Paris Olympic security threats: Why the Islamist terror network and Hamas matter – by Maria Alvanou

The world’s eyes in about a month will be on France hosting the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. Major athletic events should always be considered a possible target for terrorists and a challenge for law enforcement authorities that have to safeguard security, making sure at the same time that people can enjoy participating with a festive spirit.

This year’s Olympic Games will take place under the shadow of the Israeli- Hamas conflict and with the precedence of 2 attacks in Russia, the most recent in Dagestan, that should additionally worry security officials and experts. Some points to consider from a security perspective are the following:

i. One of the most prevalent threats comes from the Islamist terrorist network. First of all, there is already a history of terrorist attacks targeting sporting and cultural events and there are also reports by French authorities for foiled attempts (Norek & Foster, 2024) pointing towards such a risk assessment. The Israeli-Hamas conflict that has escalated since the 07 October 2023 terror attack adds to this danger. The Islamist terror network is using the military response by Israel as an excuse to appear as defender of the Palestinian and Muslim people, fighting back against not only Israel, but also generally Zionism and Western countries that support Israel’s existence on the map, or have expressed appall due to the atrocities of the attack by Hamas. The obvious suspect for such terror attacks seems to be Daesh, especially since it operates as an umbrella network offering justification, inspiration and identity to lone actors and small cells operating in its name. Given the fact that European authorities should be considering also the possibility of Hamas operating in European soil, with Denmark and Germany already arresting suspects (Olsen& Grieshaber, 2023), the threat becomes operationally more complex. The threat could come by Daesh, by Hamas, alone or in collaboration. The past reluctance of Hamas to cooperate officially with Daesh or Al Qaeda, keeping distances from the international Islamist terror network is not a reason to reject the possibility of a cooperation now. It is true that until recently even Palestinian organisations having a clear Islamist identity,  tried to make sure they were not  considered part of the international Islamist terrorist network and a threat to all West. They focused on Israel, trying to stay away from the “Islamist terrorist” label. However, things have changed after the October 7th attack and the response by Israel resulting in many civilian casualties in Gaza. What seemed to be a localised conflict has resulted in an effort from the Palestinian side to engage all Arabs and Muslims and present this conflict as an example of the whole morally corrupt West backing up Israel. This is the point where Daesh and Hamas could be meeting and a collaboration  between the two of them is not impossible.

ii. There is a tragic regarding terrorist attacks during Olympic Games that cannot be forgotten: Munich Olympic Games 1972. While Black September is not an issue anymore, its operational methodology during the Munich massacre remains relevant and dangerous. The terrorists infiltrated the Olympic Village, killed members of the Israeli Olympic team, and took hostages, while new evidence proves even sexual abuse carried out against the victims (Lion, 2016). If one substitutes an athletic event for a peace concert, the analogy between that attack and the attack carried out by Hamas on October 7th  is clear. There is now a strong antisemitic atmosphere in Europe (Jones, 2024) with the responsibility for the criticised Israeli policies and military response attributed  to Jews worldwide, and of course to all Israeli citizens, including athletes. Mohammed Oudeh (known as “Abu Daoud”) who was the mastermind behind the 1972 Munich Olympics attack had reported no regrets about the massacre, considering Israeli athletes, as military reservists, to be legitimate targets (BBC, 2010). In the same line, arguments like: “all Israelis serve in the army”, “all Israelis are Zionists supporting a Zionist entity”, “all Israelis support Occupation” that have been the basis for Hamas attacking even elderly and babies can be used now to legitimise attacks against Israeli athletes and even their families and Israeli Olympic Games fans traveling to France. In 1972 the background of the attack was supposed to be the revenge for the villages Ikrit and Biram destroyed by Israel in 1951 (Tufecsi 2022), now it could be the destruction of Gaza by Israel during the war it waged after the October 7th attacks. Unfortunately, there are many reasons to believe that in these Olympic Games the Israeli teams and fans are in great danger and they need extra protection.

iii. The question: “Would an attack during the Olympic Games benefit Palestinians?” does not have an easy answer. It sounds logical to answer “no”, but common sense may not be governing people’s minds when they get polarized. No common sense allows celebrating the massacre of civilians on October 7th , but unfortunately there were and still are people who have done so (Maack, 2024). Opposing the terror committed by Hamas has nothing to do with siding with Israelis, it has to do with rejecting terrorism, the targeting of civilians and the commission of atrocities. And yet, we are witnessing polarization by pro-Palestinian parts of the public, reaching to the point of considering par excellence terrorism and appalling crimes as resistance. It seems that what is important for pro-Palestinians is to attack and annihilate Israel and its people without distinction and keeping their agenda in the news. Once more the mastermind of the Munich attack Mohammed Oudeh shows us  the cynicism of the terrorist logic with the statement: “Before Munich, nobody had the slightest idea about Palestine” (BBC, 2010). Terrorism is propaganda by the deed and it appears to be successful propaganda when it comes to Palestinian terrorism. People still fall into the trap of the “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” and they cannot distinguish between their sympathy to a goal and the moral duty to reject murderous violence as a means to achieve that goal. An attack like the one during the Munich Olympics should have been the end of any support towards Palestinian organisations using terrorism. The October 7th attack should have been- again- the end of any support towards Palestinian organisations using terrorism. The fact that people continue not to reject terrorism is feeding it, creating a dangerous background of acceptance and tolerance that terrorists take advantage of when planning their actions.

iv. From an operational point of view, apart from hostage taking there are many threats to be considered. The obvious ones are suicide missions or explosive mechanisms planted. There have been quite many years since suicide bombers were used by Daesh in European soil, and this may have to do with characteristics of the new generation of recruits that do not fit the “shahid” model, especially when they are carrying out attacks as lone actors.  Yet this should not be excluded as a scenario. Suicide attacks during the Olympic Games events, with crowds gathered, pose a very high challenge, because of the ability of French authorities to react on the spot timely. Perpetrators willing to explode themselves and kill others cannot be stopped from doing so, they may just be prevented from reaching a certain target. Thus, there is a pressing need for monitoring and gathering intelligence with the collaboration of other countries, so that arrests can take place before suicide bombers enter their operational orbit. Explosive mechanisms planted could be a bit more easily thwarted, with thorough monitoring of the spaces around and inside athletic events, but this too can still turn out to be a difficult task, considering the number of people gathered inside and around stadiums and other places related to the Olympic Games. Another modus operandi to consider is the one that we have seen recently 2 times during terrorist operations in Russia (near Moscow and in Dagestan) and of course also in France during the Bataclan attacks. Opening fire against crowds, whether as a sole operational choice or in conjunction with other forms of attack, can result in a high victim toll and when law enforcement tries to react an urban battlefield is created. Finally, France has had unfortunately experience of “hit and run” attacks with the use of a knife or vehicle and such attacks can also lead to many victims and take advantage of the element of surprise. The worst scenario would be multiple attacks taking place in various locations of Paris and even other cities where Olympic Games events take place with terrorists using a combination of methods.

v. Possible targets of terror attacks during the Paris Olympic Games, are not limited to areas and places connected to athletic events. Churches and synagogues should be used as high risk targets. The rise in antisemitism as well as the attack against a synagogue in Dagestan point out towards this direction. The same with churches, not just due to the recent attack in Dagestan, but also since in France there have been such attacks in the past (Alvanou 2016; Hinnant and Cole, 2020). For Islamist terrorists and their interpretation of Islam attacks against Jewish or Christian places of worship have a great symbolic value as they see Jews and Christians as infidels that deserve death.

               To map all possible threats, to be ready to address even unexpected dangers means that there is a broader understanding of surrounding conditions.  As we move closer to the date of the Paris Olympic Games security authorities must take into account all international and domestic developments in order to proceed to a valid risk assessment and take the appropriate measures to secure the event. Apart from the Israeli-Hamas conflict, there is the ongoing war in Ukraine, the socio-economic problems in French society and the changes in the French political scene that are a few of the parameters that can affect the Olympic security. This top athletic meeting must remain, like in Greek ancient times, a symbol of peace, of the ability for nations to compete on the track and stadiums and not on the battlefield.

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