Ten year anniversary of Madrid bombings: Al-Qaeda still aims at Europe

What is different after 10 years, how important target is Europe after 10 years for Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda inspired groups?

Edwin BakkerProfessor, Director Centre for Terrorism & Counter Terrorism, Leiden University

What is different after 10 years: positive: awareness of the terrorist threat has grown and there is more international cooperation and exchange of lessons learned. Partly thanks to the EU CT coordinator which was the direct outcome of an EU meeting after the Madrid Attacks: currently Gilles de Kerchove. The capacity of larger networks to organize and execute an attack like the one in Madrid has diminished significantly. Less positive: the wars in Afghanistan and in particular in Iraq have led to an increase of support for local and regional jihadist groups that fight both the West and Shiítes and other Muslims that, in their eyes, are not good Muslims. The situation in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia is worrisome, especially in the first two mentioned countries. It could also affect security in Europe as in particular Syria is very near the EU and Russia.

How important target is Europe after 10 years for Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda inspired groups?

Currently, the focus is on Syria and other countries in the Middle East. However, from there, with the help of European foreign fighters, they could pose a serious threat to Europe. The number of foreign fighters and the many countries they are from mean that almost all European countries are faced with this potential threat. Nonetheless, it is mainly the Syrians and the Iraqis that suffer from Al Qaeda inspired groups and the damage done and loss of live in these countries goes way beyond our experiences in the last ten years. Madrid was horrible, but we should count our blessings and feel somewhat confident about our CT policies as it remained one of only three major attacks in Europe ever since (London, Breivik).

Bart Schuurman, Researcher, Leiden University’s Centre for Terrorism and Counterterrorism in The Hague

I think the AQ or AQ-inspired/affiliated threat to European countries has changed for several reasons, many of them geopolitical. A very important development in this regard has been the Arab Spring. The political revolutions taking place in many North African and Middle Eastern countries have both drawn jihadist groups’ attention to these regions as well as provided them with increased opportunities for gaining political power, building bases of operation and attracting new recruits. Combined with the nearly complete withdrawal of western forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, this development has helped bring about a renewed focus among jihadist groups on regional developments. The ongoing civil war in Syria is of course the best example of jihadist groups asserting themselves in a local conflict. At least for the time being, a shift has taken place in jihadist groups’ strategic outlook that emphasizes taking on the ‘near enemy’ of what they see as corrupt, un-Islamic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, rather than attacking the ‘far enemy’ of the United States and its European allies.

Another important development in shifting the focus of jihadist groups gradually away from Europe, has been the opening of new jihadist battle grounds in places such as Mali and the Arabian peninsula.

This does not mean that Europe is no longer a potential target. One of the biggest worries for European security services now is the potential threat posed by foreign fighters who return from Syria. While the majority of these individuals will likely pose no significant threat, the large number of European citizens who have traveled to Syria increases the chances that at least some of them will prove cause for concern. Although the men (and some women) who travel to Syria to join jihadist groups do so in order to fight the regime of Bashar al-Assad, it should be remembered that their motivation is not some form of Syrian nationalism that limits their interest to that one country. Instead, their jihadist ideology identifies a wide range of enemies, from Shiites like al-Assad to the ‘apostate’ Muslims who govern many Middle-Eastern and North-African states and unbelievers such as the U.S., Israel, Europe and Russia who are engaged in what jihadist see as a ‘war against Islam’. Although there is now an emphasis on the first categories, this does not mean the last one has become irrelevant.

An interesting parallel with the situation ten years ago is that many of the so-called ‘homegrown’ jihadist groups active in Europe at that time initially also had the aim of joining Islamist insurgents in countries like Chechnya or Afghanistan. Many of the terrorist plots that materialized in Europe came because these individuals were unable to travel abroad as foreign fighters, or because they were sent back with instructions to commit attacks in Europe. There is a possibility that a similar course of events could be seen among some individuals currently trying to reach Syria, should states put in place significant obstacles that prevent these people from reaching their destination.

Ten years on from Madrid, another element that seems to have changed is decreased ability of homegrown jihadist groups operating in Europe to carry out complex operations. Recent successful attacks, such as the murder of British off-duty soldier Lee Rigby have been the work of individuals using very basic weapons such as knives. Unfortunately even simple weapons can be used to deadly effect, but the lack of sophistication of such attacks also seems to imply a degree of desperation. The most important thing appears to do something, no matter how ineffective or limited in scope that something is. This is echoed by articles in the AQ-magazine ‘Inspire’, which calls for its readers to carry out such attacks as driving a car into crowds. This focus on simplicity may reflect the decreased operational capabilities of AQ and AQ-inspired groups in Europe as a result of national and international counterterrorism efforts.

David Lowe, Principal Lecturer, Law School, Liverpool John Moores University

The Madrid bombing signalled to Europe and the rest of the world that it was not just the USA and the UK who are potential targets of Al Qaeda and other jihadist terror groups. Today Europe is still a target for Al Qaeda and their franchised jihadist groups. As a result of the bombings in Madrid and London that originally resulted in the likes of the Prum Treaty being signed by some of the EU Member States, outside the EU, it resulted in the Treaty of Lisbon including articles that tightened up co-operation between the Member States agencies involved in national security, especially in relation to intelligence exchange. This includes the ability of the Justice and Home Affairs Council and Commission to introduce legislation such as regulations and directives via the European Parliament to ensure Member States do work in co-operation.

In the last 10 years the result of increased co-operation between the Member States has resulted in a number of planned terror attacks being prevented. Of course Al Qaeda is a different entity than what it was 10 years ago. It has effectively franchised with resultant groups like Al Qaeda in the Maghreb and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In addition, groups like Al Shabaab in Somalia underwent a violent change of leadership in 2012 and aligned themselves with Al Qaeda, resulting in the group taking their conflict from Somalia to terrorise other states as seen in the Westgate Mall in Kenya in 2013. The current conflict in Syria is also a cause for concern for European states as a number of radicalised EU citizens have gone there to join Al Qaeda affiliated groups like the Al Nasuri Front to fight the Assad regime. The danger is when these European Citizens return to their home state.

Al Qaeda’s radicalisation process has resulted in threat of the ‘home grown’ terrorist within EU Member States and the attack outside London’s Woolwich Barracks where a Fusilier Lee Rigby was murdered by two jihadist radicalised UK citizens Adebowale and Adebolajo, both of whom tried to join Al Shabaab in 2011 is an example of the type of terror threat Europe faces today. What is termed as low-level attacks, it only takes one terror cell of two or three members to carry out an attack with knives or small arms and unlike high-level, more sophisticated attacks that involve two or more cells, they are difficult for national security agencies to pick up. This is because compared to high-level attacks where there is an increased likelihood of communications between the cells via electronic sources, a one cell terror group do have to rely as heavily on this type of communication.

Prevention is the primary aim of all agencies involved in counter-terrorism and to do so it requires these agencies having wide powers of intrusive surveillance and the ability to conduct higher security checks. While we may be inconvenienced a little at airports, safety is paramount. As the debates following the Snowden revelations of the activities of the US’ National Security Agency and the UK’s GCHQ, there are times when the interests of national security (that keeps citizens safe) should supersede individual human rights. Of course, this view goes against the European Convention of Human Rights’ principle that dignity of the individual is important. However in relation to fighting the terror threat a more utilitarian approach should be adopted when balancing the interests of national security with individual human rights.


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