The US State Department released a travel alert on Tuesday warning Americans of an increased threat of terror attacks in major urban centers in Europe.
According to the released travel alert, incidents in France, Russia, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Spain, and Finland have demonstrated that various Islamic terror groups including ISIS and Al Qaida have the ability to execute attacks of varying capacities in Europe. The alert highlights the risk of attack increases during the holiday season, referencing the mass casualty attacks that occurred at a Christmas market in Berlin, Germany in December and a nightclub in Istanbul, Turkey on New Year’s Eve.
The alert continues by specifying that extremists continue to focus on tourist locations, transportation hubs, shopping centers, shopping malls, and government installations. The warning recommends that citizens “exercise additional vigilance” when visiting such locations.
The United States is not the only Western government issuing such warnings to holiday travelers. The Australian government also issued an alert to its citizens traveling to the UK stating that “There is a heightened threat of terrorist attacks in the UK” by actors “motivated by the current conflict in Iraq and Syria.” Canadian travelers to the UK were told by their government to “exercise a high degree of caution at all times” and that delays in local airports may occur “due to stringent security screening measures.”
These warnings from the US State Department and others of the dangers in Europe are not unfounded. Aside from the slew of jihadist attacks that have taken place in the past during this time of year, law enforcement in various European countries has been uncovering plots to execute attacks.
German police recently arrested six Syrian men for planning an attack on a Christmas market in the west German city of Essen. Prosecutors in Frankfurt told media sources that the six men, who had all applied for asylum in Germany, are accused of planning attacks in the name of the Islamic State.
The case in Germany does not stand alone unfortunately, and is indicative of a growing trend.
The recently released Global Terror Index, an annual publication of the Institute for Economics and Peace, showed an almost doubling of identified and foiled terror plots in Europe over the past year. The report also showed a rise in the number of terror acts across Europe - as any follower of the news can attest to - this despite an over twenty percent drop in Islamist attacks in the rest of the world.
What are the implications of these findings?
There are certainly many factors that affect shifts in the concentration of terror attacks. Western coalition progress against ISIS in Syria and Iraq and rifts within African jihadist groups such as Boko Haram, for instance, have certainly contributed to the decrease in attacks across the globe. However, there is evidence indicating an increased focus amongst terror groups on targeting Western countries on their own turf. The case of the arrests in Germany serves as an important example. The planned attack was clearly not your run-of-the-mill operation taken on by a frustrated foreigner living in Europe, who had been exposed to a few ISIS-sympathizing Twitter accounts. This was a highly organized plot involving several members across different regions of Germany. The police investigation that succeeded in identifying and apprehending the suspects was made up of hundreds of officers from four federal states. Media reporting on the arrests indicated that the men had planned the attack with “explosives” and other unspecified “weapons.”
The series of governmental warnings should be viewed in context: Jihadist groups are shifting energy into attacks in Western cities, and ‘tis the season that extremists are looking to act.