A railway employee checks tickets of passengers about to board a Thalys international service on a platform at Brussels Station, Belgium, on August 25 (XINHUA)
A failed terrorist attack took place on a high-speed train operated by Thalys travelling from Amsterdam to Paris on August 21. The attack didn't cause serious casualties thanks to six passengers, including three Americans on a tour to Europe—two of them off-duty military servicemen—who tackled a suspected radical gunman about to go on a killing spree with an assault rifle.
According to French police, the gunman, Ayoub El-Khazzani, 25, is a Moroccan migrant who used to live in the city of Algeciras, Spain. The suspect has previously been convicted of several offences in Spain, including drug trafficking and traffic offence, and has been given at least two prison sentences.
Khazzani spent quite some time in Turkey in recent years and the police believe that he might have joined a radical Islamist group in Syria before he returned to Europe in June this year.
Since last year, Western Europe has been increasingly facing the threat of terrorist attacks. The latest attempted shooting once again reflects the difficult social, economic and religious problems plaguing counterterrorism in EU states.
EU citizens are accustomed to a free and open atmosphere, which has been helpful to European integration, and enjoy convenient connectivity between member states. But it hinders governments' efforts to set up a network of strict security checks.
The EU as a whole is reluctant to take tough security measures, which might be deemed as violation of civil rights and freedom. The EU has always stood up for these core principles. However, terrorists have taken advantage of such insufficient counterterrorism efforts in previous attacks.
In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City in 2001, EU countries have enhanced national security. But Western Europe has suffered a string of deadly attacks in the last 10 years, such as the suicide bombings in London's public transport system, the train bombing in Madrid of Spain, blasts and shootings in Oslo of Norway, and the deadly gunshots at Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris this January. These terror attacks show that homeland security in Europe is far from being satisfactory.
Many lessons have been drawn from these tragedies. Europeans pay much attention to protecting privacy, respecting laws and building convenient public services, and they can rightfully take pride in these achievements. But it also explains why tougher surveillance is hard to implement in European countries, such as body and luggage scans in public places, and intelligence sharing between governments.
After a terrorist attack, local police raise the terror threat level as a temporary response. Once the crisis is over, the alert level goes back to normal.
Moreover, the Schengen Agreement enables passport-free movement between 26 member states. Terrorists can therefore take advantage of this freedom of movement. In the case of the Thalys train shooting attempt on August 21, the suspect was able to take a Kalashnikov rifle and an automatic pistol on board an international train because there was not a single security check at Amsterdam Station or in other stops in Belgium.
The suspect was identified as an immigrant, thus highlighting Europe's immigration problem again. For a long time, there has been a wide gap between Muslim immigrants and mainstream society in many Western European countries.
In the last half century, millions of Muslim migrants have moved to Western Europe from former colonies which gained independence in the wake of World War II. During the period of strong economic growth, Western Europe resorted to migrant workforce from North Africa and other regions. The population of Muslim immigrants and their descendants grew rapidly, but they remain marginalized in their adoptive countries. Integration remains a burning question.
In recent years, economic recession in most European countries has led to mass unemployment. Immigrants bear the brunt of unemployment, which makes their situation even more difficult.
Since the 9/11 terror attacks and the war on terrorism in Afghanistan, the antagonism between the West and the Islamic world has had a salient influence on European society. The grassroots of the Muslim community began to harbor hatred against the West. Radical Islamist groups have been recruiting members in Western Europe. In recent years, a large number of European citizens went to Syria and Iraq, joining militant groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS). After obtaining military training and experiencing the battlefields, many of them returned to Europe and awaited the opportunity to launch terror attacks.
Furthermore, the increase in xenophobic sentiments as well as events in Europe have intensified the conflict between local natives and migrant minorities. Some far-right political parties attribute social problems, including increasing unemployment and crime, to immigrants; these parties are gaining substantial local support and are sharpening social tensions. Under such circumstances, anti-Muslim sentiments have been on the rise in EU states, as shown by the massacre perpetrated in Norway in July 2011 by Anders Behring Breivik, a Norwegian far-right extremist, who killed over 70 people.
EU countries have been implementing an active interventionist policy to clamp down on international terrorism. Amongst NATO members, Britain and France play an important role in the U.S.-led military actions against terrorist groups in Afghanistan, the Middle East and Africa.
However, as regards national security, EU countries lag behind the United States. Western Europe is highly integrated but countries have not yet managed to establish an efficient domestic security network. In this sense, European countries should learn from their American ally.
Over the past decade, the United States has taken steps to build an all-encompassing national security shield system, including border surveillance, security check at airports and railway stations. The U.S. Government has also worked toward raising awareness against possible terror attacks and set up defense lines at the community level. Thanks to these efforts, the United States has not suffered serious terror attacks since 9/11.
Today, Europe faces more imminent terror threats. International terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda and ISIS, have made Europe—France in particular—their primary target.
Europe should adopt a two-pronged approach to enhance its security measures. Governments should allocate financial and human resources to the police and counterterrorism departments, enabling them to fight terrorists more effectively and efficiently. European countries should also enhance cooperation, especially in terms of intelligence sharing and joint actions.
If Europe wants to eradicate the terror threat, comprehensive efforts should be made to turf out homegrown terrorists, both radical Islamists and far-right extremists. Apart from security measures, Europe should deal with the immigration crisis and enable initiatives promoting ties between migrant groups, in particular with Muslim minorities. European governments should take steps to improve the social status and living standards of Muslim citizens and safeguard fairness and justice for all.
The author is an assistant researcher with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations
Copyedited by Jacques Fourrier