News analysis

Anyone, anywhere can be a terror target

ISIS ramps up war on Europe, with random amateur attacks testing security services

BERLIN • The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's (ISIS') war on Europe seems to have entered a dangerous new phase, evolving from highly coordinated operations on the grand boulevards of Paris and Brussels to amateur assaults in the hinterlands that have suddenly turned anyone, anywhere into a target.

The rapid-fire nature of the attacks in Europe over the past two weeks is confounding European intelligence agencies, at times turning terrorism response into a ground war fought by already stretched local police forces.

Following the latest attack - the brutal slaying on Tuesday of a small-town priest in France - the violence has felt almost like the start of the uprising that ISIS has been attempting to spark among its sympathisers in the West for years.

The attackers have included mentally disturbed individuals inspired by the extremist group. But other assailants may have maintained at least indirect contact with ISIS.

Adding to the chaos, there have been two additional highly violent attacks in Europe by assailants with no definable political motive at all, including an Iranian-German teen who went on a shooting rampage in Munich.

In France, security services are largely focused on Paris, which is a challenge, given the new pattern of attacks. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

The four attacks in two weeks claimed by the ISIS - two in Germany and two in France, including the slaying of the priest - have been terrifyingly different.

The assailants' weapons: a truck, an axe, a knife and a bomb.

Their victims: revellers enjoying Bastille Day fireworks, commuters on a Bavarian train, bystanders at a music festival and the priest.

The locations: from small towns to the major city of Nice.

The randomness of the attacks, experts say, is making it even more difficult for security services because the potential targets are virtually limitless, as are the means and the profiles of perpetrators.

"It's a mass diffusion of the phenomenon, and it's quite worrying," said Mr Raffaello Pantucci, a terrorism expert at London's Royal United Services Institute.

"If it's happening in remote villages... what does that say for the levels of policing you're going to need across the country?"

If there is any pattern, it may lie in what Ms Rita Katz, director of the United States-based SITE Intelligence Group, described as an intensification of ISIS' long-standing effort to prompt violent acts by its sympathisers in the West.

She said her group, which monitors extremist activity on social media, has detected an increase in ISIS' output since May.

"Calls for 'lone wolf' attacks from ISIS have increased in the West dramatically," she said.

The group is also seeking out new niches.

She noted, for instance, that the number of ISIS social media and other messages in Portuguese has surged in the two months ahead of the Olympic Games, which start on Aug 5 in Brazil.

A US counterterrorism official said some recent attacks appear to involve ISIS affiliates while others do not.

"On one end, individuals are inspired by ISIL's narrative and propaganda, and on the other end, ISIL members are giving operatives direct guidance," said the official, using another acronym for ISIS and speaking on condition of anonymity.

The new pattern is spreading fear in Europe, particularly in enclaves far from capitals. It is also severely testing security services. Mr Rainer Wendt, federal chairman of the German Police Union, said: "We need at least 20,000 additional police officers, but even that won't do."

There are other challenges in countries such as France, where police forces were reduced several years ago because of spending cuts and a desire to streamline a complex array of law enforcement agencies. Also, security services are largely focused on Paris - where the majority of the roughly 10,000 soldiers deployed in the country's counterterrorism operation are based. Also a problem is that government agencies do not coordinate across jurisdictional lines.

Mr Pantucci said it was too soon to know whether the surge of attacks is part of a larger plan by extremist groups.

Even if it's not, he said, that too could be worrying: Recent attacks may be the work of copycat killers.

"They realise, 'I don't have to be in an extremist community. I can just do something and decide that I'm part of a broader cause'," he said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 28, 2016, with the headline 'Anyone, anywhere can be a terror target'. Print Edition | Subscribe