European security officials are bracing for potential jihadist attacks at public venues across Europe this summer.
In France, officials are preparing for possible attacks against the European Football Championships. The games, which start on June 10, comprise 51 matches involving 24 teams playing in 10 host cities across the country.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said that more than 90,000 security personnel will be on hand to protect the 2.5 million spectators expected to attend the games, as well as the hundreds of thousands more who will watch the matches on big screens in so-called "fan zones" in major cities.
Patrick Calvar, the head of the France's domestic intelligence agency (Direction générale de la sécurité intérieure, DGSI), warned: "We know that the Islamic State is planning new attacks in France." He added:
"We risk being confronted with a new form of attack: a terrorist campaign characterized by placing explosive devices in places where large crowds are gathered, and repeating this type of action to create a climate of panic."
According to Calvar, at least 645 French nationals or residents, including 245 women, are currently with the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq. Another 200 individuals are "in transit," either on their way to the Middle East or returning to France. Around 244 jihadists have already returned to France, and another 818 people have "demonstrated their intention to go to Syria."
The Stade de France, located in a Paris suburb, was attacked by three Islamic State suicide bombers in November 2015. The stadium will be hosting games during the UEFA Euro 2016 football championships (June 10 - July 10, 2016), and French officials are preparing for possible jihadist attacks. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons/Liondartois)
Calvar's concerns have been echoed by Hans-Georg Maaßen, the head of Germany's domestic intelligence agency (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, BfV). In an interview with Rheinische Post, Maaßen said: "We know that the Islamic State has the European Championship in its sights."
On May 29, British media quoted Belgian security sources as saying they had discovered an Islamic State plot to attack British football fans in the southern French city of Marseille when England plays Russia on June 11. The plans were reportedly discovered on a laptop used by Salah Abdeslam, a Belgian-born French national of Moroccan descent who is thought to be the mastermind of the November 2015 terrorist attacks on Paris which left 130 dead.
The laptop is said to have contained information about a plot to kill large numbers of British fans using assault rifles, suicide bombers and possibly even drones armed with chemical weapons. The laptop contained photos and references to Marseille's historic Old Port, where tens of thousands of football fans are expected to gather at the many bars and restaurants in the area.
Meanwhile, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve also announced that more than 23,000 police will be deployed to protect the Tour de France, the world's premier bicycle race, which takes place from July 2 to 24.
Teams of special operations forces (Groupe d'intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale, GIGN) will guard riders and an estimated 12 million spectators along a route that covers 3,500 kilometers (2,180 miles). "Everyone understands that this year the Tour de France is taking place in a particular context," Cazeneuve said. He added: "The terrorist threat remains very high."
In Poland, officials are preparing for possible jihadist attacks against the Catholic Church's World Youth Day, which is expected to draw 2.5 million to Krakow from July 26 to 31. Poland will impose border controls at all of its national borders from July 4 to August 2.
In Britain, music festivals, big sports venues and nightclubs have been placed on "high alert" for potential jihadist attacks, according to a senior anti-terrorism officer interviewed by the Sunday Times.
Neil Basu, the deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said that crowded places — including Glastonbury, billed as the world's largest music festival, which will draw 135,000 people to Somerset from June 22 to 26 — are a major concern for police this summer. Basu warned:
"These people are perfectly happy to target civilians with the maximum terror impact. Crowded places were always a concern for us, but now they are right at the top of the agenda."
Basu said that sports stadiums and big music events are especially vulnerable: "This is where you put a small town into a small area for a couple of hours."
Police in rural communities in Britain that host large summer festivals are warning that they could be "sitting ducks" in the face of a jihadist attack as they wait for armed backup to arrive from many miles away.
In an interview with the BBC, John Apter, the head of the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Police Federation, said:
"Being realistic, if a firearms unit was coming from the middle of the county you are still talking about 30 miles away — you are not talking about a few minutes. There would be an understandable delay. If a firearms unit is the other side of the county they could be 70 miles away so you are talking a significant distance. So the only officers that you have available are unarmed and vulnerable officers and they are the officers that are saying to me that in a terrorist situation they would be sitting ducks."
Most police in Britain are unarmed. According to Deputy Chief Constable Simon Chesterman, the UK's top firearms officer, British police chiefs are struggling to recruit enough officers who are willing to carry a firearm, because many fear they will be treated as criminal suspects if they use their weapon in the line of duty.
Senior British security officials estimate that the UK needs an extra 1,500 armed officers to tackle jihadist attacks such as those carried out in Paris. Because half of the recruits will not make it through the rigorous training, however, 3,000 volunteers are needed to come forward.
Che Donald of the Police Federation — which represents the 5,647 officers throughout Britain who currently carry firearms — told the Guardian that while major cities such as London are sufficiently protected, other large towns and cities are not: "Currently there are not enough firearms officers who could deal with an incident in quite a lot of areas of Britain."
In Brussels, Manuel Navarrete Paniagua, the head of the European Counter Terrorism Centre at the European police agency Europol, warned Members of the European Parliament that terrorist cells in Europe are stockpiling weapons and explosives for future attacks:
"We have some information reported by the member states that terrorists groups are trying to establish large clandestine stockpiles of explosives in the European Union to be used eventually in large scale home attacks."
Paniagua added that police had foiled more than 200 terrorist attacks in the EU in 2015. A total of 151 people were killed and more than 360 injured during terrorist attacks in the EU in 2015. More than 1,000 people were arrested for terrorist-related crimes.
In an interview with Time magazine, Europol director Rob Wainwright revealed that "several hundred" battle-trained European jihadists are probably plotting new attacks. He said that his agency is working on 50 ongoing terrorist investigations:
"This is the highest terrorist threat we have faced in Europe since the days of 9/11. We have 5,000 Europeans who have been radicalized by the Islamic State and have traveled to Syria and Iraq and engaged in conflict experience. We suspect that about one-third of them have come back: That is our best guess. We don't know for sure...
"Our real concern is that there are other networks, either in Europe already, or who are being trained in Syria for further action. We know that the Islamic State last year took a strategic decision to establish an external operations command, a division to plan exactly the kind of attacks we have now seen. We think that they are still active and planning to do that. The threat is alive and current. Another attempted attack is almost certain. Whether it gets through depends of course. I am concerned about the Islamic State's clearly expressed desire for the spectacular."
On May 31, the U.S. State Department issued a travel alert for Europe this summer:
"We are alerting U.S. citizens to the risk of potential terrorist attacks throughout Europe, targeting major events, tourist sites, restaurants, commercial centers and transportation. The large number of tourists visiting Europe in the summer months will present greater targets for terrorists planning attacks in public locations, especially at large events."
The travel alert urges vigilance when in public places or using mass transportation, and avoiding crowded places.
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. His first book, Global Fire, will be out in 2016.