The so-called Islamic State rushed to claim responsibility for last week’s Christmas market attack in Berlin, even with the alleged terrorist Anis Amri then on the run. (The 24-year-old Tunisian was killed a few days later in Milan.)
The jihadist group’s eagerness to cash in the propaganda chips is only one indication of how important it was and remains for ISIL to score a hit against Germany — especially after a string of aborted or limited attacks. Germany stands at the very core of ISIL’s strategy for Europe. It’s important to understand why in order to to think more clearly about possible remedies.
ISIL’s terror campaign in Europe began on May 24, 2014 when Mehdi Nemmouche attacked the Jewish Museum in Brussels, killing four people. This attack took place more than a year after the declaration of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in the Syrian city of Raqqa, and a month before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIL leader, proclaimed himself “caliph.” Even more important, Brussels occurred long before a U.S.-led coalition started bombing ISIL positions in Iraq, in August 2014, then in Syria the following month.
This timing is worth dwelling on for a couple reasons. For as much as ISIL says its terrorism is “retaliation” for Western air strikes against them, and as much as too many people take that claim at face value, repeating it only plays into the hands of jihadist propaganda. Note that Brussels was hit by terrorists last March, leaving 32 dead, at a time when Belgium wasn’t in any way active in the anti-ISIL coalition. It also misses the key to the dynamics of the ongoing terror campaign in Europe: There are bigger reasons why ISIL focuses on Europe that go beyond the lazy explanation of bombings and truck attacks (before Berlin came Nice in July) as a response to Western strikes in Syria and Iraq.
For ISIL, Europe is both a coveted pool of potential recruits and a dangerous counter-model of enduring coexistence. Terror attacks in Europe are intended to generate internal strife and societal tension in the hope of encouraging more young Muslim men (and more than a few women) to join the jihadist cause in Syria and Iraq. And, as importantly, to demonstrate and precipitate the failure of the democratic, European alternative to the jihadist caliphate.
The two main targets for ISIL are France and Germany. France because it is home to the Continent’s largest Jewish and Muslim populations that, while imperfect, shows how communities can live side by side. And Germany because of its generous open door to refugees from Syria and Iraq: ISIL propaganda is rabidly anti-refugee, accusing migrants of betraying the “true path” of the caliphate.
While last year’s Paris attacks highlighted roots ISIL has put down in France, the terror group has also tried to make inroads in Germany. At least 800 people have joined ISIL from Germany. Some reached prominent positions, like Reda Seyam, who was appointed “minister of education” before being killed in Iraq in December 2014. The leader of the German (and German-speaking) recruits is believed to be Mohammed Mahmoud, an Austrian-born “veteran” of jihadi propaganda, who had previously served al Qaeda media campaigns. Some 140 German-originated jihadis have been reported killed in Syria and Iraq, including at least 14 in suicide attacks.
On November 8, a major police operation in the German city of Hildesheim led to the arrest of the radical preacher nicknamed Abou Walaa. He is accused of organizing the recruitment and transfer of activists to ISIL. German security has now stated that he was in contact with Amri, the Berlin Christmas market attacker. Another police dragnet was launched one week after the Hildensheim operation against a similar network in Germany. Jihadi “veterans,” now back home, have started to be tried and condemned in German courts (as happened to three in Düsseldorf two months ago).
In France and Belgium, ISIL has used jihadi returnees from Syria and Iraq in terrorist attacks. In Germany, the group repeatedly used refugees instead of veterans to carry them out — without much success. It made sense to try since ISIL’s strategy in Germany is to undermine Angela Merkel’s liberal refugee policy through terror. A possibly serious attack by three jihadis posing as refugees on the old city of Düsseldorf was foiled after the surrender and confession of a Syrian militant in France, in February 2016; two asylum-seekers, one 17-year-old Afghan on a train in Würzburg and one 27-year-old Syrian at a music festival in Anbasch, died in suicide-attacks (that fortunately killed nobody else) under instructions from ISIL in Syria.
Western intelligence have warned about the activity of the Emni, or ISIL “security branch,” now in charge of “external operations” (meaning terror attacks abroad). The Bremen-born Harry Sarfo joined ISIL in April 2015 and was quickly recruited by the Emni, which sent him back home after only three months in the field. That decision and, following his capture, Sarfo’s testimony in court provided vivid proof of growing frustration inside ISIL over its inability to strike Germany. Despite its focus on the country, ISIL had failed to carry out any attack as deadly as in neighboring France.
The biggest defeat for ISIL in Germany occurred in October, when the Syrian jihadi Jaber al-Bakr — on the run after a planned terror attack against an airport, most probably in Berlin — was captured and delivered to the police by three Syrian refugees. By praising the three “anonymous heroes,” German authorities tried to promote a positive narrative to support their asylum policy. But Bakr committed suicide while being detained in Leipzig, undermining German law authorities’ ability to paint his capture as a success.
The populist and far-right critics of Merkel asylum policy turned louder and more vicious after the killings in Berlin. At long last, ISIL had reached its German target, even though it had to resort not to a refugee but to a Tunisian Amri with a European criminal record, whose asylum application had been turned down (though Germany had failed to deport him).
* * *
In the larger picture, the Berlin attack is part of a new wave of global terror that is bound to follow the fall of insurgent-held Aleppo this month.
ISIL is the great winner of this major turning point in the Syrian war for at least three reasons: The regime of Bashar al-Assad, with the substantial involvement of Russia and Iran, liquidated the very forces that had driven ISIL from Aleppo as early as January 2014; Assad and his allies were so focused on crushing the city that they let ISIL take back Palmyra, whose “liberation” had been abundantly celebrated in Damascus and Moscow last March; and international passivity during the siege of Aleppo fueled jihadi propaganda about an international “conspiracy” against Muslim civilians and the need to join ISIL to “defend” them.
On the eve of the Berlin attack, ISIL managed to strike the Jordanian city of Karak where clashes with jihadi commandos left 10 dead. More important than the toll is the fact that Karak is a tribal pillar of the ruling Jordanian monarchy. A Jordanian pilot whom ISIL tortured to death in February 2015 was originally from Karak, where King Abdullah II’s government launched its nation-wide campaign of popular mobilization against ISIL. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death squads had long worked for a major blow against Jordan, the same way they focused on achieving such a bloody outcome in Germany. It is only more ominous that they could eventually strike both countries in less than 48 hours.
The Berlin tragedy raises questions about Amri’s support network and his ability to move across Europe for some three days after the attack. All these questions are legitimate and should be addressed accordingly. But, as I wrote after the Paris attacks on November 13 of last year, “anything short of the takeover of the main jihadi stronghold in Syria will leave the initiative in the hands of ISIL and Europe vulnerable to repeated attacks.” That was before the bloodbaths that shook Brussels, Nice and Berlin.
As long as Raqqa stands as the operational command center for ISIL terror attacks, Europe will be struck again and again. And with the U.S. stuck in Mosul and the Russians “mopping up” Aleppo, it seems that ISIS could sit comfortably for some time more in Raqqa. Too bad for Europe, too sad for Germany.
Jean-Pierre Filiu is professor of Middle East Studies at Sciences Po, Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA). He is the author of “From Deep State to Islamic State,” published in London by Hurst and in New York by Oxford University Press. His various books on the Arab world have been published in 15 languages.