Jihadists are likely to be particularly intent on mounting attacks in Europe over the holiday period, most notably in Belgium, France and Germany
This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 13 December 2023.
- These high-to-severe terrorism threats are driven by the Israel-Hamas conflict and the usual heightened jihadist hostility around the holidays
- But despite the heightened motivation of jihadists, there is nothing to suggest they have become more capable than usual; high-impact attacks are still unlikely
We assess that jihadists are particularly intent on mounting attacks in Europe over the upcoming holiday period. There have been several attacks and plots, and dozens of bomb threats, in the region since the conflict between Israel and Hamas began on 7 October. This is in addition to what tends to be an already-elevated threat around the Christmas period. Jihadists would try to use explosives in attacks, based on recent plots involving the discovery of such materials. But the authorities’ mitigation measures and effective surveillance have foiled most plots in recent years.
The likelihood of an attack appears highest in Belgium, France and Germany. This is based on:
- The location of recent incidents; Most of the terrorist attacks and plots since 7 October have occurred in these countries.
- The already severe terrorism threat level there; We currently assess jihadists to be particularly intent on mounting attacks in these countries; our terrorism threat level for these (and for Austria and the UK) is severe.
- Official statements or actions since 7 October; The authorities in these countries have raised the national terrorism threat level, stepped up security measures, or otherwise indicated they are particularly concerned about the potential for attacks in the coming months.
Terrorism threat high to severe in western Europe
Our terrorism threat levels are currently high to severe across many countries in central, western, and northern Europe. We raised many of these in October shortly after the war between Israel and Hamas began; there has been a significant increase in the number of bomb threats, attacks, and hostile statements on extremist platforms that we monitor in the weeks since that incident. Jihadist groups, including Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda, have called for attacks in Western countries, particularly those they perceive to support Israel. See here for our assessment of the increase in threat in relation to the conflict.
The terrorism threat seems to be particularly elevated in Belgium, France and Germany. Jihadists have already shown in recent weeks that they want to mount attacks in these countries. The incidents and plots since 7 October which the authorities have confirmed are terrorism-related include:
- Belgium: A gunman killed two Swedish civilians and wounded a Belgian taxi driver in an attack in central Brussels on 16 October. The suspect, who was killed by police after the attack, claimed to have been inspired by IS, which claimed responsibility. Two people based in Paris, who were reportedly connected with the perpetrator, were also arrested there in late October. The suspect was reportedly deliberately targeting Swedish individuals in retaliation for Quran burnings in Sweden in recent years.
- France: A jihadist stabbed a teacher to death and injured three other people at a school in Arras in northern France on 13 October. The interior ministry has since said there is ‘no doubt’ this attack was linked to the conflict between Israel and Hamas. The perpetrator was reportedly already known to security services for ‘radical Islamism’.
- France: An individual stabbed a German tourist to death and injured two other civilians on Quai de Grenelle near the Eiffel Tower in central Paris on 2 December. At the time of writing, the suspect is under investigation for ‘assassination in relation to a terrorist enterprise’; he reportedly pledged allegiance to IS and was known to the authorities but has an ‘acute mental illness’.
- Germany: The authorities on 24 October arrested a man in Duisburg, North Rhine-Westphalia state, for allegedly planning an attack against a pro-Israel demonstration. The suspect was previously sentenced for unspecified jihadism offences according to local news reports.
- Germany: The authorities arrested two teenagers in late November for allegedly planning an attack using incendiary devices or a vehicle against a Christmas market in an unspecified city on 1 December. According to local and international media reports, the suspects had said that they planned to target ‘infidels’.
- Germany: The authorities on 21 November arrested a man, reportedly an Iraqi citizen, who had allegedly planned to carry out a stabbing attack in support of IS. The authorities have said they ‘cannot rule out’ that a Hannover Christmas market was his intended target.
EU appears concerned over terrorism threat
European counterterrorism officials have been on heightened alert since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas conflict. The EU home affairs commissioner said last week that there is a ‘huge risk’ of terrorist attacks over the Christmas period in member states. An anonymous EU official later told journalists that the warning was based on radical Islamist and jihadist content and propaganda online, recent attacks and plots, and many countries’ decisions to raise their domestic terrorism threat levels.
Domestic security and intelligence agencies have also issued warnings in recent weeks. The German domestic intelligence agency in late November described a ‘new dimension’ of intent among jihadists to mount attacks since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas conflict and stated that they have detected above-average anti-West rhetoric among extremists online. The UK counterterrorism police in November also said the Gaza conflict could have an ‘energising effect’ on jihadists planning attacks. And the Netherlands raised their terrorism threat level to ‘substantial’ on 12 December for the same reason.
No sign that capabilities match intent
There does not seem to be specific intelligence of imminent attacks or jihadists’ heightened capabilities, however. That said, several fairly-advanced plots uncovered in recent weeks – particularly in Germany – do reflect what appears to be a broadly heightened hostility, and a lack of warnings around an imminent terrorism risk. France, for example, raised the national terrorism threat level to the highest level, ‘attack emergency’, but the interior minister said on 23 October that the authorities have ‘no clear threats’. They have not issued any statement about the threat for several weeks.
We assess that any attack would very probably involve a lone actor conducting a stabbing or vehicle-ramming. The most likely location would be a busy tourist area in a major city. These attacks do not require that much planning or coordination with others so are more difficult for the authorities to detect. While jihadists have on dozens of occasions tried to use explosives for attacks in Europe, the authorities have usually intercepted these; several of these involved police finding explosives – anywhere from bomb-making materials to viable devices – in the suspects’ possession.
Attacks are less likely to result in large numbers of fatalities in comparison with the years before 2021. The authorities in most countries now secure open-air venues (such as Christmas markets and shopping areas) with large bollards and barricades to prevent people from driving vehicles into pedestrian areas.
Image: Visitors crowd the Christmas market at Breitscheidplatz in Berlin, Germany, on 12 December 2018. Photo by Sean Gallup via Getty Images.