Train at­tack shows im­pos­si­bil­ity of track­ing all ji­hadists

The China Post - - COMMENTARY - BY ERIC RAN­DOLPH

The thwarted at­tack by a gun­man on a high-speed train be­tween Am­s­ter­dam and Paris has un­der­lined the dif­fi­culty faced by in­tel­li­gence ser­vices in track­ing the un­prece­dented num­bers of po­ten­tial ji­hadists, ex­perts say.

The Moroccan sus­pect in Fri­day’s in­ci­dent, iden­ti­fied as 25-yearold Ay­oub El Khaz­zani, was first flagged by Span­ish author­i­ties as a po­ten­tial ex­trem­ist and had re­port­edly trav­eled to Syria.

He was over­pow­ered by other pas­sen­gers be­fore he could kill any­one in the train.

A Span­ish counter- ter­ror­ism source said Khaz­zani had lived in Spain from 2007 to March 2014, be­fore trav­el­ing to Syria from France.

In a timely in­ter­view pub­lished on the same day as the at­tack, Alain Grig­nard, a se­nior mem­ber of Bel­gium’s counter-ter­ror­ism po­lice unit, said the ter­ror­ist threat has “never been higher in all the years I’ve been work­ing.”

“It boils down to math­e­mat­ics and it’s all linked to the Syria dy- namic,” Grig­nard told CTC Sen­tinel, the in-house jour­nal of the U.S. mil­i­tary academy at West Point.

“There’s no way of know­ing the ex­act num­bers but I can tell you with cer­tainty that at least 300 have trav­eled — that’s the num­ber we have suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence to bring charges against. At least 100 have re­turned to Bel­gium, but we are un­der no il­lu­sions that there aren’t more we don’t know about. It’s im­pos­si­ble to do sur­veil­lance on ev­ery­body.”

It’s a point driven home by ter­ror­ism ex­pert Raf­faello Pan­tucci, of the Royal United Ser­vices In­sti­tute in Lon­don.

“The author­i­ties know about a lot of peo­ple but not which ones will ac­tu­ally launch an at­tack,” he said.

“It’s a very re­source-in­ten­sive job. You need three shifts with sev­eral peo­ple, and equip­ment and ve­hi­cles, to watch some­one 24 hours a day. In­tel­li­gence agen­cies just aren’t big enough to do that for ev­ery­one.”

‘Dif­fer­ent pri­or­i­ties’

Grig­nard said the num­ber of ter­ror­ism sus­pects had mush­roomed in re­cent years.

“To give you an idea of the scale of the chal­lenge, in the past two years we’ve charged more peo­ple with ter­ror­ism of­fenses than in the 30 years be­fore that,” he said.

“Our ap­proach in Bel­gium is to de­tain ev­ery­body sus­pected of fight­ing with ter­ror­ist groups in Syria when they re­turn to Bel­gium. But in lots of cases we do not have enough ev­i­dence (to charge them).”

Bel­gium, where Khaz­zani boarded the train in the cap­i­tal Brus­sels, is thought to have the high­est per capita num­ber of peo­ple in Europe leav­ing to fight in the Mid­dle East.

The threat was un­der­lined when a ji­hadist cell linked to the Is­lamic State group was busted in Bel­gium in Jan­uary, thwart­ing an al­leged plot to at­tack po­lice.

But France has the high­est over­all num­bers join­ing the ji­had, with the gov­ern­ment re­port­ing that 843 had left for Syria as of May — more than half of them un­known to author­i­ties at the time of their de­par­ture.

“It’s the peren­nial prob­lem of how you pri­or­i­tize be­tween se­ri­ous con­cerns,” said Pan­tucci. “Plus there’s the Schen­gen free move- ment — it’s very easy for peo­ple to move around.

“In­tel­li­gence agen­cies in dif­fer­ent coun­tries are get­ting bet­ter at talk­ing to each other, but they may make dif­fer­ent assess­ments of in­di­vid­u­als and put their pri­or­i­ties in dif­fer­ent ar­eas.”

As if to un­der­line the ob­sta­cles to in­tel­li­gence-shar­ing, France and Spain have is­sued con­flict­ing ac­counts about Fri­day’s gun­man, with Span­ish author­i­ties telling AFP he trav­eled from France to Syria and back last year, while French of­fi­cials say they were never in­formed of this.

A Sort of ‘su­per-gang’

Although ji­hadist pro­files vary greatly, one of the key trends in Grig­nard’s view has been an in­creas­ing num­ber who come from “in­nercity gang” back­grounds.

“Young Mus­lim men with a history of so­cial and crim­i­nal delin­quency are join­ing up with the Is­lamic State as part of a sort of ‘su­per-gang,’” he told CTC Sen­tinel.

He cites the cell bro­ken up in Jan­uary “who were rad­i­cal­ized very quickly, and when they came back from Syria they had no fear of death.” Two mil­i­tants were killed in the raid.

“When our com­man­dos launched their raid it took the sus­pected ter­ror­ists one sec­ond to switch from chat­ting be­tween them­selves to open­ing fire.

“These guys had maybe more ex­pe­ri­ence in gun bat­tles than our own com­man­dos. Here in Bel­gium and across Europe we are now re­view­ing how we do these kind of raids,” said Grig­nard.

There is also a limit to how much se­cu­rity can be mounted, par­tic­u­larly around trains.

Bel­gium said Satur­day it would in­crease bag­gage checks and pa­trols on high-speed trains, while France will in­tro­duce an emer­gency hot­line to re­port “ab­nor­mal sit­u­a­tions.”

But with 3,000 sta­tions in France alone, ab­so­lute se­cu­rity is im­pos­si­ble.

“Air­planes leave from a spe­cific place — you can build a se­cu­rity ap­pa­ra­tus around it,” said Pan­tucci. “It’s just not pos­si­ble to do that with trains. You would have to do that at ev­ery sta­tion from large ter­mi­nals in Paris to small towns in ru­ral France.”

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