PARIS—This has been a very bad week for terrorists in Europe. Their murderous missions failed miserably here and in Brussels and now, days later, they’re all but forgotten.
Who will remember the fool who tried to blow up a bunch of gendarmes Monday on the Champs-Élysées with an improvised suicide car bomb, but only managed to asphyxiate and immolate himself, stumbling half-fried into the street before collapsing and dying?
And then, on Tuesday night in the Belgian capital, another would-be bomber managed to light up a corner of the central train station. His explosive was loud and bright enough to attract the attention of the police on patrol, who shot him dead in very short order. As the cops all over Europe like to say these days, he was “neutralized.”
There was a time, not so long ago, when such incidents would have made headlines for at least a day or so. But compared to the recent carnage in the United Kingdom—Westminster Bridge, the Manchester concert, London Bridge, and the attack on Muslims in Finsbury Park—they pale by comparison.
And before the U.K. horrors, we had the Christmas market carnage in Berlin, the Bastille Day slaughter on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, the savagery at the Bataclan and the cafés of Paris, the murder spree at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket. And we’re not even mentioning the record of terror in the United States, whether the bloodbath at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando last year or the lunacy of a knife-wielding Muslim from Canada at the airport in Flint, Michigan, this week.
If we’re honest, even the more horrific events are starting to seem like one long blur of terrorism, and up to a point, ironically and sadly, that’s a good thing. When terrorists no longer shock us, their ability to terrorize us diminishes, and they’re defeated almost as much by our public apathy as by our bravery.
But the police and security services look at the terrorists’ failures as what, in all too many cases, they are, which is trial runs. And while some of the would-be murderers may die in oblivion like worker ants sacrificing themselves, they open the way for the larger terrorist organization and ideology to survive.
“We are probably at a transitional phase,” says Gilles Kepel, author of Terror in France: The Rise of Jihad in the West. The so-called Islamic State, al Qaeda, and their spinoffs “are looking for something new,” he told The Daily Beast on Thursday.
Global jihad, in Kepel’s view, has moved through three major phases from “the first wave of jihad in Afghanistan and its fruitless sequels in Bosnia, Egypt, and Algeria (1979-1997), to al Qaeda’s second wave of jihad against America, whose high point was reached on September 11, 2001,” and “a third jihadist wave” that began “during the pivotal year 2005, with its focus on combat on European soil and its inclination to find recruits among the millions of second-generation immigrants from the Muslim world who have put down roots in Europe.”
“Contrary to Osama bin Laden’s top-down organization of the attacks on New York and Washington, third-wave jihadism is network-based and organized from the bottom up,” says Kepel. “Third-wave jihadism also takes advantage of the spectacular growth of social media, which began in 2005 [for the jihadists] with the birth of YouTube.”
The result has been a proliferation of amateurish attacks, many of them carried out by terrorists who have either direct connections to terror networks, or swear allegiance to them from afar, but may have little training or tactical judgment.
Mehdi Nemmouche, who had tormented French hostages held by ISIS in Aleppo, returned to Europe to attack a Jewish museum in Brussels in May 2014, killing four people. He stupidly took a bus to Marseilles that is often used by small-time drug dealers and often searched by the police, and sure enough, he got picked up there along with his murder weapons—a pistol and a Kalashnikov.
As Kepel notes, “Nemmouche’s error would never have been committed at the time of al Qaeda, when the organization planned the Sept. 11 attacks in advance with the meticulousness of a Secret Service.”
One of the main strategic weaknesses of third-generation jihadism, writes Kepel, is that it “relies on delegating to unstable individuals the responsibility of choosing when and how to enact jihad.”
Sometimes the failures are ludicrous. In April 2015, a would-be jihadist intended to attack a church outside of Paris, but accidentally shot himself in the leg, called emergency services, and promptly got himself arrested. In August 2015, a man with a Kalashnikov on the Thalys train between Brussels and Paris was thwarted by off-duty American soldiers in Europe on vacation.
After the fact, police learned these incidents that were quickly forgotten by the public were connected to the same ISIS network that, in November 2015, carried out the horrendous attacks in Paris that killed 130 people.
What new wave might be coming? Whether we’re looking at further attacks on military and police targets, or civilian crowds, or iconic monuments, or air or ground or even sea transportation, or perhaps some kind of cyberwar, or the jihadists’ long-sought Holy Grail (a weapon of mass destruction)—or all of the above—none of that is clear.
But it is obvious the jihadis are looking, and it’s only a small consolation that so many recruits are incompetent, and so many leaders have gone off to Syria and Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia to fight and, whether in open battle or hunted down by drones and special forces, to die.
The more the police learn about Monday’s attack on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, perhaps the most famous avenue in the world and a prime tourist destination, the more disturbed they are by their findings.
At a briefing Thursday, Paris Prosecutor François Molins told the press that the terrorist Adam D., identified by local news media as Adam Dzaziri, a 31-year-old French citizen, had amassed an “arsenal” of rifles, shotguns, pistols, and explosives that spoke to the scope of the planned terrorist action.
Dzaziri traveled to Turkey three times over the last year, where he might easily have met with the ISIS organization and apparently obtained funds. When stopped coming or going to Istanbul, he claimed to be in the jewelry business and declared he was carrying gold and thousands of euros in cash.
In a new example of the failure of French authorities to act on the information they have in hand, Dzaziri, who was among the thousands of French citizens suspected as jihadis who authorities keep dossiers on called fiches S, somehow managed to get gun permits for “target shooting,” and many of his weapons were perfectly legal.
Surveillance videos taken Monday showed him driving alone in his Renault sedan around some of the city’s top tourist destinations, including the Eiffel Tower, before crossing the Seine and making a u-turn to follow vans taking riot police and gendarmes toward a labor demonstration near Place de la Concorde. On the Champs-Élysées, he then rammed one of those vans with eight gendarmes inside before rolling to a stop.
According to earlier accounts, when the gendarmes got out of the van they saw that Dzaziri appeared only semi-conscious and broke a window to get into the car, at which point they smelled fumes and stepped back as flames erupted from inside. Dzaziri staggered out of the car with a pistol in his hand and collapsed.
“By all appearances, his goal was to turn his vehicle into an explosive device,” said Molins. Found inside was a burned shoulder bag with what appeared to be several small bombs. In the back seat were two propane gas canisters, with boxes of ammunition piled between them.
On the day he died, Dzaziri had mailed letters pledging his allegiance to the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Europol (the European Union’s police operation) keeps track of terrorist cases, and its yearly Terrorism and Situation Trend Report 2017 was published just last week. Last year there were more than 142 “failed, foiled, and completed attacks” reported by eight EU member states—of which 95 were fuck-ups (our word, not theirs).
Meanwhile, the death toll jumped dramatically from four people killed by terrorists in Europe in 2014 to 151 in 2015 (the year of the Bataclan), and then 142 in 2016 (including the 87 killed in Nice on Bastille Day). The numbers do not count victims of right-wing attacks on refugees and immigrants, which, interestingly enough, are not statistics that member states provide to Europol. (A footnote in the report tells us "an average of nearly 10 attacks a day were carried out on refugees in Germany in 2016.")
Also, tellingly, over half of the would-be attacks reported in 2016 were planned in the U.K.—but all were related to Northern Ireland-related terrorism, according to the Europol report, which means the data on Islam-related plots was not shared.
Meanwhile, the jihadis were girding for their onslaught on the bridges of London and a teen concert in Manchester.
When making a timeline for the countries where most jihadist attacks took place, a pattern emerges of many small incidents and thwarted ones, then suddenly one or two high-casualty attacks. And so far in 2017, the death toll remains high. The following list is compiled from our own research and the Europol report and reflects many but not all of the terror plots and attacks in four European countries since the beginning of last year.
January 2016: A man wielding meat cleaver is “neutralized” in front of the Goutte d’Or police station in Paris
January 2016: A Jewish teacher is attacked by a man with machete in Marseille.
March 2016: A French national is arrested in the Argenteuil suburb of Paris, in what was believed to be the advanced stages of preparation for a terrorist attack. Police seized 2 kilograms of the explosive TATP and a Kalashnikov rifle, and also found materials to make more explosives.
May 2016: An off-duty soldier is stabbed by alleged ISIS supporters while jogging at St. Julien du Puy
June 2016: A French police detective and his wife are stabbed to death at home but their 3-year-old son left alive at Magnanville (near Paris), before the killer is neutralized.
July 2016: 87 people (including the perpetrator Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel) died during the Bastille Day attack in Nice, France, as when he drove a heavy truck through the crowd.
July 2016: Two men enter a church in Normandy, cut the throat of an 89-year-old priest and seriously injure a nun. Both attackers are killed.
September 2016: Three women are arrested for placing a car containing five gas bottles and a rudimentary ignition mechanism close to Notre Dame cathedral. One woman stabs a police officer when she is tracked down and arrested.
February 2017: An Egyptian man is shot and killed by police at one of the entrances to the Louvre in Paris after he attacks and wounds a soldier with a machete.
February 2017: Three men and one woman are arrested in the southern French city of Montpellier on suspicion of planning an attack in Paris. Police found 71 grams of TATP, a powerful explosive, in the suspects’ apartment.
March 2017: A man who says he is “here to die for Allah” is gunned down as he tries to snatch a weapon from a woman soldier on patrol in Orly Airport, Paris.
April 2017: Three police officers and a bystander are shot by an attacker wielding an AK-47 rifle on the Champs-Élysées. One of the policemen dies. The attacker was shot dead during the incident. He had a note defending ISIS.
April 2017: An Islamic radical shoots two police officers on the French island of Reunion.
June 2017: A radicalized Muslim attacks a policeman with a hammer outside the Notre Dame cathedral and is promptly neutralized. The policeman’s injuries are minor.
June 2017: A heavily armed jihadi attempts to set of a suicide car bomb on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, but the car fails to detonate properly and he dies without inflicting any further casualties.
February 2016: 15-year-old German girl of Moroccan descent stabs and seriously wounds a police officer with a kitchen knife in Hanover. The incident occurred at the main train station, during a routine ID check. She was carrying a second, larger knife.
May 2016: A man shouting praise to Allah stabs four commuters at a train station in Munich.
June 2016: German police arrests three Syrians as alleged ISIS members, for plotting a terror attack in central Düsseldorf using suicide vests, explosives and rifles.
July 2016: A 17-year-old Afghan attacks and wounds four passengers with an axe and a knife on board a train to Würzburg in southern Germany.
July 2016: A 27-year-old Syrian detonates a backpack bomb, killing himself and injuring 12 people at Ansbach, near Nuremberg. It appears that the Ansbach Open Music Festival was the intended target.
December 2016: A terrorist with Syrian connections hijacks a truck and drives it through a Christmas market next to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church at Breitscheidplatz in Berlin, leaving 12 people dead and 56 others injured.
March 2016: Two suicide bombings at Brussels Airport and one in the Brussels Metro that resulted in 35 deaths and more than 300 wounded.
August 2016: Two police officers, both female, are attacked with a machete outside a police station in Charleroi. The attacker, a 33-year-old Algerian, is shot and killed by a third officer nearby.
October 2016: Two police officers stabbed in the Brussels neighborhood of Schaerbeek, by 43-year-old Belgian national.The assailant is shot in the leg by a second group of police officers.
June 2017: Attempted bombing in the main Brussels train station. Seconds after detonation, a 37-year-old home-grown terrorist of Moroccan descent from the Molenbeek neighborhood is neutralized, leaving behind at the scene several gas-bombs and nails.
October 2016: Improvised explosive device left at North Greenwich in an unattended bag filled with “wires and an alarm clock” aboard a Jubilee line train. The bomb failed to go off. The bomber, Damon Smith, had “an interest in Islam” and had posed next to a photo of an Islamic extremist.
March 2017: An attack near the British Parliament; 40 people are hurt after being mowed down by car on Westminster Bridge. Five people were killed in the terror attack, including a police officer who was stabbed, and his assailant.
May 2017: A suicide bomber attacks Ariana Grande’s pop concert before an audience of up to 20,000 in Manchester Arena. Authorities promptly raised the terror threat level to “critical,” fearing another attack. Subsequent arrests suggest connections to an extensive ISIS network in Libya.
June 2017: Three men drive a van into pedestrians on London Bridge. Wielding knives, they enter the nearby Borough Market, where they stabbed people in and around restaurants and pubs, killing eight.
June 2017: Vehicle attack on Muslims leaving prayers shortly after midnight on June 19.
Nadette De Visser reported from Amsterdam and Christopher Dickey reported from Paris