Paris, Brussels, Nice and Berlin – Europe has been shaken by a string of mass casualty terrorist attacks against some of the continent’s most iconic and heavily traveled cities.
Rob Wainwright, director of Europol, is at the center of Europe’s efforts to prevent the next attack. He said Islamic terrorism represents the most serious threat that Europe has faced in over a decade.
“Its important for the public to understand just how how serious a dynamic and how volatile the threat is,” Mr. Wainwright told Handelsblatt in an interview.
Most attempted attacks are stopped before they are carried out. Rob Wainwright, Director of Europol
The picture remains fragmented, but Europol believes some 5,000 Europeans have gone to Iraq and Syria to join Islamic radical groups, many of whom have since returned to Europe.
“We are dealing with a very large community of radicalized people,” Mr. Wainwright said. “It’s a large community that is dispersed and acting in a non-connected way, almost a randomized way.”
Europe has struggled to keep tabs on violent radicals. Several perpetrators of past attacks showed up on Europe’s threat radar only to slip through law enforcement’s fingers with tragic consequences.
Abdelhamid Abaooud, the mastermind of the Paris attacks, was known to European law enforcement as a potential threat but was still able to travel between Europe and Syria.
And Turkey says it warned Belgian and Dutch authorities about Ibrahim El Bakraoui long before he blew himself up at the Brussels airport in March 2016.
Mr. Wainwright said law enforcement cooperation in Europe has improved significantly in the wake of those attacks. Security agencies provided 10 times more data to Europol in 2016, he said.
“There’s increasing evidence or confidence that authorities are getting to grips with the problem,” Mr. Wainwright said. “Most attempted attacks are stopped before they are carried out.”
Security has also been increased at Europe’s external borders in the wake of the refugee crisis. Several of the Paris attackers are suspected to have infiltrated Europe among the large influx of refugees.
Anis Amri, the Tunisian national who carried out the Berlin truck attack, entered Europe via Italy and applied for asylum in Germany in 2015. His application was rejected.
As the U.S.-led military coalition increases pressure on Islamic State, Europol anticipates that Europeans who joined jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria will start returning in increasing numbers
Counterterrorism experts have been deployed under Europol’s auspices to help Greek and Italian authorities check recently arrived migrants for people who might pose a threat.
Europol has checked 6,000 newly arrived migrants in the past five months, Mr. Wainwright said, and several leads are being followed up on. But he was quick to add that Europol has found no evidence of a systematic connection between migration and terrorist activity.
“These are not large numbers, they’re isolated cases,” Mr. Wainwright said. “Every one is an important case, but when you consider the proportion compared to all of the migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who have arrived, it’s almost zero.”
The bigger threat might come from European nationals. As the U.S.-led military coalition increases pressure on Islamic State, Europol anticipates that Europeans who joined jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria will start returning in increasing numbers, Mr. Wainwright said.
There’s a security database already in place within the borderless Schengen zone to track down potential criminals and terrorists, Mr. Wainwright said. Some 64 million alerts go out everyday and police officers and border guards used the system to make three billion checks last year, he said.
But public faith in the system has been shaken by the recent terrorist attacks. Mr. Wainwright cautioned against scrapping the current system and to build a new one from the ground up.
He said the recent security failures likely have more to do with the systems not being used properly than an inherent design flaw.
“There are European security systems available like the Schengen information system, like Europol, like the European arrest warrant that are very powerful that could be used more to guarantee better security,” Mr. Wainwright said.
Till Hoppe reports on politics for Handelsblatt, with a focus on defense, domestic policy and cyber issues. To contact the author: [email protected]