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Is Europe in terror’s grip?

An armed police officer stands at Manchester Piccadilly railway station. - Credit: Bloomberg via Getty Images

As Britain sends troops on to the streets it joins other European countries living under a state of emergency – but does the military and intelligence service response work to counter terrorism.

The horror of the Manchester attack casts a long shadow – troops on the streets, a halt to election campaigning and a heightened threat level.

But in Europe preventative actions like these have become commonplace. This is particularly true of France, which has been under a state of emergency since January 2015.

Despite a number of fatal small-scale attacks, until the attack on Manchester Britain had not seen a full-scale, sophisticated, terrorist attack since July 7, 2005, when four synchronised bombs exploded on London’s transport network, killing 52 and injuring more than 700.

But violence has stalked the continent, nonetheless.

In recent years Europe has endured a resurgence of terrorism on a scale not seen since the 1970s, but with radical Islamism the motivating force rater than ultra-leftism or national liberation movements.

The difference in modus operandi has caught governments on the hop: any response to Islamist suicide bombers must, by definition, be different to that required by attacks from the likes of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which, more often than not gave warnings of its targets.

But what kind of response is called for?

Prime Minister Theresa May is not alone in introducing stringent security measures. Following the Manchester attack, newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron has, once again, extended his country’s state of emergency, which had been set to expire in July.

Currently in France numerous people have been kept under house arrest and warrantless searches have been authorised. A military presence is also noticeable on the streets, and not just in tourist areas.

But even in France a security-led response is not considered enough to put an end to terror.

During the final televised debate of the presidential campaign Macron, who was not considered particularly strong on security, rounded on his opponent, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, saying that jihadists wanted nothing more than a Le Pen presidency that would sow discord and lead to ‘civil war’.

In doing so he was citing the writer Gilles Kepel.

Kepel, a professor at the prestigious Sciences Po university and author of Terreur dans le l’Hexagone (recently updated and published in English translation as Terror in France), writes about ‘third generation’ jihadists who owe as much to street and gang culture as they do to radical Islam.

Kepel, who has himself been threatened with murder, has said that the Islamist danger has receded to a degree, with Isis in particular trying to hold on to territory rather than plot against the West, while also organisationally hampered in the face increased cross-border security and intelligence cooperation. At home, though, Western countries like France must, he says, do more to provide opportunities for young Muslims, the majority of who want to participate in politics and society – in which case, a state of emergency cannot be the only solution.

France’s extraordinary measures have their critics: Nadim Houry, director, of the terrorism and counterterrorism programme at Human Rights Watch, described France as ‘addicted’ to its state of emergency.

He In effect, France’s state of emergency had ceased to be about security, and instead was a matter of electoral calculations, wrote Houry.

Whether Britain follows France down the road of endless emergency measures remains to be seen, and it is not yet clear if public fear outweighs Britain’s traditional sense of itself as the home of civil liberty – outside of Northern Ireland, the sight of troops on UK streets is far from familiar.

For some, though, no measure goes too far.

Writing in The Daily Express, colonel Richard Kemp, former chairman of the government’s Cobra intelligence group, demanded deportations and, in an echo of a move that intensified Irish republican violence in the 1970s, internment without trial.

As wrongheaded as Kemp’s suggestion seems, the threat of terrorism, even if often overstated, is a real one, and one Britain has been dealing with for over a decade.

Aaron Edwards, author and terrorism expert, believes Britain has worked hard in recent years to deal with the threat of terrorism, particularly radical Islamism.

‘The UK’s police and intelligence agencies have been proactive in responding to the security threat posed by Islamist inspired terrorism in recent years,’ said Edwards.

‘The UK’s counter terrorist strategy (CONTEST) is recognised in Europe and around the world as being one of the most useful planning tools in the law enforcement multi-agency response. It is reflective of the robustness of the UK’s civilian, intelligence led counter-terrorism approach that attacks have been few and far between.’

The question of whether or not it is enough remains, however. Edwards says that it is foolish to think that anything will ever put an end to terrorism.

‘As ‘CONTEST’ makes clear, we can’t defeat terrorism but we can minimise its impact,’ he said. ‘There is some talk about this being a change in tactics and other commentators saying it fits a well-established pattern. The bottom line is terrorism is about influencing the political context by manipulating the media – and social media – in a way to maximise the impact of violence. Carried out on the fourth anniversary of the death of Lee Rigby, on what are euphemistically called ‘soft targets’, at a concert where the signer has 45 million followers on Twitter. This was a deliberate disgusting attack on innocent people.

‘I don’t believe it will be the last attack sadly,’ he said.

Certainly, British authorities regularly announce that suspects have been arrested and plots foiled, though it is unclear whether these plots are well-organised potential attacks or the kind of inchoate and self-directed ‘low tech’ attacks that have become commonplace in recent years, notably in the 2016 truck attacks in Nice and Berlin.

Nonetheless, Britain’s response has certainly been more successful than that of Belgium, which was accused of incompetent policing by commentators, and even authorities, in France and Germany following the discovery that the November 2015 terrorist attacks on Paris were masterminded from Molenbeek in Brussels.

Belgium has stepped-up surveillance, and cooperation between its linguistic groups, following the March 2016 Brussels bombing that killed 32 and injured 340.

Some see Germany’s approach to terrorism as superior to that of other EU states. In 2015, the country unveiled a new anti-terrorism unit and, in recent weeks, has carried out raids arresting a number of suspected members of Isis.

On the other hand, Germany, despite the Berlin Christmas market attack and a number of small-scale incidents, has, thus far, been less of a target for radical Islamists.

Hamed El-Said of Manchester Metropolitan University has argued for some time that all of Europe’s anti-terrorism programmes are flawed.

Too much of a focus is placed on countering terrorism, he claims, and not enough on preventing it. It seems a fine distinction, but El-Said says it is not.

‘The term ‘counter’, firstly, is rather aggressive and, secondly, it does nothing to prevent. We have seen the undermining of human rights and freedom, and the upshot has been the antagonisation of communities who have become alienated,’ he told The New European.

‘In fact, prevention has not been given enough opportunity. It has not been really tried. What we have been doing is following hardcore measures such as refusing fighters who want to return, withholding passports and so on,’ he said.

El-Said’s depiction of those involved in terrorist acts is not one that many disagree with, but governments across Europe have struggled to respond.

El-Said wants to see more inter-state cooperation and a recognition of the roots of Islamist extremism.

‘They are not even very ideological. These individuals are mainly second generation immigrants to Europe and are doing badly – badly social, economically, and not doing very well in life. They speak the language of religion but their motivation is not religious. We need to create hope, to work together, as this is not an issue that any state alone can solve,’ he said.

Bill Durodie, professor of international relations at the University of Bath thinks any effective strategy to deal with the terrorist threat must be at least as political as it is military.

He said: ‘There’s a discussion about whether the individual is alone or connected. I don’t think it helps either way. If they’re alone it leads to a degree of fatalism and if they’re connected it miscasts the problem as one of a foreign ideology.

‘Neither of these addresses the question of why someone would murder children,’ he said.

The problem is, he says, working out what terrorists want is not the issue.

‘I don’t think they know what their end goal is. It’s a lashing out in rage; is that really politics? Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, claimed to have been instructed by God, but that’s just in his head,’ he said.

Despite worries about the potential politicisation of the response, Durodie believes that a genuinely political – and democratic – response would be appropriate starting with not delaying campaigning for the June 8 election.

‘People don’t wake up on a morning about to vote conservative or socialist and then change their minds after a terrorist attack – unless the terms really mean nothing,’ he said.

‘All that happens is that it clarifies the extent to which there is trust or not in the political leadership. We know that the real problem is that politics isn’t connecting with people.

‘We know this from Trump, Brexit, Macron and Le Pen. People don’t feel represented and at the very extreme fringes the result is people lashing out in rage.’

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