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FLASH ALERT: HIGH RISK OF RADICAL ISLAMIST TERROR ATTACKS AND RETALIATORY ISLAMOPHOBIC ATTACKS

April 25, 2021 | EUCOM

Police Officers patrolling the streets in France.[1]


CTG’s EUCOM Team is issuing a FLASH ALERT for Government, Law Enforcement, and Military Officials primarily in Western and Central Europe regarding potential Islamic extremist attacks and retaliatory Islamophobic attacks during the month of Ramadan. This alert extends as far as churches, mosques, synagogues, and civilians who may be targeted in jihadist and Islamophobic attacks. Given the rise of secularism in Western Europe over the past few years and the gradual easing of COVID-19 parameters across Europe, it is HIGHLY LIKELY that Islamist extremists will plan and enact attacks across European states during the month of Ramadan, ending around May 12, 2021. It is also HIGHLY LIKELY that Muslims will experience retaliatory attacks due to perceptions of all Muslims being extremists.


On April 23, a police officer was stabbed to death outside of a police station in Rambouillet, France. The perpetrator of the attack was a 37-year-old Tunisian, who was killed following the attack. According to evidence found on his mobile phone, the attacker observed the police station beforehand and listened to nasheeds, religious chants often referencing Islamic beliefs, history, and religion, and called for “jihad” immediately preceding the attack.[2] Witnesses claim the man said, “Allahu akbar” which is Arabic for “God is great” during the attack. According to anti-terrorism prosecutor Jean-Francois Ricard, the man had no apparent criminal record or evidence of radicalization. Ricard stressed that investigations remain ongoing in close coordination with Tunisian judicial authorities to determine if others were involved in aiding the perpetrator or to determine if said people inspired the suspect to carry out the attack.[3]


The Islamic month of Ramadan is celebrated by Muslims worldwide during which they observe strict fasting from sunrise to sunset as a means to become closer to God (Allah). In Islam, the month of Ramadan is considered holiest as it marks when Allah gave the first chapters of the Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad. Ramadan, which is meant to promote prayer and reflection within the Muslim community, continues to be perverted by radical Islamic factions like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), who have declared the holy month as a “month of conquests.”[4] In particular, the Friday following the tenth day of Ramadan is the most likely day for attacks to take place as it is believed to be the first victory for the armies of the prophet Muhammed. It is thus common for jihadi extremists to plan an attack on that day, and that is likely why the Rambouillet attack occurred on April 23, which was the first Friday after the tenth day of Ramadan. Islamic extremists view Ramadan as a time to enact violence in the name of Allah and consider giving their lives for the mission of jihad as the ultimate act of devotion during this holy time of "sacrifice and renunciation.’”[5]


Globally, the average number of attacks during Ramadan is fifteen percent higher than the remainder of the year.[6] Although other radical Islamists promote violence during the month, ISIS may be considered the most credible threat to Western civilizations, including Europe, during Ramadan, despite the dismantling of their caliphate in 2017. From 2016 to 2020, ISIS has taken responsibility for multiple attacks during Ramadan, including the 2016 Magnanville stabbing involving the death of a police officer and his wife, the 2017 London Bridge attack, the 2018 Liège attack involving the death of two police officers, and the 2019 Lyon bombing.[7]


With the loss of their territory, ISIS leadership and splinter groups encouraged recruits to stay within their own countries and fight jihad domestically. As they refocused their propaganda and training online, recruitment became well-suited to the spread of COVID-19 and lockdowns. Their message became more prophetic since the pandemic was seen as a sign of “retribution for ‘crusader nations’” who had taken part in the dismantling of ISIS.[8] The increased time spent online due to COVID-19 lockdowns makes it MORE LIKELY that individuals have been exposed to and radicalized by ISIS ideology over a long period. Coinciding with Ramadan, the current lifting of lockdowns across Europe has made public spaces more accessible as individuals who have felt forcibly socially isolated look to take advantage of meeting in larger groups. With a greater array of targets and a lesser chance of being put on law enforcement’s radar for breaking COVID-19 restrictions, lone radicalized individuals have preferable conditions to carry out both small and large scale attacks with any readily available weapon at their disposal like a knife, as seen in the Rambouillet attack, or a vehicle.


The past decade of Islamic extremist attacks has pushed European political parties to propose legislation that enforces stricter secularist parameters. Several European countries, such as Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, and Denmark, have enacted statewide face-covering bans that disproportionately target Muslims, as some devout Muslim women choose to wear the burqa and niqab. The Swiss People’s Party (SVP) openly pushed for a burqa ban to further the party’s objectives to denounce Muslims in Switzerland. A recent amendment was approved by the Senate for the French “anti-separatism” law that proposed no one under the age of 18 can wear a hijab in public spaces.[9] These proposals were enacted to promote security and secularism, however, these policies can help foster a perception that Muslim culture cannot be a part of European culture, leading to a sense of othering and separation from European society. This separation, especially in an isolated period like the COVID-19 pandemic, can lead Muslims to feel as though they cannot be themselves within European society for fear that the rest of the population will ostracize or commit violence against them because of the misguided belief that Muslims are at more risk of becoming radicalized and committing terror attacks. While these secular enactments may have clearer consequences on how the Muslim population goes about their daily activities, the unseen effect of such legislation is the vicious cycle of an “us versus them” mentality, leading to a potential rise in Islamophobia, create a more tumultuous environment for peaceful Muslims to live in, and a more internally fractured Europe causing both the European Union and United Kingdom; this would cause them to lose focus and power in the international realm as they battle internally to maintain order and stability.


These recent developments and attacks are fueling pointed anti-Muslim political rhetoric and increasing polarization within European societies as negative public sentiments surrounding Islam continue to grow throughout Europe. Far-right political parties throughout Europe are pushing for certain bills and legislation in an effort to advance European nationalist-based objectives, such as maintaining secularism and limiting expression of other cultures in the public sphere. If such extreme, nationalistic policies become ratified into law, the ramifications would be that all of those who do not fit the stereotypical European mold become ostracized, and othered by the government who is meant to protect and serve all citizens regardless of religion or race. On April 11, a mosque and a Muslim cultural center in Rennes, France, was graffitied with insults to Islam and calls for the rebirth of the Crusades.[10] On April 21, a letter signed by one thousand largely retired military personnel, which was quickly rebuked by the French government, warning of an impending civil war because of Islamism and large immigrant communities threatening the French way of life.[11] The ostracization of Muslims sets the stage for Islamist extremist groups to potentially exploit anti-Muslim political and cultural rhetoric by framing the narratives as being representative of every Western government and individual. These groups can stir animosity towards the West by elevating these anti-Muslim voices in propaganda to more effectively calling for violence against all Europeans. As the polarization within European society escalates, it is HIGHLY LIKELY that individuals who sympathize with far-right, Islamophobic, or Islamic extremist views will use these narratives as a way to justify a mobilization towards violence.


Despite the best efforts of security agencies, potential lone-wolf perpetrators remain challenging to identify and adequately surveil for extended periods of time. As perpetrators’ characteristics shift from isolated cells with practical training experience abroad to individuals absorbed with manifestos and how-to guides online, carrying out attacks requires less coordination and communication. Thus, when these attacks occur, political blame casting increases regarding whether the party in power has done enough to protect citizens from Islamic extremists. This becomes even more pertinent when elections approach as right-wing opposition parties charge the incumbent party with negligence. These parties generally identify with nationalism and xenophobia to promote anti-immigrant, pro-ethnocentric views, which are best highlighted when a Muslim, non-white, immigrant perpetrates the attack. Conversely, the incumbent party works to defend its record by enacting legislation that will supposedly work to solve the radical Islam problem, as seen in the increased push to implement burqa bans. This blaming is detrimental to states long term because it incentivizes the incumbent party to pursue a policy that is disproportionate to the attack and commit excessive resources for the primary purpose of publicizing the actions the incumbent party took to defend the public during an election season.


As French citizens prepare to vote in the April 2022 Presidential election, French political parties will almost certainly emphasize security in their agendas, as a recent poll indicated that “security concerns” were the second most pressing topic for French citizens following the pandemic, and concerns over national security had jumped 26 points since May 2020.[12] With the approach of general, parliamentary, and presidential elections across other European states in the next year, including Germany, Denmark, Austria, and Sweden, the ability of the incumbent party to protect the citizenry will likely be highly politicized as a voting tactic.[13] If the incumbent party fails in persuading the general public that they can complete this task, this will allow more fringe, right-wing political groups to gain positions and push the state of security towards a more anti-immigrant, pro-ethnocentric view, creating further tensions within the population.


The targeting of police by radical Islamic extremists enhances the argument that law enforcement does not receive enough support from the incumbent party, as the government did not provide enough resources to protect the public servants who risk their lives daily. Because supporting police and first responders is typically seen as an essential function of government, both the incumbent and challenging parties will likely do their utmost to highlight their support for these groups and lobby for support from them. The Rambouillet attack occurred as President Macron’s government attempted to pass legislation to support police operations after numerous complaints from police unions were filed, stating that officers faced increasing dangers without the proper resources to address the issues. One such measure proposed by the new legislation aimed to restrict recording or taking photos of police officers so that they are unidentifiable by the general public, which resulted in a significant public backlash in protests and riots at the end of last year.[14] Given the risk officers face concerning jihadi extremists, it remains LIKELY that other European governments will look to enact similar policies so that their police forces will be more secure.


Despite the significant danger the public and law enforcement face from jihadi attacks, the reaction to the attacks could be considered equally concerning. The willingness by politicians to disregard civil liberties for a more secure state has the potential to increase animosity towards law enforcement and government, just as it did with the French Parliament’s proposal to prohibit the visual documentation of the police. Jihadist attacks work doubly by striking fear within the local population to make them more cautious when doing everyday activities, while also stirring discord between citizens and their governments. The essential mission of extremist jihad remains to fight a holy war against non-believers, and a strong component of this is to fight a war on the West and its liberal ideologies, which are antithetical to strict Salafist doctrines.[15] When governments choose to enact legislation that diminishes the rights of their citizens, the mission of extremists’ jihad becomes even more successful as it enhances distrust between citizens and their government and promotes the polarization of political parties. With the current approach by many European governments in navigating the place of Islam in the public space and the politicization of jihadi attacks for votes, any further attacks will MOST LIKELY result in increased rhetoric and proposed legislation in favor of enhancing security at the cost of protecting civil liberties.


RECOMMENDATIONS


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) assesses that the current threat of Islamic extremist attacks during the month of Ramadan is HIGH. The European Command (EUCOM) team recommends that European intelligence agencies and police forces remain vigilant from now until the end of Ramadan. Law enforcement remains a desirable target of jihadi extremist attacks making the risk factor of that group HIGH, along with churches, synagogues, and temples, because jihadi extremists believe they are filled with the most infidels and are now beginning to return to more regular services. However, European intelligence agencies and police forces should also remain vigilant against potential retaliatory attacks stemming from an Islamophobic backlash to any Islamic extremist attack. This is especially relevant as mosques are also beginning to return to normal services and given the sacredness of Ramadan, it is HIGHLY LIKELY that mosques will be filled to capacity.


EUCOM advises monitoring extremist activity on social media and paying close attention to violent rhetoric regarding radicalist ideologies and jihadist activities in the European region. It is evident the internet contributes to the increased circulation of extremist content and places vulnerable people, such as young adults, at risk of being influenced and radicalized by networks such as ISIS. It is essential that the cybersecurity wings of government and private security companies keep a close watch on the online activities of supporters of extremist groups and sympathizers of such groups. They should work on preventing vulnerable people from following the path towards violent extremism. European counterterrorism organizations should continue operating during the COVID-19 crisis and the month of Ramadan to prevent terrorist organizations from seizing an opportunity for increased recruitment of extremist sympathizers and revenue flow.

[1]Police-IMG 4105.jpg” by Rama, licensed under Wikimedia Creative Commons

[2] Fifth person detained after fatal stabbing at French police station, France 24, April 2021 https://www.france24.com/en/france/20210425-fifth-person-detained-after-fatal-stabbing-at-french-police-station

[3] Ibid.

[4] Why so-called Islamic State chooses to bomb during Ramadan, BBC, July 2016, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-36703874

[5] What Is Ramadan? LiveScience, May 2018 https://www.livescience.com/61815-what-is-ramadan.html

[6] The Holy Month of Jihad? Measuring Terrorist Activity During Ramadan in the Post-9/11 Era, Small War Journal, April 2018 https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/holy-month-jihad-measuring-terrorist-activity-during-ramadan-post-911-era

[7] The Holy Month of Jihad? Measuring Terrorist Activity During Ramadan in the Post-9/11 Era, Small War Journal, April 2018 https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/holy-month-jihad-measuring-terrorist-activity-during-ramadan-post-911-era

[8] With the World Busy Fighting COVID-19, Could ISIS Mount a Resurgence? Time, April 2020 https://time.com/5828630/isis-coronavirus/

[9] French Senate Voted To Ban The Hijab For Minors In A Plea By The Conservative Right, NPR, April 2021 https://www.npr.org/2021/04/08/985475584/french-senate-voted-to-ban-the-hijab-for-minors-in-a-plea-by-the-conservative-ri

[10] France: Minister calls for security at mosques after attack, Al Jazeera, April 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/4/12/french-interior-minister-tightens-mosque-security-after-attack

[11] Ex-generals face sanctions after they warn of 'civil war' in France, France24, April 2021, https://www.france24.com/en/france/20210428-ex-generals-spark-backlash-as-they-warn-of-civil-war-in-france

[12] SONDAGE. Pour 86% des Français, la lutte contre l'insécurité sera importante dans leur vote en 2022, Le Journal du Dimanche, April 2021, https://www.lejdd.fr/Politique/sondage-pour-86-des-francais-la-lutte-contre-linsecurite-sera-importante-dans-leur-vote-en-2022-4040738 (translated by Kaitlyn Vlahoulis)

[13] European elections to watch in 2021, Politico, January 2021, https://www.politico.eu/article/2021-elections-to-watch-europe/

[14] Uproar in France over proposed limits on filming police, AP News, November 2020 https://apnews.com/article/race-and-ethnicity-police-paris-france-police-brutality-5bd3fbcaa92dcd7658f5047d03d89f56

[15] Islamism, Salafism, and jihadism: A primer, Brookings Institution, July 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/markaz/2016/07/15/islamism-salafism-and-jihadism-a-primer/

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