Why the Terrorist Attack in Spain Will Not Be the Last
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Evgenia Gvozdeva

Director of Production at the Brussels-based European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center

Valdai Discussion Club

Over the past 24 hours two terrorist attacks happened in Spain. In the evening of August 17, a van crashed into the pedestrians in Barcelona. According to the latest information, 13 people were killed, more than 100 were injured. The same evening in Cambrils, south of Barcelona, another group of terrorists tried to repeat the car attack. Six people were injured, five attacking terrorists were killed. The special services continue to search for suspects. ISIS took responsibility for the attack on Barcelona. According to Evgenia Gvozdeva, Director of Production at the Brussels-based European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center, the terrorist attack in Spain can hardly be the last in a series of large-scale terrorist attacks in Western Europe: ISIS is constantly expanding the list of countries that are among the priority goals.

After the incidents in the UK and Sweden for several months there were no large-scale terrorist attacks in Europe, and this period can be considered a relative success. However, ISIS did not stop terrorist activities in Europe: in its statements it constantly threatened Europe with new acts of terrorism.

Geography of ISIS

ISIS is constantly expanding the list of countries that are among its priority goals. After the terrorist attack in France (2015) and Belgium (2016), ISIS issued a statement that Germany and Great Britain will be the next countries, and in a few months that was exactly what happened.

In the ISIS program statements it is argued, that the main goal of the caliphate is to ensure that Christians and other Europeans did not feel safe in any state. It is quite logical that ISIS is expanding its geography: in one of the latest statements it was mentioned that the next countries to be attacked are Spain and Italy.

Al-Andalus as a symbolic goal

Despite the fact that the attack in Barcelona is a shock, we cannot say that it was absolutely unpredictable. In recent months, US intelligence agencies warned their European and Spanish counterparts on a possible large-scale terrorist attack in a public place in Spain. Unfortunately, despite the received signals, this did not help prevent the attack.

It should be noted that the Catalan Spain, Al-Andalus region, is often featured in radical Islamic propaganda as a symbolic target of Islamic terrorists: both for ISIS and Al Qaeda. In this region ISIS wants to increase its presence, according to the program statements since 2014.

In its propaganda ISIS constantly says that «Al-Andalus will again be Muslim, and Muslims will be in Rome.» These two symbolic goals of ISIS have been set for a long time.

Modus operandi

The terrorist attack using a car in crowded places that we saw yesterday in Barcelona is not a new method for ISIS. It is increasingly used by supporters of radical Islam (primarily ISIS), but, as we have seen recently in London, it is also used by other extremists. Why?

First of all, because terrorist attacks using cars are the most difficult to be prevented by special services. Moreover, from a logistic point of view, a terrorist attack using a car requires significantly less preparation than a terrorist attack using firearms or explosives. This does not require any special knowledge and qualifications necessary to assemble high-powered explosives or to use firearms.

Such acts of terrorism — with use of cars – are very complex in terms of prevention, because even standard methods such as wiretapping or controlling the turnover of weapons do not work here. It takes several hours to rent a car today.

Practice shows that almost all the terrorist attacks that were prevented in the last two years in Western Europe were planned with use of gas cylinders, explosives or firearms. It is quite difficult to talk about how many attacks with cars have been prevented in the Western Europe, but it is obvious that there were far fewer of them.

As a rule, after such attacks using cars, the necessary measures are immediately taken: concrete blocks are installed at the entrances to tourist areas, more police near the administrative buildings, museums and other places, visited by tourists. Of course, «barriers» allow to protect a small zone in a particular city. But they do not allow to protect the population as a whole and to prevent such attacks in the future.

Who is next?

The terrorist attack in Spain will not be the last in a series of large-scale terrorist attacks in Western Europe. Currently, the level of terrorist threat in Western Europe is so high that any, even the most extraordinary security measures do not allow to protect the population completely from new terrorist attacks.

The measures, currently being taken by the security agencies of the Western European countries, may help improve the situation in short term, but they will not completely exclude the risk of a terrorist attack.

The task of ISIS is to expand maximally its zone of influence.  Previously it was believed that ISIS primarily acts against those countries that are actively involved in the anti-ISIS coalition in Syria and Iraq. The latest terrorist attacks have shown that this is not true. ISIS is now ready to carry out terrorist attacks in any city of Europe, attacking both the civilian population and law enforcement officers. The range of targets remains very wide.

Valdai Discussion Club