By Lisa Bryant
Security alerts ramped up following Islamists attacks in France and Belgium, following a pair of Islamist attacks. A spike in anti-Jewish acts and a string of bomb alerts.
Once again, some European countries are seeing the spillover of another conflict in the Middle East, a month into the Israel-Hamas war. But there are clear differences between the nature and potential ramifications of today’s security threat and that of nearly a decade ago — when the Islamic State, which controlled large swathes of Iraq and Syria, spawned terrorist attacks that killed hundreds in Europe, officials and analysts say.
If the Israel-Hamas war is drawn out and spreads, some add, Europe could see a mix of potential fallouts going beyond extremist violence, potentially weakening Europe politically, placing new demands on it to support Ukraine in its war against Russia, and emboldening far right parties.
“The similarity is rising awareness of [the] threat in European countries,” said Gesine Weber, a Paris-based European security expert at the German Marshall Fund, of the two Middle East conflicts. “But the attacks in 2015/16 were attacks against a Western liberal lifestyle and frustration against a system in place. Whereas the attacks we’re seeing now are more against a targeted group of individuals: Jews.”
France, home to Western Europe’s largest numbers of Jews and Muslims, has seen more than 850 anti-Semitic acts since the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas attacked Israel last month. Other European countries have similarly registered a surge in anti-Semitic incidents, with police ramping up security at Jewish schools and synagogues.
“We feel anti-Semitism in the air,” Gerard Hunger, vice president of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions, told French radio.
In October, France and Belgium raised their security alerts to the highest levels after a pair of Islamist attacks together killed three people. Bomb threats have prompted evacuations of European airports and tourist spots. Last week, French police fired on a veiled woman, after she allegedly threatened to blow herself up in a Parisian metro station.
A recent poll by French broadcaster BFMTV found eight in 10 French surveyed worried about a terrorist threat at home. And European Council President Charles Michel warned of “major security consequences” that could “exacerbate tensions between communities and feed extremism.”
“There is a lot of tension running across Europe, with acts of vandalism, or arson attacks on synagogues, threats formulated on and offline against specific targets — clearly in relation [to the war] between Hamas and Israel,” said Thomas Renard, director of the Netherlands-based International Center for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague, Netherlands.
“It is not yet terrorism,” he added. “But it’s clear we are seeing more of these tensions with violent incidents related to them,” including from European bans on pro-Palestinian protests over fears of violence.
Fears of a widening conflict
Unlike the string of Islamic State-authored terrorist attacks across Europe in 2015 and 2016, today’s threat comes from “isolated individuals” from within Europe, says Renard, rather than returnees from Iraq or Syria with intentions to strike.
France’s General Directorate for Internal Security, or DGSI intelligence agency, has come to the same conclusion, according to France-Info radio. Today’s radicals are increasingly young and “aren’t necessarily affiliated to a terrorist organization,” the news organization reported, citing an internal note from the agency. Of concern, it added, were people recently released from prison who had served sentences for terrorist acts.
According to Le Monde newspaper, however, French intelligence services have not registered any increased threat by radical Islamists because of the Israel-Hamas war. People joining pro-Palestinian protests in France in recent weeks, it said, bore the flags and slogans of the Palestinians — not the green banners of Hamas or the black ones of the Islamic state, although some were reportedly spotted in a London demonstration.
“The global jihadi groups have their own agendas which is not necessarily the same as that of Hamas,” Renard said. “Even if there’s some solidarity, at the end of the day, these groups are in disagreement over their fundamental objectives. Hamas is a nationalist group. Islamic State and al-Qaida are global groups with completely different agendas, strategies and approaches.”
But things could change if the conflict drags on and spreads.
“Images of dead Muslim children will further serve the propaganda of Islamic State and al-Qaida,” Renard said.
Other analysts see Europe weakened politically. The European Union has offered a fractured response to the Israel-Hamas war, spending hours at a summit last month before agreeing to calls for humanitarian “pauses” to allow aid into Gaza. Divisions among member states over support for Israel and sympathy for the Palestinians could carry consequences in the longer term, some believe.
“The threat of terrorism and other forms of violence will increase,” said Stefan Lehne, a senior fellow for Carnegie Europe, in a recent analysis by the think-tank, in which he also predicted the block will harden its stances toward migration. “Radical right parties will exploit the situation and their nationalist agenda will impede the finding of European solutions.”
German Marshall Fund security expert Weber offers a similar assessment — adding a protracted conflict in the Middle East could affect European security calculations in other ways.
“In a scenario where the U.S. decides to significantly decrease its support to Ukraine because it decides to prioritize competition with China and support Israel,” she says, “that means the Europeans will shoulder a significant burden of supporting Ukraine financially and militarily.”