Strasbourg attack: some first comments – by Maria Alvanou

It was December 13, 2015 in Paris when it became evident that France is a target for the Daesh terror campaign.

France elevated its security standards, adjusted its legislation and took measures that have been criticized for challenging human rights and civil liberties. Despite all the above, the country experienced more terror attacks and 3 years after, on December 11, an attack took place in the city of Strasbourg, spreading again terror. The perpetrator has fled the terror scene, yet the French authorities have already identified a suspect. There is a manhunt to arrest the attacker, which can get more complicated, as he may have escaped to Germany , due to the proximity of the area to the borders. Although pieces of the puzzle are missing, still some first points can be raised:
I. There is information in the news about the suspect having a criminal record of 27 prior criminal convictions in several Europeancountries and that he was already under the attention (watch-list) of the French authorities for being radicalized to violent extremism. If this suspected person is indeed the attacker, then a serious question must be posed about the efficacy of the French counter-terrorism mechanism. Not only this individual was not successfully arrested during a law enforcement operation the same morning, but he managed finally to stage a terror attack at the Christmas market with both a knife and a gun. The Christmas market is a standard, expected terror “target location” and the authorities knew that a dangerous radicalized extremist had evaded arrest and was out there, able to hit (as a common criminal or terrorist). While the French authorities all this period showed excessive repressive powers and crackdown abilities against the “yellow vests” movement, they proved to be unable to effectively stop one perpetrator from spreading death and terror.
II. There is a parameter that regards the issue of the border control, whether the attacker has left France for Germany, but also European counter-terrorism cooperation in general. After the failed French law enforcement operation took place, in the morning of Tuesday, the borders should have been already secured, so that this dangerous person, already part of a watch-list would not leave France. The time of the terror attack and the following hours were already late for some measures. Moreover, if the attacker is part of the islamist terror network, then this is not just a French affair, but also a German one, a Belgian one etc; it is a European one. The alleged European cooperation on combatting terrorism has been much advertised from a communicational point of view, there has been even the establishment of a European Counter Terrorism Centre, plus there is also cooperation about combatting crime. At the end of the day it is much doubtful if all the above work as much as is needed in practical level. We have a suspect who was convicted in 3 European countries, yet still either information failed to be shared effectively, or even if it was shared, the cooperation failed on operational level. If there is information for a suspect, but this does not result in the effective protection of the citizens, then there is something wrong in the institutional way European police authorities cooperate, evaluate and take advantage of data.
III. The operational choice behind the attack is consistent with a trend we have been witnessing for some time now in European soil by perpetrators under the ideological umbrella of the islamist terrorism network. “Hit and go” type attacks are preferred to suicide bombings. Of course suicide operations remain important as a terror methodology, they still pose a threat and they will be always sought after- if possible- by the islamist network. “Martyrdom” has a symbolic and uniting effect that is important also for propaganda purposes, yet preparing a “shahid” is not so simple. Radicalization to violence has levels and the one required to prepare a “martyr” ready to give up his life on purpose in order to kill is not easily reached. The pool of candidates for terror attacks in Europe is different than the one in the Middle East. Additionally, while the ideology of hate preached by islamist extremists seems enough to create the will to kill or even can serve as an alibi for individuals to kill for other reasons (the real motivation behind violence can vary), it is probably inadequate to create an army ready for “shahuda”. Those answering the call of Daesh in Europe can show signs of islamist faith and practice (for example in the photo released of the Strasbourg suspect, one can notice his “zabiba”, the darkened spot in his forehead due to praying ), but they do not choose martyrdom as operational methodology. It has become a trend for attackers to try and avoid- if possible of course- not only death, but also arrest. They accept to carry out a high risk mission, but they do not go on purpose to kill themselves in order to gain Paradise. The terrorist in question rode a taxi and escaped the terror location, as if he was in a common criminal operation (much like in a robbery).
In the same day the attack took place in the Christmas Market in Strasbourg, after a failed French police operation, fortunately in the UK the authorities have succeeded to foil a Christmas bomb plot in the city of Newcastle . Christmas and New Year are both periods of elevated alert for Europe and law enforcement agencies try their best to offer security. What can make a police operation and reaction successful and what not, why in the UK the authorities were able to prevent an attack, while the French did not is a big discussion that cannot be carried out with the present data at hand. Generally it must be understood that total protection from terror (like total protection from any crime) is a utopia. Nevertheless we must strive always for better security, which is a right all citizens should enjoy. In this sense, every time there is a failure to prevent/thwart an attack, we ought to be critical towards the competent authorities. When so many measures seem to have been taken to fight terrorism, sometimes also in the expense of our liberties and rights, failure in security resulting in lives lost is a cost too high to pay in democracies.