The Islamic State in Europe: Terrorists Without Borders, Counterterrorists With All Borders


Belgian investigators have taken a beating since failing to disrupt the Brussels bombings last week. They took more than four months to locate Salah Abdeslam in the very neighborhood he grew up in. Belgian investigators also missed the network’s talented bomb maker, Najim Laachraoui, who escaped arrest on Friday only to resurface the following Tuesday at the Brussels airport where he and one other terrorist detonated suicide belts. Three others executed suicide bombings in the Maelbeek subway station almost simultaneously. The attacks, initiated so quickly after the arrest of Abdeslam, have revealed Belgium has the inability to handle an expansive terrorism menace in its borders. Across Europe, they are not alone in this deficiency.

Belgium, like most other European countries, suffers from a counterterrorism capacity problem. Far too many European passport holders trotted off to the Islamic State’s ranks in Syria and Iraq in recent years. They now return emboldened by the Islamic State’s well-rooted facilitation network and empowered by years of combat experience. This deadly combination has and most assuredly will continue to generate terrorist attacks directed and inspired by the Islamic State.

This should not come as a surprise to anyone. European security services have long been concerned (although perhaps not concerned enough) about foreign jihadist fighters returning home to disenfranchised diaspora communities that turn a blind eye to their nefarious activities. While Europe’s counterterrorism capacity has been stretched, failing to anticipate the growth of the Islamic State in Europe ultimately speaks to incompetence. Syria’s foreign fighter inflows and the resulting creation of sophisticated and capable terrorist networks was not probable, it was inevitable. Failing to anticipate and prepare for this eventuality has left Europe vulnerable to a trend that could have been avoided had intelligence been shared and a united front created across the Union.

Individually, certain European countries like the United Kingdom, France, and Germany have vast counterterrorism experience and effective integration of intelligence and law enforcement. As a whole, however, the European Union’s counterterrorism efforts are a patchwork of bureaucracies, capabilities, and regulations. Smaller countries have free ridden for years on the enforcement efforts of larger states. The Islamic State’s returning foreign fighter networks exploited the seams of the European Union, striking the continent where it is weakest. Belgium, like other smaller countries in Europe such as Denmark and the Netherlands, has witnessed large migrations of fighters to Syria and Iraq. These countries don’t have sizeable intelligence organizations or sufficient investigative capacity to pursue experienced Islamic State networks slipping across borders and communicating surreptitiously.

What should Europe do to erase the gap between counterterrorists and terrorists?

The natural government response to tragedies like Brussels is to call for commissions to investigate intelligence failures and subsequently redesign large bureaucracies. Reshaping ineffective bureaucracies will take years. Success in this area might only come once the Islamic State phenomenon is already fading. Commissions take years to formulate results and their findings will reveal what is already known: European countries don’t share intelligence nor do they communicate insights as quickly as their terrorist adversaries. Europol and Interpol do this to an extent, but neither of them has the authority or the resulting investigative teeth to traverse Europe’s complex web of borders and regulations and impede terrorists operating without impediment.

The Islamic State claims to have mobilized as many as 400 operatives on the European continent. The pace of attacks suggests future operations will be both likely and soon. Instead of slowly redesigning a counterterrorism bureaucracy, the European Union should immediately start a task force that narrowly focuses on the threat of the Islamic State to Europe. In situations like today’s European Union, task forces prove more effective than bureaucracies. If authorized, they can organize resources quickly around prescient issues, assign a mission and responsibility to a single entity, provide top cover to investigators hopping jurisdictions, facilitate sharing of critical intelligence and top capabilities in areas that were previously lacking, overcome linguistic challenges and articulate a clear chain-of-command for decision-making. A European task force, in many ways, will mirror the structure of the Islamic State’s network seeking to match their strengths and shore up the many weaknesses of counterterrorists. The U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command and the FBI’s steadily improving Joint Terrorism Task Forces provide two recent examples of their benefits during times of crisis, compared to lumbering interagency or interstate bureaucracies.

Properly shaping a European counterterrorism task force against the Islamic State will be key in avoiding cultural resistance, both bureaucratic and country specific, to such an immediate change. Objectives should be clearly stated in the task force’s mandate: stop any immediate Islamic State attacks, destroy Islamic State facilitation, and support networks and disrupt recruitment of homegrown extremists into the Islamic State’s ranks. The task force should have a limited duration, with the option to extend it as needed should the threat of the Islamic State persist. Properly staffing the task force will be essential and should seek to integrate Europe’s top counterterrorism investigative capacity with local capabilities best suited for interdicting terrorists in vulnerable communities. For example, the task force might be led by a United Kingdom veteran law enforcement official whose deputy comes a capable intelligence service in a smaller country, possible the Netherlands for example. The task force would then integrate aggressive investigative teams, pairing those with robust access to intelligence, from say France, Germany, or hotspot Turkey, with those currently overcapacity at the local level, namely Belgium. The European Union should finance the task force collectively, reminding all European countries, especially those not yet affected by Islamic State violence, that collective work will prevent them from being the next target. Countries with aggressive counterterrorism postures might pitch in more resources, as the task force would incentivize their efforts to get needed intelligence in previously denied European neighborhoods.

A successfully executed European task force against the Islamic State will ultimately provide the foundation for the enduring counterterrorism bureaucracy Europe needs to disrupt the Islamic State and any terrorist networks in the future. The task force, working together aggressively in pursuing Islamic State foreign fighters returning home, will identify and close current gaps in intelligence sharing and pinpoint where much needed human intelligence needs to be generated. For example, some European countries know of diaspora safe havens residing in neighboring countries, such as France in the case of Molenbeek, but lack the authority and access to appropriately generate human intelligence amongst an ally’s populace. A task force can help eliminate this deficiency.

Identifying these intelligence gaps will also determine where tagging and tracking technologies should be implemented to maintain less intrusive surveillance along terrorists’ preferred avenues of approach into and throughout Europe. Currently, European countries host a technical surveillance of a variety of types and sophistication. Integration of these systems through a task force would greatly increase information sharing, interdiction and response. A task force will provide the opportunity for experimentation in tactics and techniques and lay the grounds for appropriate legislation and regulation regarding investigative techniques, intelligence sharing, and the balance between security and privacy. Policy born of experience rather than theory almost always bears the best results for its constituents and the right capabilities for its practitioners.

Essential in application of a European task force against the Islamic State is speed. Europe seems slow to respond and unlikely to mobilize quickly despite watching the Charlie Hebdo and Kosher Market attacks in Paris more than a year ago, the Paris attacks this past November and now the Brussels attacks, which reporting suggests has connections to five countries. The attitude of European countries appears to be, “terrorism is not my problem until it is my problem.” Sadly, the Islamic State in Europe is a problem more than four years in the making. The terror group threatens the continent collectively and for any European nation home to foreign fighters lucky enough to be spared violence thus far, it’s a matter of when, not if, the terrorists in their midst will affect them. Lacking immediate counterterrorism action on a wide scale, Paris and Brussels will ultimately be the start rather than the end of the Islamic State’s campaign of European terror.


Clint Watts is a Fox Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at The George Washington University. Prior to his current work as a security consultant, Clint served as a U.S. Army infantry officer, a FBI Special Agent on a Joint Terrorism Task Force and as the Executive Officer of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.


Photo credit: Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier