Rachel Bryson, a researcher who focuses on religion and geopolitics. “The nature of these kind of attacks make them hard to prevent, they are sporadic and use objects that can be easily sourced.”

To Europeans, it is a disturbing new state of normal. When Kristen Gunderson, a D.C. native living in Nice, was finally able to leave the building from where she had watched the Bastille holiday fireworks in July, more than 80 dead people lay on the street in front of her. An empty baby carriage was standing on the street.

In July, there was little left of the unity people in Paris and Brussels had shown months earlier. Days later, France’s national motto “liberty, equality, fraternity” blinked on an illuminated traffic sign – but next to it, residents had enraged conversations whether all Muslims were to blame for the attack.

“The other times, there had been a lot of support. There was less of that support this time,“ Gunderson said in a phone interview.

Europe’s flawed security measures

When the Paris attacks started on Nov. 13, Europe had struggled for almost two years already to find an appropriate response to a growing problem. At that time, thousands of Europeans had already joined the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

The countries most affected were bigger ones such as France, Germany and Britain. Measured by how many recruits per capita left for Syria and Iraq, however, Belgium, Denmark and Austria also ranked on top.

As the Islamic State is now edged out of its strongholds in Iraq and parts of Syria, European leaders are bracing for a possible overflow of fighters back to Europe. Hundreds of fighters are already believed to have returned.

A little-noticed leak of documents recently documented hundreds of fighters who came back to Europe as early as 2014. The Islamic State appears to have kept track of the details of some the returning fighters, including reasons for the departure.

Meanwhile, European intelligence agencies still struggle to keep up. The number of arrests has risen sharply, but many returnees have so far escaped punishment, partially due to a lack of evidence of what exactly they did in Syria or Iraq.

"There still is no police force which is allowed to conduct investigations across European borders,” said Nils Duqet, a Brussels-based researcher. For many European agencies, the November attacks in Paris were nevertheless a wake-up call. Previously, they had mostly refrained from even sharing data on foreign fighters.

That changed after one of the key suspects, Belgium-born Salah Abdeslam, was able to escape despite being stopped at a police control in France following Nov. 13. Much of Europe is part of the so-called Schengen area without border controls. A benefit for tourists and business travelers, it has also enabled militants to easily move between countries.

The Schengen area also facilitates illegal weapons trafficking. “Smugglers enter the European Union through Slovenia or Croatia. The moment they cross that border, there are basically no obstacles anymore on the way to Western Europe.”

Within Europe, flaws in the security apparatus have caused rifts. "If you look at the recent attacks you will see that there were clues,“ said Sir David Omand, a former director of British intelligence service GCHQ who developed Britain’s counter-terrorism strategy. "If the British way of collecting and analyzing had been in place all over Europe, then perhaps some of those attacks would have been prevented,” he said, implying that other countries should learn from Britain.

Amid the absence of a coordinated European counter-terrorism strategy, the Islamic State’s methods in Europe follow a systematic pattern aimed at creating religious tensions. It’s a strategy that appears to have worked: Unfavorable views of Muslims are on the rise across Europe.

The Islamic State also deliberately attracts members and recruits who would not be accepted by other militant organizations. By doing so, the group has attracted so many sympathizers in Europe that it has become impossible for law enforcement agencies to track all or even most of them.

France, for instance, would need all of its police officers to monitor all terrorism suspects in the country 24/7. “There are too many suspects to monitor them using traditional methods,” said Omand.

Perhaps as worrisome, many ISIS fighters used to be petty or violent criminals. They may pose the biggest threat to Europe, experts say.

“There is a lot of cooperation between criminals and radicals here in Belgium,” said El Boudaati Moad, a social worker who tries to prevent youths from joining ISIS. “Former criminals who return to Europe are particularly dangerous because they can rely on a network to buy weapons or make bombs. It’s a disturbing combination.”

Experts say that “lone-wolf’" attacks are disturbingly easy to carry out – and cheap. "It is sufficient to have a normal salary or to receive unemployment benefits to pay for it," explained Tom Keatinge, the director of London's Center for Financial Crime and Security Studies.

Belgian social worker Moad had an equally pessimistic prediction for the future: "There will be more attacks.”

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