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The year of terror in Europe

Bernd Riegert / ntDecember 30, 2015

Ten years after the last large-scale attacks in London, Europe experienced a bad year of terrorism in 2015. Hundreds died, including many French, Turks and Russians. "War" against "Islamic State" has been the result.

Frankreich Polizeifahndung nach Terroranschlägen in Paris
Image: Reuters/Y. Herman

The year 2015 began as it ended: with shots ringing out in terror attacks in the heart of Paris. In January, the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket were the targets. Seventeen people died. In November, Islamist terrorists killed 130 people in Paris and at the Stade de France. France and the whole of Europe reacted with shock. In January, President Francois Hollande spoke of a monstrous barbarism; now, at the end of the year, he sees the country as being at war against the powerful "Islamic State" group, which operates in Syria, Iraq and North Africa. "What happened yesterday in Paris and the Stade de France was an act of war", said Hollande on November 14, the day after the attacks. "In war the state has to make proportionate decisions. The act of war was carried out by a terrorist organization of the Islamist 'Daesh,' against France and against the values which we defend, in the whole world, against every free country."

Attacks on 'IS' stepped up

European politicians, along with the leaders of the G20 states, who met for talks in Turkey shortly after the Paris terror attacks, promised solidarity and aid. Because Turkey and Russia were also victims of devastating attacks by the Islamists, the end of this year of terror saw the formation of an unlikely coalition that intends to take action against "Islamic State." But the conflict in Syria continues unabated. And though there are the first signs of a political solution being negotiated, the USA, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, France and Turkey are all - apart from the joint fight against "IS" - pursuing totally different goals in the region.

Frankreich Sicheheit Polizisten vor dem Eifeltumr
Police have been guarding the main Parisian landmarksImage: picture-alliance/epa/G. Horcajuelo

Germany participates in the war

That became dangerously apparent when a Russian fighter jet was shot down by Turkish armed forces. The two countries had got in each other's way during parallel operations against targets in Syria. Relations between Turkey and Russia are at a low ebb, but an escalation was prevented. Germany and other European allies such as Great Britain and Denmark are now intent on putting their declared solidarity into action. The states have mobilized their air forces for the war against "IS." German Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged unlimited support to France: "We will do everything to help with the hunt against the perpetrators and wage the joint fight against the terrorists." No sooner had she said it than she ordered the deployment of Tornado reconnaissance planes, a naval ship and a fueling aircraft to Syria. Security authorities have warned that Germany, too, has long been a potential target for terrorists, and more than ever at the end of the year. "We, your German friends, feel so close to you. We are crying with you," said Angela Merkel to the French in November.

Hit at the core

"Je suis Charlie." With this empathic affirmation of a belief in the freedom of opinion, people in France and many other parts of the world demonstrated their will to stand up to terrorism. The Iranian foreign minister, however, continued to condemn the publication of caricatures critical of Islam. The stage-managed solidarity march by leading politicians in a Paris side street - for "security reasons" - was rather embarrassing. At the same time, millions of people were marching right through Paris - without protection. In November, such marches had to be canceled, as the situation had grown too dangerous and threatening in the meantime. As a substitute, empty shoes were laid in the Place de la Republique. "I am Paris" was now the slogan. The French fervently sang the "Marseillaise," their martial national anthem. And just four weeks after the terror attacks, the right-wing populist "Front National" made decisive gains in regional elections.

Symbolbild - Flagge ISIS
"Islamic State" is now under attack from several countriesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Large number of attacks in Europe

In addition to the attacks in Paris, France was the stage for many smaller acts of terrorist violence as well. In April, a woman was shot dead by an assailant who wanted to attack a Christian church. In June, an attack on a gas factory near Lyon failed - only narrowly, as it seems. A man was decapitated there by an "IS" henchman. In August, an Islamist attacker in the high-speed Thalys train was overpowered by courageous passengers before he could strike. On November 18, a Jew was attacked with a knife in full public view.

In Denmark, two people died in February in attacks on a cultural center and a synagogue. The Danes declared war on terror. After the attack, the chief rabbi of Denmark, Jair Melchior, was stunned: "Danish Jews were part of society, and that to 100 percent. That's why we felt so special here. If someone now lays a flower outside the door, then it is not to show solidarity with Jews, but because a Dane was killed," Melchior said in an interview with Deutsche Welle. There were also attacks with a terrorist background in Berlin and London. Turkey and Russia were particularly hard-hit: hundreds of people died in attacks in Ankara and Suruc and when a Russian passenger jet went down over the Sinai. They are also thought to be probable victims of the radical Islamists.

EU to tighten security measures

The European Union is promising France military assistance according to Paragraph 42 of the Lisbon Treaty. That's never been the case before. The interior ministers are pledging better cooperation between police authorities and intelligence services. The intended result is to have more monitoring of travel and money transfers. But the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly. The same commitments and demands were heard at the start of the year as at the end. Implementing them as practical law can take months, and sometimes years.

Deutschland, Tornado Kampfflugzeug
Germany has sent Tornado reconnaissance planes to SyriaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Rehder

The open inner borders in Europe are doubly under pressure: first, because of the refugees who have been coming to the continent for months without being controlled, and secondly, because of the realization that terrorists with EU passports can obviously travel unhindered or mingle with the influx of refugees and thus arrive in France from Syria without being recognized. German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere has called for better protection of the EU's external borders. "Thousands of foreign fighters, travelling jihadists, are in Syria fighting on the side of the so-called 'Islamic State.' From there, terror attacks are being coordinated and carried out in Europe. That's why we have to know who is flying to Europe and who is coming back to Europe, so that we can react accordingly," said de Maiziere after one of the many extraordinary meetings on fighting terrorism. The EU intends to store and evaluate flight data in the future. A joint border guard is to be set up because countries such as Greece, Bulgaria and Italy are unable to cope.

Belgium – center for terrorists

France's northern neighbor is also overtaxed. Nearly all the traces left by the perpetrators of the Paris terror attacks lead to Belgium. The attacks were apparently prepared in the Brussels district of Molenbeek, an Islamist stronghold that has long been known to the Belgian authorities. In operations in Verviers in January and the Belgian police succeeded in apprehending some helpers and uncovering weapons depots. But one of the chief suspects managed to escape. In Brussels, subways, shops, schools and universities were shut down for a few days for security reasons. But then everyday life returned to normal. The political parties have been arguing about who is to blame for the poor integration of Muslim migrant children. Belgium is fighting against its reputation of being a "failed state" with regard to security, as the German newsmagazine "Spiegel" has described it. Soldiers are patrolling the streets at the end of the year 2015. Will that offer protection against jihadists?

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