The threat to Europe and the United States from Islamic terrorism is serious and growing, and new attacks with unexpected targets and timings are increasingly likely, according to two new reports that provide insights and predictions about the threats posed by al-Qaeda and other Salafi-jihadist groups.
The reports — one by the US-based RAND Corporation and another by the EU-based Europol — show that al-Qaeda and related jihadist groups are evolving, splintering and morphing, and that the number of Islamic militants, especially from Western countries, is growing apace.
Taken together, the two reports thoroughly dispute claims by members of the Obama Administration and other policymakers that al-Qaeda has been severely weakened and no longer poses a major threat to the West.
The first report, entitled, "A Persistent Threat: The Evolution of al-Qaeda and Other Salafi Jihadists," was prepared for the U.S. Defense Department and published on June 4 by the RAND Corporation, a public policy think tank based in California.
As the title implies, the report focuses on the Salafi-jihadist movement, a particular strand of militant Sunni Islamism which emphasizes the importance of returning to a "pure" Islam: that of the Salaf (an Arabic term which means "ancestors" or "predecessors" and refers to the first three generations of Muslims, including Mohammed and his companions and followers).
Salafi-jihadist groups are actively seeking to establish an Islamic caliphate — a theocratic Muslim empire governed by Islamic sharia law — to bring about the unification of the entire Muslim world, and, according to their writings, ultimately the subjugation of the entire globe. These groups believe that violent jihad to achieve this objective is a personal religious duty for every Muslim.
The report documents how the broader Salafi-jihadist movement has become more decentralized among four tiers: 1) core al-Qaeda in Pakistan; 2) formal affiliates that have sworn allegiance to al-Qaeda; 3) Salafi-jihadist groups that have not sworn allegiance to al-Qaeda, but are committed to establishing an extremist Islamic emirate; and 4) inspired individuals and networks.
Between 2010 and 2013, the report says, the number of al-Qaeda-sympathizing Salafi-jihadist groups has increased to 49 from 31; the number of jihadist fighters has doubled to 100,000; and the number of attacks by al-Qaeda affiliates has tripled to roughly 1,000 from 392.
The most significant threat to the United States, the report warns, comes from terrorist groups operating in North Africa, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq and Syria, the location that has seen the greatest growth in the numbers of jihadist groups and militants.
Libya represents the most active sanctuary for Salafi-jihadist groups in North Africa, and Syria the most significant safe haven for groups in the Levant. Egypt is the one country where Salafi-jihadist groups have lost ground, the report says, due to a concerted effort by Egyptian military leaders to target these groups in the mainland and on the Sinai Peninsula. [Claims by Egyptian military officials that the Sinai Peninsula is under their complete control are being disputed by recent media reports suggesting that jihadists still hold considerable sway there.]
One reason for the increase in Salafi-jihadist groups, fighters and attacks, the report says, is the weakness of governments across North Africa and the Middle East. Weak governments have difficulty establishing law and order, which allows militant groups and other sub-state actors to fill the vacuum.
Another key reason for the growing threat, the report says, is due to American disengagement from key parts of North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, and a significant scaling back on counter-terrorism efforts.
The RAND report warns:
"The threat posed by this diverse set of groups varies widely, though several of these groups pose a substantial threat to the U.S. homeland or U.S. interests overseas. Some are locally focused and have shown little interest in attacking Western targets. Others, like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, present an immediate threat to the U.S. homeland, along with inspired individuals like the Tsarnaev brothers—the perpetrators of the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.
"In addition, some Salafi-jihadist groups pose a medium-level threat because of their desire and ability to target U.S. citizens and facilities overseas, including U.S. embassies. Examples include Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia, al Shabaab, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the various Ansar al-Sharia groups in Libya.
"The broad trends indicate that the United States needs to remain focused on countering the proliferation of Salafi-jihadist groups, which have started to resurge in North Africa and the Middle East, despite the temptations to shift attention and resources to the Asia-Pacific region and to significantly decrease counterterrorism budgets in an era of fiscal constraint."
The report also offers recommendations on U.S. foreign policy issues:
"A complete withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan by 2016 could seriously jeopardize U.S. security interests because of the continuing presence of Salafi-jihadist and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan. A growing civil war or successful Taliban-led insurgency would likely allow al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups... to increase their presence in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda and associated movements would likely view an American exit from Afghanistan—if it were to happen—as their most important victory since the departure of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989.
"The United States should also consider a more aggressive strategy to target Salafi-jihadist groups in Syria, either clandestinely or with regional and local allies... U.S. counterterror operations in Syria are complicated because the Assad government is an enemy, not an ally. Nevertheless, U.S. intelligence and special operations units have several options, which are not mutually exclusive: clandestinely target Salafi-jihadist groups operating in Syria; work through allies such as Jordan, Turkey, or Saudi Arabia; and work through surrogate partners, such as Syrian rebel groups that oppose Salafi-jihadist groups in Syria.
"The failure to weaken Salafi-jihadist groups in Syria will likely have serious repercussions for the United States, in part because of Syria's proximity to allies like Jordan, Turkey, Israel, and European Union countries. The access of Syrian groups such as Jabhat al-Nusrah to foreign fighters, terrorist networks in Europe, and bomb-making expertise suggest that they may already have the capability to plan, support, and potentially conduct attacks against the West."
The second report, the "EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (TE-SAT) 2014," was published by Europol, the law enforcement agency of the European Union, on May 28.
During 2013, the report reveals, seven people died as a result of terrorist attacks in the EU; 152 terrorist attacks were carried out in EU member states; 535 individuals were arrested in the EU for terrorism-related offenses; and a total of 150 court proceedings for terrorism charges were concluded for 313 individuals.
France was the terror capital of Europe during 2013:
"A total of 152 terrorist attacks occurred in five EU Member States. The majority took place in France (63), Spain (33) and the UK (35).
"In 2013, 535 individuals were arrested for offenses related to terrorism, a number similar to 2012 (537). Most of the arrests occurred in France (225), Spain (90) and the UK (77). A continuous increase in the number of arrests for religiously inspired terrorism has been observed since 2011."
In keeping with strict conformity to European multiculturalism and moral relativism, the European Union refused to classify two of the most high-profile terrorist attacks in 2013 as "religiously inspired terrorism."
These involve the May 22, 2013 beheading of an off-duty British army soldier in London by two British Muslims of Nigerian descent, and the May 25, 2013 non-fatal stabbing of a French soldier in the Parisian district of La Défense by a man who converted to Islam and became radicalized in an extremely short period of time.
The report says that terrorists have developed a comprehensive approach to fundraising:
"It is suspected that stolen bank and credit cards, theft, pick-pocketing and the sale of stolen goods were used to provide financial assistance to an Algerian organization with links to al-Qaeda.
"Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), like other terrorist groups based outside the EU, is notorious for using kidnapping to generate revenue."
The report also draws attention to the misuse of charities and non-profit organizations to collect funds for terrorist entities:
"In most cases, calls for donations were published on Internet sites and forums. In one counter-terrorism investigation, it was noted that supposed humanitarian aid activities were promoted via Facebook.
"Monetary donations were requested via an associated PayPal account. Examples of charity misuse have been evidenced in support of several terrorist entities. Furthermore, some non-profit organisations are also suspected of serving as fronts for disseminating terrorist propaganda and financing the recruitment of young persons for the conflict in Syria."
"Raised funds are moved by various means, including money remittance companies, hawala (Arabic for "transfer") traders, and/or the use of anonymous or preloaded value cards. The sale of prepaid phone cards has also been observed in the financing of terrorist entities.
"A standard method for money movements in support of terrorism involves the use of cash couriers. Large quantities of cash have been intercepted at hub airports and transnational rail stations. It is suspected that these had been gathered from donations and other enterprises."
The Europol report concludes:
"The threat from terrorism in Europe remains strong, manifesting itself in various forms and driven by diverse motives. There is a growing threat from EU citizens who, having travelled to conflict zones to engage in terrorist activities, return to the European Union with a willingness to commit acts of terrorism. This was especially evident in the case of Syria in 2013. This phenomenon adds a new dimension to the existing threat situation in the European Union, since it provides new groups within Member States with both terrorist intentions and capabilities, which may result in terrorist attacks with unexpected targets and timings."
It remains unclear how the EU will act on the Europol report.
On June 5, nine EU countries endorsed plans to step up intelligence-sharing and take down radical websites to try to stop European citizens going to fight in Syria and bringing violence back home with them, according to the Reuters news agency.
The proposals, which were drawn up by France and Belgium, were broadly supported by the other countries—Britain, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden—at a meeting in Luxembourg, Reuters said.
The Dutch-Turkish jihadist known as Yilmaz (center) poses with fellow jihadists in Syria.
Other proposals include using airline passenger data to track people returning from Syria, information-sharing and follow-up when authorities detect someone who has been in Syria, putting information about such people in an EU database used by border guards and police, and sending the information to Europol.
Details of the proposals are to be hashed out before a meeting of EU ministers in Milan in July.
Intra-EU intelligence-sharing is already commonplace, but it is often ineffective. For example, in the recent terrorism case involving Mehdi Nemmouche—a French jihadist accused of the fatal shooting of four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, Belgium on May 24—it has since emerged that German authorities alerted French police in March 2014 that Nemmouche had re-entered the EU via Frankfurt International Airport after an extended stay in Syria. But French authorities failed to follow up on this intelligence, an error that could have prevented the attack.
In an interview with the London-based newspaper Financial Times on June 5, the EU's top counter-terrorism official, Gilles de Kerchove, said that the gravest threat facing the 28-nation European Union was from EU citizens returning after having fought as jihadists with radical al-Qaida-linked groups in Syria.
De Kerchove has recommended deploying EU diplomats to countries surrounding Syria in order to help them "detect suspected travelers to Syria and [compile] lists of passengers [using] air travel."
Nevertheless, another attack within the EU appears inevitable. Referring to the May 24 attack in Brussels, de Kerchove said: "Sadly, it is probably not the last attack we will see."
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.