In late November, information surfaced concerning a new propaganda message released by the Islamic State in which the Sunni extremist organisation called upon its supporters and sympathisers to conduct attacks in Europe during the Christmas season. The propaganda images specifically singled out the United Kingdom and France as targets for radical Islamists. In itself, this is not an unusual development as Islamic State online media outlets periodically issue inflammatory messages linked to major events. However, following the December 2016 attack in Berlin, it is highly likely that European security agencies will closely monitor any warning pertaining to a heightened threat of terrorist attacks.
Understanding the nature of the threats
Following this year’s territorial and military losses, the Islamic State is increasingly using its internet and messaging capabilities to project an exaggerated image of its current capabilities. The organisation periodically publishes videos and messages calling for attacks against major public events. These propaganda messages are either disseminated via the official communication lines of the group, such as Amaq, or via social media platforms by supporters of the Islamic State. The objective is to create a virtual reality in which those abiding by the ideology of the organisation can continue to find a common cause despite the defeat of the Islamic State’s nation-building attempt.
Periodic threats issued during key dates have in the past called Islamic State supporters to conduct attacks against high-profile events. These singled-out, among others, the previous Christmas seasons, the Nevruz celebrations in Turkey, the Halloween festivities of 2017 as well as major sporting events such as the FIFA 2016 Euro championship and the upcoming FIFA 2018 World Cup. The response to these calls is unequal as it depends on several factors. The presence of motivated and ready-to-act lone militants or organised cells is a key aspect determining whether Islamic State’s propaganda messages lead to an actual attack. Also, these exhortations generally raise the alertness level of local security forces thus making it more difficult for would-be assailants to successfully conduct attacks. However, the overall scope of the Islamic State strategy is, at least in part, to crowd the media with its message and generate a feeling of uncertainty and insecurity in the societies it targets. This is something that does not necessarily require a major successful attack as even foiled plots and failed operations have a negative impact on the way European societies perceive the terrorist threat.
The Christmas season: an increased number of high-value targets
For European security services, the Christmas season is a high-risk period as it offers a vast amount of potentially high-value targets for Sunni extremists. Throughout Western Europe, the Christmas period sees large festive crowds repeatedly coalesce in commercial streets, Christmas markets, religious buildings, parks, restaurants and other mass gathering places. In addition, it is one of the periods that experience the highest volume of leisure travel leading to year-high numbers of travellers in railway stations and airports. The number of potential targets makes it virtually impossible for European security services to deploy a substantial amount of police and military officers to successfully conduct on-site risk mitigation operations throughout the territory.
These operational obstacles face an undeterred appetite by Islamic State militants and supporters to conduct high-impact attacks. The Christmas season is of high-value for radical Islamists as any successful attack, even a minor one, could enable the perpetrator to claim success on their religious, economic, political and social war against Europe. Sunni extremists have demonstrated their will and capacity to repeatedly plot and carry out operations during high-profile events. The Nice (July 216), Berlin (December 2016) and Manchester (May 2017) attacks show how single-assailants and small radical Islamist cells can effectively conduct mass-casualty terrorist incidents leading to substantial socio-economic repercussions. Despite weakened operational capabilities in the Middle East, the Islamic State continues to benefit from strong support networks in Europe thus leading to an elevated risk of terrorist plots in the region during the Christmas season.
Crude attacks to remain the main threat
Consistent with the ongoing trend, lone-assailant and crude attacks will almost certainly remain the element weighing on the terrorist threat in Europe during the Christmas period. Local security and intelligence forces have become more proficient in monitoring militant groups and disrupting complex plots that require a degree of communication, coordination, planning and training. As such, Islamic State supporters and sympathisers are highly likely to continue to try to act alone or in small cells using low-capacity tactics such as car-ramming, stabbing and shooting attacks. Militants may also try to manufacture home-made explosives out of dual-use products. During the Christmas period, radical Islamists are likely to refrain from trying to carry out spectacular large-scale assaults which would face the risk of being detected but rather focus on tactically simpler operations that, if successful, could still gain an extremely high media coverage.
Europe at the heart of the Islamic State’s global strategy
Threats to the Christmas season in Europe highlight the Islamic State’s continuous intention to place the region at the centre of its global terrorist campaign. In the coming year, it is almost certain that the Sunni extremist group will continue to push its followers and sympathisers to conduct recruitment and support operations and plot attacks. While security operations are somewhat successful in dismantling Islamist cells, the organisations will continue to benefit from its main networks in the UK, France, Belgium, Germany and Italy to plot operations throughout Western Europe. During the Christmas period, it is highly likely that European local authorities will implement additional security measures around major touristic, commercial and religious sites aimed at mitigating the risk of attacks. These may entail the deployment of on-foot patrols, setting up static obstacles and the increased use of technology to detect suspicious and malicious activities.