Thursday’s attack in Barcelona – and possibly today’s attack in Finland – are yet more tragic examples of how common objects such as vehicles and knives can be used as weapons by terrorists to generate an overarching sense of fear and inflict mass casualties. Western authorities and intelligence agencies have remained vigilant in thwarting these attacks, but it is nearly impossible to track every potential suspect or to guard every potential target. The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel sat down with counterterrorism expert Bruce Hoffman, author of Inside Terrorism, now in its third edition, to discuss the recent events in Barcelona, how the U.S. and countries in the EU are working to combat the evolving terrorist threat, and if we should expect even more ISIS driven attacks as the group continues to lose territory in Syria and Iraq.
The Cipher Brief: Before yesterday’s attack in Barcelona, the most recent large-scale terrorist attack in Spain was in 2004 in Madrid. How effective has Spain’s counterterrorism strategy been over the years?
Bruce Hoffman: Spain, for at least a couple of years now, has been at the second highest level of national alert. So beyond any doubt, the country has been extremely vigilant and well prepared for a terrorist incident. This is a reflection of the fact, at least according to the research of the Elcano Royal Institute in Madrid, that there have been nearly 200 arrests of persons in Spain with links to ISIS or al Qaeda between 2013-2016. Interestingly, there has been a similar number of either Spanish nationals or residents of Spain leaving to fight with ISIS overseas, which is even lower than the U.S. number. This strongly points to the fact that the challenge in Spain is very much of a homegrown phenomenon with radicalization occurring both online and throughout social networks in that country itself for operations in Spain and not necessarily elsewhere.
Half of those 200 or so were immigrants, according to the Elcano Institute’s research. I spoke at the institute this summer so I am very familiar with their work and it’s Spain’s premier think tank on national issues and especially on terrorism, where the renowned scholar, Fernando Reinares, is director of the Global Terrorism Programme. So, I am confident that this information is the most authoritative.
Interestingly, the Elcano study reports that 41 percent of those immigrants were from Morocco. That’s why Spain has been at the point of the spear of jihadi activity over the past week, both because of its close geographical proximity to North Africa and because there are also two Spanish enclaves—Ceuta and Melilla— physically situated in North Africa itself that have long been hotbeds of jihadi sentiment. And, of course, if you are a Spanish national or a Spanish resident it’s very easy to travel between Spain and both cities.
But the problem is Spain, much like the UK, France, and Belgium, just has an overwhelming number of radicalized individuals who have to be monitored and assessed that intelligence and law enforcement are struggling to keep pace with. This has become one of the most formidable challenges for counterterrorism today: how the authorities can keep track of a large number terrorists and suspects that even East Germany’s Stasi might have been challenged to stay on top of.
TCB: Is there any particular reason why jihadists would target Spain?
Hoffman: Spain was once part of the vast Muslim empire that stretched across North Africa and across the Mediterranean Sea to the Balkans in the east and occupied the Iberian Peninsula, known as al-Andalus, in the west. The Muslim conquest of Spain and of course the defeat of the Moors in 1492 burns as intensely in the minds of both sides—much like the comparatively more recent Civil War or War Between the States does, as we have seen this past week, in the U.S.
It was not long after the September 11th, 2001 attacks that Osama bin Laden himself called for the re-conquest of Al-Andalus and the commencement of terrorist attacks in Spain as a means to achieve that. Indeed, as Fernando Reinares points out in his superb book published earlier this year, Al Qaeda’s Revenge, that summons to battle led directly to the March 2004 terrorist attacks on commuter trains in Madrid.
This historical connection between Islam and Spain puts that country very much on the same fault line of the struggles we see being waged by Salafi-Jihadis in the Levant (Syria), Iraq, Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya, and elsewhere. So for Salafi-Jihadis, Spain for these historical reasons, is viewed as a frontline.
Accordingly, the violence that we have seen unfold in Spain these past few days, and the radicalization that led to it, not only has deep religious and perhaps socioeconomic roots, but profound historical ones as well.
TCB: Following the attack on the London Bridge in Borough Market in June, you discussed the need to increase security in certain public areas by doing things such as “putting bollards, for instance, on the sidewalks across all the major bridges in London.” Has the West and Europe adequately taken steps to address these security concerns or has there been pushback because increased security could be viewed as an impingement on certain liberties?
Hoffman: I don’t think there is any way that one can say that Spain was at all lax in terms of what a liberal democracy can do in countering terrorism. I was just there this summer and traveled extensively in the country, and unlike in the U.S., if you go to a train station in Spain, you go through similar procedures as if you’re going through an airport in the U.S. Your bags are screened, for instance, at checkpoints, to make sure there are no bombs. Spain has already ratcheted security up a level. There are also armed, anti-terrorist police on the streets, especially in tourist destinations and venues, so even before these tragic events, Spain had responded to this threat by with heightened vigilance.
All liberal democracies in the aftermath of a terrorist attack are confronted by the questions of whether they did enough to prevent or deter it, and once it occurs, how to strike a balance between “prudence and paranoia,” as Brian Michael Jenkins of the RAND Corporation famously observed three decades ago. That’s precisely the challenge all countries confronted by terrorist threats face – doing enough to be prepared and vigilant and taking sufficient steps to thwart attacks but not impinging on not just on the fundamental civil liberties and freedoms we enjoy in a democracy, but on the sense of wellbeing that is so essential to open, democratic societies.
The reality that we’ve seen especially over the past decade and a half since 9/11 is that the prudent security measures we impose in the aftermath of these attacks invariably are permanent. Accordingly, it’s often very difficult to justify the continued imposition of more security measures before an attack— not least because it also creates exactly the atmosphere of fear and anxiety and paranoia that the terrorists seek.
In the UK this summer I saw bollards and barriers in places that you wouldn’t have seen them before. It’s one of the lamentable facets of the 21st century that we are slowly adapting to a greater physical security presence than we’ve had in the past in order to thwart these types of unpredictable attacks in public places using commonplace weapons.
For me, the fascinating thing is that in December 2001, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called for exactly this type of attack. He said it in his infamous treatise designed to revive the movement, Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner, that al Qaeda followers, sympathizers and supporters throughout the world should just use whatever weapons available, including cars and knives, to carry out attacks in their homelands. But that very didactic message conveyed via print and not over social media like it is today, had absolutely no resonance.
The power of ISIS has been precisely to harness social media in order to motivate, inspire, and ultimately animate them to do exactly the kind of thing Zawahiri was calling unsuccessfully for jihadis or wannabe terrorists to do back then. Today, whether in Nice, London or now Barcelona, al-Zawahiri’s call to battle in this manner is sadly being realized.
TCB: Although it is also a liberal democracy, Israel has implemented enhanced security measures at placed like malls and other soft targets where people go through metal detectors and bags are screened. Are the U.S. and the West heading in that direction?
Hoffman: It’s something of an apples and oranges comparison because Israel has been at war with terrorism literally from its founding almost 70 years ago. It’s also surrounded by threats and lives in a volatile region. Israel also experienced a tremendous proliferation of suicide attacks between 2002-2004, and only adopted many of these procedures in the wake of those attacks. What suits and works in one country is very situation and threat specific. There isn’t a one size fits all model because different countries have different societies, cultures, and fundamentally different levels of threat. Each county can learn from what others are doing, but there isn’t any single, all-encompassing blueprint that you can pull out of a drawer and universally apply and say this is the right one for every place, all the time.
In Spain there is a heightened level of security that we don’t necessarily see elsewhere in Europe or certainly in the U.S. But striking this balance is never something that’s carved in stone or is permanent. It’s reflects a threat that constantly shifting and evolving. And in response to these shifts and trajectory, the public in turn demands a higher level of security that may have been previously unthinkable.
TCB: You also previously mentioned that “Israel has often been the canary in the coal mine in terms of being on the receiving end of new terrorist tactics and different targeting pattern.” How much do law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the U.S. and Europe monitor what is going on in Israel to prepare for the next threat in their countries?
Hoffman: Law enforcement and intelligence agencies are absolutely monitoring closely what happens in Israel and the countermeasures that are used. That is no doubt.
The problem is that thwarted attacks don’t generate the same sense of alarm or the same urgency amongst the public and elected officials that actual attacks do. The foiled or aborted plots certainly generate concern amongst law enforcement and intelligence agencies that are constantly monitoring them. But in the wake of an attack, it’s patently obvious that you need to take these measures.
TCB: As ISIS loses territory in its self-declared caliphate across Syria and Iraq, will we continue to see the terrorist group double down on its external operations, particularly in Europe and the United States or will the loss of its operational center limit the group’s ability to organize and direct operations?
Hoffman: Both. ISIS already has established an external operations capability that is in place across Europe to carry out these types of attacks. Renting a van is not the pinnacle of sophistication in terms of a terrorist attack but it’s consequences are equally as tragic as a comparatively more complex and coordinated attack. At the same time, ISIS’s intention and desire to carry out these attacks will only increase as they lose territory because there will be an additional motivation predicated on revenge and retaliation as well as whatever theological and political arguments are used to legitimize or justify these types of operations.
We know this from monitoring ISIS’ communications. Their message used to be “come help us build a state.” Now their propaganda has very quickly pivoted to advocating blind violence to exact retaliation and revenge for the destruction and dismantling of that state. This is profoundly worrisome because at the end of the day, arguably the most basic and visceral human emotion is the desire for vengeance and enlisting this powerful motivation in support of terrorism has profoundly dangerous consequences.
What’s also worrisome is that this is the second summer in a row that has been punctuated by tragedies inflicted on people just walking down a street. We had Nice last year and the attacks in London both back in March and in June. Now we have this terrible tragedy. Unfortunately, these types of simple attacks may well have become the new normal in international terrorism.
Also, what has been lost behind the headlines of everything that has preoccupied us this summer was the airline bombing plot that was foiled in Australia a few weeks ago. It was absolutely chilling because ISIS operatives in Turkey, using ordinary commercial cargo means, were able to ship plastic explosives to a cell in Australia who then attempted to hide the explosives in a meat cutting machine, put it in checked luggage, and load it onto an aircraft.
Unfortunately, even as ISIS is losing territory and may have been defeated in Mosul and soon in Raqqa, like all terrorist groups, they are constantly evolving, adapting, and adjusting to the countermeasures directed against them in hopes of developing new means to successfully target their enemies. We are seeing this now across the entire terrorist technological spectrum—from very simple attacks using just ordinary rented vehicles to sophisticated military ordnance that is smuggled internationally and could easily have resulted in a colossal tragedy.
The lesson from this summer is that we cannot relax our vigilance against a threat that is still constantly changing and evolving.