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)

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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. ISIS is not “disaffected, aimless, and lacking a sense of identity or belonging.” . Quite the opposite- they organized into a group to defend themselves from the Baghdad Shiites and take back their(the Sunni’s) land in central Iraq. About 30 years ago I offered the services of the Peace Corps to survey and map their lands as one unit(nobody in the area of the map we see as Iraq ever had anything to do with making of the map) but they said no. The Peace Corps surveyed and mapped what we now see as Baghdad. The so-called Iraq government(Shiites only) is an unmapped state, similar to what ISIS is- organization without defined territory.

  2. You continually say “to ISIS”- ISIS had nothing to do with Jihadi John! Jihadi John said the words but never got together with ISIS.

  3. Bobby Dias :

    It is not about the militant group itself , but , the individual psychological profiles , of those recruited to ISIS , mainly those from Europe . Read carefully my comments !!


  4. Comment of mine, has simply disappeared and not posted , so here again :

    Bobby Dias :

    It is not about the militant group itself , but , the individual psychological profiles , of those recruited to ISIS , mainly those from Europe . Read carefully my comments !!


  5. The solutions are easy and achievable but first the problem has to be defined!
    1. The US and EU intelligence apparatus have to admit that they have been and still are part of the problem and NOT part of the solution in ME/NA.
    2. The west has to recognize that it NO longer can keep the regions colonized because of their resources and it has to realize that it should compete with others for those resources in an open market
    3. The ME region doesn’t need any financial assistance from any country and they can afford their own rebuilding.
    4. The region needs and must be left alone and all the non regional profiteers must leave the regions and leave it to the locals to resolve their own dispute successfully or disastrously!
    5. Once the region is left alone then the grateful, ungrateful, satisfied or dissatisfied immigrants living in the west have no excuse to join groups like ISIS! Perhaps the regional powers for the sake of their own survival won’t allow any screwed up group such Al-Qaida or ISIS to rise up and the existing groups will be destroyed overnight
    6. The regional powers once again for the sake of their own survival will begin to reconstruct the ruined regions by using their own youth! The reconstruction gives the youth a sense of ownership and the incentive to stay away from the upcoming resistance or terrorist groups!
    In short, all the western strategies for the past 100 years haven’t worked and in fact have failed and still failing. In fact the applied strategies have continually made the situation worse and forced people to live in hell! So the time has arrived for trying a complete new strategy by having to shutdown all regional intelligence ops, pull the arm forces away and leave the region all together! Will the west be willing to change its strategies? Unfortunately not in the foreseeable future!

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