Special forces in France, Belgium, Germany and Britain have begun arresting people suspected of planning attacks or belonging to dozens of jihadist cells on the Continent.
The move comes after the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper and the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in Paris earlier this month. Still, many politicians are playing down the magnitude of the problem.
The balancing act is delicate amid the large immigrant communities, concerns about a rise in Islamophobia, which in turn buoys the extreme right, and major cuts to security forces due to Europe’s slow economic growth. As a result, not enough has been done until now, critics say.
In Berlin, police have arrested fundraisers and volunteers for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
In Paris and its suburbs, suspected terrorists have been arrested, while in Belgium an attack was averted at the last minute after a terror cell was uncovered. Police in the Netherlands and Spain have also increased the surveillance of suspects, including those who have recently returned from the internecine fighting in Syria and Iraq.
Meanwhile, protection has been beefed up around government institutions, police stations and embassies. In the Netherlands and Belgium, Jewish schools remained closed on Friday, and at others in France and Britain security has been increased.
Yesterday saw armed soldiers patrolling Antwerp’s diamond district, a heavily Jewish area, and another force was stationed near the Jewish Museum in central Brussels.
“The threats are very serious, more complex than in the past, and action must be taken more quickly and strongly,” the European Union’s counterterrorism coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, told the French-language Belgian daily Le Soir.
According to de Kerchove, part of the problem are the extremists who have not gone abroad to fight with terror organizations and who do not have direct links to terror groups at home.
“That, by the way, is the method Al-Qaida in Yemen – to draft young people from afar and put them into action,” he said.
De Kerchove says another worry is what he calls global competition among terror groups. While Al-Qaida is losing prestige to the Islamic State, Al-Qaida “is investing special efforts in attacks on the continent to prove that it is still in the game.”
Governments in Europe, particularly in France, Belgium and Spain, are feverishly debating the constitutionality of actions against jihadists returning from Syria.
Among the suggestions are annulling the EU citizenship of people who hold another passport; citizens of Morocco, Algeria or Turkey, for example. Or perhaps passports could be confiscated from people suspected of seeking to travel to Syria or Iraq to join the fighting there. Or perhaps electronic bracelets could be required in certain cases.
Also under discussion are harsher penalties for people who recruit jihadist volunteers, as well as special surveillance in prisons with a reputation for cultivating terrorists.
These actions represent a complete reversal of Europe’s approach to the issue. In the past, parties in the European Parliament have blocked legislation against young Muslims who travel to Syria. Some regard such young people – as bizarre as it may sound to some – as “volunteers going to war against the dictator [Syrian President Bashar] Assad, like the volunteers in the Spanish Civil War.”
Contrary to reports in the European media, police officials in Belgium say that despite intelligence cooperation and consultations among countries in the fight against terror, the latest actions are being conducted independently in Belgium, France and Germany.
But at the end of the week it was reported that the investigation of the Paris attacks has branched out to Spain, where police are investigating the fact that Amedy Coulibaly, who attacked the kosher supermarket, had been in Madrid a short time before he acted in France. The Spaniards fear that Coulibaly had links to a local jihadist cell.
Concerns that thwarting the attacks in Belgium could rouse other terror cells to action has led the Belgian government to send the army into the big cities to protect sensitive institutions. Prime Minister Charles Michel and Interior Minister Jan Jambon, who is responsible for domestic security, confirmed that two special-forces battalions have been sent into the cities, working under the command of local police forces.
Following a police raid on a jihadist terror cell in the city of Verviers, it was revealed that the terrorists had obtained police uniforms and were poised to attack police stations and police on the street, disguised as police themselves. The Belgian newspaper Sudpresse has reported that a sensitive investigation is under way into Muslim police officers who recently became religious extremists and may have helped terrorists.
Meanwhile, controversy erupted in the Brussels Jewish community after a local rabbi, Menachem Margolin, who also heads the Rabbinical Center of Europe, told a Jewish news agency that Jewish teachers should be armed with handguns and that the authorities should “be lenient in granting permits for this.”
The head of Belgium’s Jewish community, Prof. Maurice Sosnowksi, called the remarks “irresponsible and ridiculous.”