I entered 2015 with the prediction that one of the biggest European stories would be the flow of migrants from war-torn areas of the world, mainly in the Middle East, to European shores. This was most pronounced just before the turn of the New Year. Blue Sky M was a Moldovan vessel carrying nearly a thousand migrants, mainly from Syria, which had been abandoned by its crew. Italian coast guards brought the ship to Gallipolli safely. Then, two days later, a ‘ghost ship’ named Ezadeen containing some 450 migrants turned up in the Adriatic, later brought ashore by the Italian coast guard. The boat had again been abandoned by its crew. It seemed this would be, as it has been already, a recurring story with an ever greater threat to life and a burden to European states with already lots to worry about.
Italy was and will be seen as the most vulnerable target in what is now a lucrative business for smugglers, but dramatic scenes have also been witnessed in the Spanish enclave of Melilla in Morocco, where migrants have been seen jumping fences and overwhelming border postings. As numbers of migrants and asylum seekers fleeing conflict in places like Syria continue to swell, we are brought back to the bloodiness of the conflict there which is now entering its fourth year, with no sign of an end.
For the events in Paris and the deaths of 17 people, they serve as a reminder of the greatest scourge emanating from the Middle East: ISIS. The killers were influenced by ideology coming from the so-called state, including one, Amedy Coulibaly, swearing allegiance to the organisation in an online video. Coulibaly is believed to have travelled to Madrid days before the attack, during which he was shot dead. His widow, Hayat Boumedienne, travelled to Madrid on the 2nd January, before travelling to Syria via Turkey six days later. An intelligence failing, many will be thinking.
The number of Europeans fighting for ISIS, according to an estimate from September 2014, totals over 3,000. That figure rose rapidly throughout last year, and EU’s counter-terrorism chief Gilles de Kerchove said at the time: “”The flow has not been dried up and therefore possibly the proclamation of the caliphate has had some impact.”
The majority of fighters, he said, were from from France, Britain, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark but a few are coming from Spain, Italy, Ireland and now Austria.
“Even a country like Austria I think has now foreign fighters, which I was not aware of before,” he said.
As major European capitals such as London, Madrid and Berlin seek to protect public buildings, public transport and similar high-profile targets, who would ever think that the next threat to peace in Europe after the horrific attacks in Paris would be the small Belgian town of Verviers?
Reports suggest that Belgian police had been tracking the two suspected jihadists who were killed yesterday and stopped them before it was too late. Their plan was to kill police “on public roads or at police stations,” according to the federal prosecutor at a press conference this morning.
And in Berlin, two men have been arrested on suspicion of recruiting fighters and procuring equipment and funding for Islamic State in Syria. German police were keen to point out this was part of a months-long investigation into a small group of extremists in Berlin. Though the threat is in itself worrying, some peace of mind is gained from the fact that authorities were already aware of these two potential incidents. Lessons might be learnt in Paris from the two Kouachi brothers having been on UK and US no-fly lists, in addition to their previous convictions, but the arguments over mass surveillance and the extent to which states can anticipate attacks is far from over.
Back to France, where in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, police in Paris have been pursuing a number of suspects who allegedly supported the Islamist gunmen behind the attacks in Paris. They are currently being questioned about “possible logistical support”, such as weapons or vehicles, that they could have given the gunmen. Again, this shows a renewed effort by Europe to confront what seems to have been a simmering problem for many nation states.
Away from the headlines of economic insecurity and poor growth for the continent, the topic of conflict in a globalised, connected world is what will undoubtedly mark this year. The potential for attacks, even the likelihood, has been raised across Europe. It will be the feared unknown at the forefront of our minds.
One final prediction
It seems already that there is another threat not just to Europe but to the world. Cyber attacks to French websites since the Paris shootings number around 19,000, more than a week following the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices. The head of France’s cyberdefense for the French military said some of these had been carried out by well-known Islamic hacker groups. Arnaud Coustilliere pointed to “structured groups” that used tactics like posting symbols of jihadist groups on companies’ websites. Websites for small businesses, like pizza delivery or gardening. Hardly ones which could affect national security. With this in mind, It seems that the threat is all but overstated for now, though as I write this, there is breaking news that the sites of French public radio station France Inter, as well as newspapers Le Parisien, Marianne and L’Express have all been taken down. For now, it could be a suspected attack, but it could equally be an inocuous server fault. Could cyberterrorism bring a great threat of danger to countries around the world? The momentum for such attacks is already underway, though governments, already aware of the problem, seem to be gathering preventative measures.