Tearing Up the Magna Carta
Fear risks trumping civil liberties in a Europe rattled by Islamist terrorism.
In a sense, Europe had been awaiting with dread Cherif and Said Kouachi, the French-Algerian brothers who allegedly launched a lethal shooting raid Wednesday on the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo, an irreverent French magazine that routinely lampooned sacred cows, including the Prophet Mohammed.
Fearing blowback from homegrown jihadis radicalized by foreign wars, especially the Syrian uprising, Britain, France, Germany, Spain, and several other European countries have started stepping up intelligence-sharing and passing far-reaching laws meant to strengthen counterterrorism capabilities. While Europe has struggled with domestic and Islamist terrorists for decades, the influx of trained and battle-hardened holy warriors represents a step change for European officials. In the summer of 2013, France’s then interior minister, Manuel Valls, told Foreign Policy that returning jihadis were “a ticking time bomb.”
The atrocities this week in Paris, which have now left a total of 18 dead, including the Kouachi brothers, appear poised to hasten Europe’s shift toward a tougher anti-terrorism policy. While Europe has long criticized U.S. measures to fight terrorism — such as National Security Agency data collection revealed by Edward Snowden — as invasive to privacy, European leaders have been building a draconian new counterterrorism apparatus to fight off what they fear are new threats like the Kouachi brothers, or worse.
French officials have called an emergency meeting with top security officials from the United States, U.K., Germany, Spain, and other European countries Sunday to discuss what further measures should be taken. European Council President Donald Tusk is already calling for stepped-up airport security, including a database that would allow authorities to monitor all travel in and out of Europe.
France has imposed a series of laws aimed at enhancing law enforcement agencies’ ability to monitor suspect jihadis, and to block suspected citizens from coming home. In Britain, lawmakers are weighing a controversial new counterterrorism law that could render stateless Britons merely suspected of flirting with jihad. The German government has also decided to seize the identity cards of suspected jihadis to prevent them from traveling by land through Turkey to fight in Syria.
From Portugal to Serbia, governments, often in response to pressure from the United States and the U.N. Security Council, have taken steps to make it harder for foreign fighters to join the Islamic State in Syria. From stepping up port security in Greece and monitoring airports in Cyprus to criminalizing foreign fighters in Kosovo, European officials want to make it harder for their citizens to leave the country and join militant causes — and especially to make it harder for them to return with battlefield training that can be unleashed on the streets of the Old Continent.
But Valls’s ticking time bomb exploded anyway, turning Paris this week into a scene of blood, bullet holes, and hostage standoffs, feeding fears that similar attacks could become common throughout Europe. One result of the Paris attacks is a fresh bout of introspection, as investigators who have fretted over the looming jihadi threat for the past year or more try to figure out how a pair of known, convicted holy warriors with a rap sheet of Islamist connections were able to plan and carry out the worst attacks on French soil in half a century.
The intelligence gaps seem glaring. French and American intelligence agencies have been monitoring the brothers for years. The elder Said, 34, had received training by an al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen in 2011, and met with U.S.-born preacher and ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki. Cherif, 32, was arrested in France in 2005 as he sought to join the jihad in Iraq and spent three years in jail; his story was told in a French documentary. Both brothers were on a pair of U.S. counterterrorism databases, including the no-fly list.
Europe’s spy chiefs fear the future holds even grimmer scenes. Andrew Parker, the director general of MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, said in a rare speech Thursday that the U.K. is bracing for a wave of large, high-profile al Qaeda attacks.
“We still face more complex and ambitious plots that follow the now sadly well-established approach of al Qaeda and its imitators: attempts to cause large-scale loss of life, often by attacking transport systems or iconic targets,” he said in a speech at the Royal United Services Institute. “We know, for example, that a group of core al Qaeda terrorists in Syria is planning mass casualty attacks against the West.”
Parker said that Britain’s previous experience combating the Irish Republican Army has made it clear that terror attacks can endure for long stretches. “It requires sustained long-term effort and teamwork to counter them; and that it’s unrealistic to expect every attack plan to be stopped, even where the perpetrators may in some cases have been on our radar for many years.”
Terrorism is hardly new to Europe. Domestic militant groups, from Irish Republicans to Basque nationalists to left-wing German and Italian outfits, have littered European cities with bombs and bodies for decades in pursuit of political or ideological goals.
And Europe has suffered extensively from Islamic extremists, even before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The Ayatollah Khomeini imposed a death sentence, or fatwa, on Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses in 1989. Algerian terrorists blew up the Paris metro in the 1990s, and planned to topple the Eiffel Tower with hijacked aircraft. Nearly 200 people died in an al Qaeda-linked bombing on Madrid commuter trains in 2004; a year later, 52 died in London when Islamists bombed the subway and buses. A Dutch Muslim murdered controversial filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004. And the offices of Charlie Hebdo were firebombed in 2011 after the weekly published an issue spoofing the Prophet Mohammed.
But in the wake of Syria’s civil war, which has spawned a fresh generation of trained holy warriors, Europe’s problems have grown. Since October 2013, there have been more than 20 terrorist plots carried out by extremists with experience in Syria, including a December knife attack against three French police officers by a man in Tours shouting “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great,” and the murder of four people in Brussels last May by a French returnee from Syria, according to Parker. He said that some attacks have been foiled, citing a case in which the French seized an improvised explosive device from an apartment linked to a returnee from Syria. He said that Britain has thwarted three terror plots in recent months.
To be sure, some European countries are struggling to balance tougher anti-terrorism laws with restraint and understanding. Denmark is seeking to defuse the threat of returning jihadis with counseling and job training. And in Germany, officials seem just as worried about the potential backlash by anti-immigrant group PEGIDA as the threat of a new attack.
“We do not need a race for new laws,” Germany’s justice minister, Heiko Maas, said Friday. “We need more education and dialogue with Muslims in Germany. An open and free society is the best answer to the hatred of terrorists. We must not fall into the trap of terrorists…. A limitation of our freedom and rule of law is exactly what they want to achieve.”
But for much of Europe, the Paris attacks, including Friday’s daylong hostage drama, have underscored the sense of vulnerability that was already pervading the continent.
“Across Europe, this really underscores the biggest fears the security agencies have had all along,” Shiraz Maher, a senior research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization, told Foreign Policy in a telephone interview from London. Maher said that while the Paris attack didn’t cost as many lives as previous terrorist attacks, including the 2004 Madrid bombing or the London bombing in 2005, it has played out on live television for days, multiplying the impact. “It’s prolonged the event,” he said.
This past summer, Spain’s center-right government, one that is battling raging unemployment and a shrinking economy, nonetheless declared Islamist terrorism the country’s biggest problem. “Jihadist terrorism is the gravest threat that society is facing in the 21st century,” Spanish Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Diaz said in a speech last June.
But it is in Britain that politicians have gone further than most, introducing legislation that would authorize the government to strip British jihadis of their citizenship to prevent them from re-entering the country. The new counterterrorism bill debated this past week in the House of Commons offers a bevy of new powers for the government to attack the perceived Islamist threat, from prohibiting insurers from paying ransoms to terrorists, to requiring child care staff to report children seen at danger of becoming terrorists.
Critics, including Britain’s counterterrorism policy watchdog, David Anderson, have raised concerns that the foreign-fighter provision would effectively strip alleged jihadis of their citizenship, making them stateless, without any legal recourse.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg warned Tuesday that the legislation would be defeated in Parliament without further safeguards to protect the accused, such as judicial oversight of the so-called temporary exclusion orders. The Paris attack quickly became part of the debate, with Clegg accusing right-wing Euroskeptic parties of using the tragedy to gain political points and stir up anti-immigrant sentiment.
“I think it’s a real disgrace that Britain is doing that,” said Maher of the Center for the Study of Radicalization. “This is not the way we should be going about this.”
Justine Drennan contributed to this report.
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Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch