What Europe Can Do to Prevent Terror Attacks

by Emile Nakhleh

The recent terror attack in Barcelona is yet another bloody reminder that the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) has put Europe in its crosshairs. Although this was the bloodiest attack in Spain since 2004, since then several European cities—including London, Paris, Brussels, Nice, and Berlin—have witnessed terrorist-caused carnage and mayhem. Can these directed, inspired, or self-initiated attacks be thwarted? What can Europe really do to prevent such attacks? Let’s explore a few ideas that will be part of the battle against terrorism and extremism.

Transnational Intelligence Sharing

Terrorism is now a transnational reality. Transnational intelligence collaboration, therefore, must also become a reality, in word and in deed. The first fundamental point is that the United States is directly affected by what happens in Europe. This means that intelligence sharing between the United States and Europe must become a top priority if counter-terrorism is to be addressed seriously. Washington and other key American cities like New York must put all available counter-terrorism resources at the disposal of European cities and countries targeted by terrorist organizations. Intelligence sharing within the European Union and among European countries must also become more robust.

In recent years, especially since 9/11, American-European bilateral intelligence collaboration generally has worked well, but it has varied from one country to the next. Depending on the depth of the overall relationship between the United States and its allies, partnering intelligence services would pool their professional and tradecraft expertise on countries, regions, and groups. Trust among intelligence services is critical for successful partnering.

During my career at the Central Intelligence Agency, I noticed that the highest level of collaboration occurred between Washington and its Commonwealth partners—the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. That was followed by Western European countries—including France, Germany, Spain, and Italy—and north European and Scandinavian countries. Non-Western, Arab, Muslim, African, and Asian countries rounded out the list. The depth of the intelligence exchange on a bilateral basis often was determined by the significance of the issue and by whether it involved an immediate, current, and critical or actionable terrorist dimension.

Intelligence sharing within European countries has been fraught with domestic political considerations, privacy issues, stove piping, and turf jealousies. In recent years, some European countries have balked at comprehensive sharing of intelligence sources and methods with their neighbors because of some countries’ support of or opposition to American counter-terrorism policies and practices, including “enhanced interrogation techniques,” torture, rendition, and the use of so-called black sites.

Now that terrorism has hit almost every European country, national political and security leaders should develop a strategy for immediate and comprehensive collaboration that includes travel data, watch lists, and agents of radicalization—meaning persons, social media outlets, visa information about young people traveling to Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, Pakistan, and other countries on the travel watch list.

Domestic Policies Toward Muslim Communities

According to Spanish security services, the Barcelona attack was not the work of a so-called “lone wolf.” An operational cell in Spain, perhaps with connections to other countries including France and Morocco, was behind the car attack. If this is an accurate assessment, such a cell could not have functioned under the radar of the security services in Spain or any other European country without the support of some members of the Muslim community—immigrants, descendants of immigrants, or converts to Islam. The assistance these supporters provide potential terrorists is usually driven by a radical, religious, anti-Western ideology, kinship or geographic relations, shared experiences in the adopted country or the country of origin, training in terrorist camps, or detention in Arab, Muslim, or European prisons or at Guantanamo and elsewhere.

In many cases, the radical ideology of potential terrorists is honed by the perceived mistreatment of Muslim communities in European countries and by their belief that European countries have engaged with the Americans in an on-going “war against Islam.” It’s also driven by rising Islamophobia in Western societies and ignorance of Islam as a religion, a culture, a complex series of historical narratives, and a moral compass of its adherents. Ignorance of this complexity makes it easier for non-Muslims to blur the differences between law-abiding Muslims and terrorists in the name of Islam, thereby branding all Muslims as terrorists and violent people.

Osama Bin Ladin’s al-Qaeda and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Caliphate have preached a virulent anti-Western ideology based on the belief that the West is waging a deadly battle against Islam as a religion and is bent on destroying the Islamic world territorially. Al-Qaeda and IS believe that suffering caused by this “aggression” anywhere in the Muslim world is the same everywhere Muslims live. Bin Ladin always viewed anti-Western Muslim grievances across the Muslim world, from Chechnya to Palestine and from Morocco to Bangladesh, as one and the same. Terrorist organizations have also accused European countries of siding with Arab and Muslim dictators in the perceived “war on Islam.”

European countries have generally taken a two-pronged approach toward their Muslim communities: target and neutralize radicals, would be terrorists, and their radicalizing agents; and engage Muslim communities through policies intended to help at-risk individuals become functioning citizens of their countries. Neither prong has worked well. Targeting radicals and terrorists would benefit immensely from closer intelligence sharing and security collaboration in human and technical collection, analysis, and sources and methods.

European countries’ engagement of their Muslim communities has been severely wanting. Official messaging has addressed conditions like high Muslim youth unemployment, under-employment, poverty, and alienation that are prevalent in many areas where Muslims live in the bigger cities of England, France, and other countries. But European governments must make major financial investments in their Muslim communities to spread technical education, create jobs, and push entrepreneurial initiatives and startups. At the same time, these governments should institute national educational programs that would enlighten non-Muslims about Islam, which could halt the rise of Islamophobia in Western countries.

Governments should partner with major high tech corporations to establish vocational, two-year technology and vocational institutes (TVI) in urban areas where large Muslim communities reside for training youth, ages 18-30, in vocational careers, ranging from computers to nursing to hospitality to building trades and more. These “job corps” TVIs, akin to the American concept of community college, would train interested youth in careers that are always in demand.

European governments and corporations should set aside sizable budgets to fund innovation and creative start-ups in Muslim neighborhoods, which would create meaningful jobs connected to the high-tech economy. High school and college-age youth in Muslim communities should be strongly encouraged to submit start-up proposals to local panels of experts that would judge these proposals. A winning submission would be given a sum of up to $10,000 to develop and market the start-up. Such start-ups usually begin to generate jobs within the first five years of operation. Other countries, including the Muslim country of Jordan, for example, have established similar funds for start-up competitions.

Innovative entrepreneurial start-up initiatives and commensurate job creation, together with useful technical education, could be the engine for job creation in Muslim “ghettoes” and crowded Muslim neighborhoods across Western Europe. Meaningful employment in turn will beget dignity, self-fulfilling lives, and hopeful futures. A generation that enjoys a satisfying life of work, creatively and passionately, will have less idle time and less inclination to pursue the path of violence and destruction. Europe can turn the corner.

Photo: A crowd in Barcelona’s Plaça de Catalunya observes a moment of silence for the victims of last week’s terror attacks (Wikimedia Commons)

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.



  1. Getting the CIA to stop wrecking other nations’ democratic processes to further US interests would be a good start.

  2. Daily reminder than most European countries can barely find jobs for their “own” non-Muslim youth, and the economy is still barely recovering from the great recession post-2008. Financing muslims because they are muslim would be akin to political suicide, not even considering that the natives could feel a tad enraged to see public money wasted on ghettoes while community services are failing and the job market degenerates in a race to the bottom.

    The point is, we as Europeans don’t have the resources for such programs. Repression is both cheaper and brings more political support, even if I doubt will be effective long-term.

  3. Would help if people stopped listening to people like Emile Nakhleh who say it is Islamic State or ISIS-there is even a fake ISIS Facebook page. Real terrorists say ISIS to keep themselves safe.

  4. Thanks for the post , just worth to note , it is not so “simple as an apple” to presume , that career , education , work , and well being , would solve even somehow the problem . It may even increase it . And how exactly ??

    Well , when you do integrate , within a society , which fundamentally , contradicts your roots and basic and fundamental education ( let alone while dealing with Islam ) A young person , may encounter , severe identity issues , and being literally split off between both universes . Finally being pushed or being appealed by extremists like Daesh , and being engaged in terror , granting him : destiny , excitement , sense of having purpose and significance , diverting or solving so , the split in identity mentioned .Let alone , while naturally , they are rejected by society many times .

    Here for example , I quote :

    Professor Arie W. Kruglanski

    Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland

    He has studied the issue , under the title :

    ” Psychology Not Theology: Overcoming ISIS’ Secret Appeal ”

    Here :

    ” Frustrated youths without coherent purpose, uncertain prospects, and on the receiving end of rejection are particularly prone to resonate to loss of significance of Muslims as a group. Thus, Barrett suggests that jihadists tend to be “disaffected, aimless, and lacking a sense of identity or belonging.” But it is not only they, apparently, who find the ISIS message attractive; the appeal to one’s (trampled) identity and the depiction of one’s group’s degradation can incense individuals who may otherwise be seen as well-adjusted and with a promising future. According to reports, Nasser Muthana, a 20-year-old volunteer to ISIS, was accepted as a student by four medical schools, while Muhammad Hamidur Rahman was gainfully employed and had a well-to-do father. The psychological appeal of this particular approach can therefore be seen to work across demographics and circumstantial contexts.”


  5. Just demonstration to my comment above , by that ” Jihadi John”( he was part of a four-person terrorist cell with English accents whom they called “The Beatles”; the press later began calling him “Jihadi John”.) here relevant part of his ” normal ” biography , what surly wouldn’t prevent his cruelty while recruited to ISIS , here I quote from Wikipedia :

    ” Emwazi ( Jihadi John ) was born Muhammad Jassim Abdulkarim Olayan al-Dhafirion 17 August 1988 in Kuwait to Jassem and Ghaneyah . The family, who were Bedoon of Iraqi origin lived in the town of Al Jahra , before moving to the United Kingdom in 1994 when he was six. They settled in inner west London, moving between several properties in Maida Vale, later living in St John’s Wood and finally in Queen’s Park. Emwazi attended St Mary Magdalene Church of England primary school, and later Quintin Kynaston School.
    In 2006, he went to the University of Westminster, studying Information Systems with Business Management. He secured a lower second-class BSc (Hons) on graduation three years later . At age 21, he worked as a salesman at an IT company in Kuwait and was considered by his boss as the best employee the company ever had . ”


Comments are closed.