Europeans scrambling to keep up with evolving Islamist threat

Europeans scrambling to keep up with evolving Islamist threat

Independent activity and looser confederations making it harder to track terrorists, officials say

French police special forces evacuate residents in Porte de Vincennes, eastern Paris, after a gunman opened fire at a kosher grocery store, January 9, 2015. (photo credit: AFP/Martin Bureau)
French police special forces evacuate residents in Porte de Vincennes, eastern Paris, after a gunman opened fire at a kosher grocery store, January 9, 2015. (photo credit: AFP/Martin Bureau)

European security officials are scrambling to meet what they say is a changing and more complex threat from jihadists — both from sleeper cells and fighters returning from Middle Eastern battlegrounds — made clear in the deadly Paris attacks.

European police agency chief Rob Wainwright said the security landscape is “more difficult, more challenging” than at any time since the September 11, 2001, attacks.

It is an extremely dangerous time, stressed British Prime Minister David Cameron, who said the threat was “severe” and an attack “is highly likely.”

The three days of violence that left 17 dead in Paris last week — starting when gunmen stormed into the offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo January 7 — have left the world reeling, with questions being raised about how the perpetrators slipped through the cracks.

The two Charlie Hebdo attackers, brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi, had ties to jihadist groups in Yemen and Syria. Cherif and a third gunman, Amedy Coulibaly, who killed four hostages at a Jewish supermarket, had each spent time in jail where they were further radicalized.

But the three men had not been active in jihadist circles for nearly a decade before the Paris attacks, so police focused their attention elsewhere, Europol chief Wainwright said.

The challenge has shifted since al-Qaeda’s heyday under Osama bin Laden, Wainwright stressed.

Police are seeing “a lot of independent or semi-independent people” who have been radicalized through the Internet or through experience fighting in Syria and Iraq, he told ABC’s “This Week” in an interview that aired Sunday.

“Of course, that makes it much more dangerous. That’s the challenge the police face,” he said.

“It’s much looser than we have seen before. It’s not the same as in the days of 9/11, when we had an identifiable command and control structure.”

US Senator Richard Burr said the Paris assault should trigger a reevaluation of how authorities monitor possible threats.

“Every country in the world today is probably looking back at the policies that they’ve got on surveillance for known fighters,” the Republican lawmaker said in an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

But British leader Cameron stressed that dealing with the problem of extremists “is going to take a very long time.”

“We’ll have to show real perseverance,” he said in an interview with CBS’s “Face the Nation” taped on Friday after his meeting with US President Barack Obama.

Moreover, he said, the fight against extremist attackers will be fought not only through police and military action.

“We’ve also got to demonstrate that our values, that the things we stand for and care about in our societies — of democracy and free speech and rights and the ability to have peaceful and progressive societies — that those things are stronger” than those of Islamist extremists pursuing a “poisonous death cult narrative,” Cameron said.

“We cannot do this on our own as Western countries. We need functioning government in Iraq, functioning government in Syria, to be the legitimate authorities that with us, help to stand back this perversion of the Islamic religion.

“I think in a free society, there is a right to cause offense about someone’s religion,” continued Cameron, adding that, as a Christian, he might be offended by somebody’s remarks about Jesus, “but in a free society I don’t have a right to wreak my vengeance upon them.”

Charlie Hebdo’s new editor in chief, meanwhile, defended the caricatures in an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“Every time we draw a cartoon of Mohammad, every time we draw a cartoon of prophets, every time we draw a cartoon of God, we defend the freedom of religion,” said editor Gerard Biard.

“If God becomes entangled in politics, then democracy is in danger,” he added.

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