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Barcelona terror attack: Beware of lone wolf strikes

There is a clear shift in the operational strategy of the terrorists acting on ISIS orders.

 |  5-minute read |   20-08-2017
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There are indications of Islamic State-sponsored terrorists shifting their focus to the European heartland as witnessed in the Barcelona lone wolf terror attack last Thursday, when a single terrorist driving a white Fiat van ploughed through the downtown market in Barcelona killing 13 innocents.

Responding with great alacrity, the security forces killed five terror suspects. Spain has not been on the terrorists' radar in the recent times. That may have possibly brought in some complacency in lowering the vigilance leading to this mayhem.

However, given the existing global terror scenario, the Barcelona incident is an eye-opener for all security professionals and Spain, in particular, has to wake up to the hard realities and anticipate more attacks in future.

Security experts concede that Islamic terrorists think much ahead of their strike plans and their precise execution.

Authorities, meanwhile, are linking the Barcelona attack to the gas explosion that took place prior to Barcelona strikes in the Catalan town of Cambrils.

According to Josep Luis Trapero, head of Catalan regional police force, the two incidents are definitely connected to the gas explosion at Alcanar, which took place on Wednesday night.

barca-690_082017032430.jpgBarcelona is not an isolated tragedy. Photo: Reuters

The gas explosion preceded the day before the lone wolf terror strike in Barcelona's streets, which were humming with activities and a large number of tourists.

Fire officials claim that a gas build-up had caused the explosion at a site 200 kilometres South of Barcelona.

It's not yet clear, however, how the two incidents are linked when both the locations are apart by such a long distance and that needs a little more delving into. Possibly, a detailed probe, currently underway, may shed some light.

The police, meanwhile, further disclosed that some 20 Butane and Propane canisters were caught from the hideouts of two Islamic suspects. This makes the case more complex and intriguing, more so because those arrested gave out that they — along with many others — are maintaining illegal drug laboratories.

Does that mean terrorists had plans to use chemicals that result in a heavy dose of terror?

In another development, police have arrested the prime suspect, 28-year-old Driss Oukabir, from Ripoll in Catalonia's Girona province for allegedly renting the killer van used to carry out the attack.

Importantly, Driss was on the watchlist for long and came to Spain only on August 13 and stayed in Madrid, possibly to undertake a reccee.

It may be impertinent to recall the IS-sponsored Madrid train bombings of 2004, which killed as many as 193 and wounded nearly 1700.

Driss' stay in Madrid may signify a nexus with other Islamic terrorists from Morocco who trie to launch their operations across Europe.

In December last year, a lone wolf Islamic terrorist drove through a crowd of Munich Christmas revellers' killing many before he was nabbed in Milan and got killed.

The ugly trend, therefore, continues and it is almost impossible to state when it will cease.

Meanwhile, so far, three suspects have been arrested and interrogation is underway; those arrested include Said Aalla (18), Mohd Hychami (24) and 17-year-old Moussa Oukabir who was shot dead.

Hopefully it will lead the Spanish authorities to some logical conclusion.

Examining the trend and modus operandi applied by the terrorists would indicate that those involved are very young and thoroughly radicalised to carry out these terror attacks.

Suicide attacks seem to be now carried out only at select sites and on the wane.

Those complicit in the 2015 Paris attack and other peripheral terror strikes are all of North African origin, especially from Morocco and Algeria.

Coincidentally, citizes from North Africa, Libya and Tunisia keep trying to migrate to Italy, Spain and other European countries in an apparent bid to abandon their primitive Arab way of life and embrace greener pastures.

The same is true for Belgium, which witnessed deadly attacks in the not-so-distant past and wreaked havoc in several west Europe targets, including airports.

There is a clear shift in the operational strategy of the terrorists acting on IS' behest - and its lone wolf terror.

Fatalities are high and the number of perpetrators who help them to evade intelligence-led surveillance few. Casualties are maximum and lead to world wide publicity, with minimum damage to the terrorists.

Spain is teeming with Islamists, many of them of North African descent. Some feel at home in Spain, imagining that it is still under Ottoman Empire.

The intelligence community would do well if random surveillance is placed on the suspects, especially those from the North African countries. Surveillance implies the gathering of technical intelligence, especially by snooping or interceptions.

At least it should begin now to minimise damage.

IS is thought to be on the run, with the fresh reverses in Iraq, Turkey and Syria. Under these circumstances, it would resort to any desperate act to target infrastructure, particularly in Europe.

The Hague-based Europol(along the lines of Interpol), run by professionals from all European countries, is mandated to exchange hard time intelligence and alert the country with timely actionable intelligence to neutralise terror and terrorists.

As an ex-intelligence officer and one who has professionally interacted with Europol in the past, I would like to believe that Europol is alive and kicking and they have dossiers of Islamic terrorists wreaking havoc in Europe.

Those individuals need to be extensively covered and information shared appropriately to keep Europe safe — to secure it from Islamic terrorists.

There is a psychological angle to it as well. If a successful terror attack is carried out in mainland Europe, countries in Asia and nondescript nations in East Africa, in particular, feel more wary and vulnerable.

In September this year, Kenya would be observing four years of terror attacks in Nairobi where strikes were inflicted by IS and its affiliates. Such countries need intelligence support. For instance, Somalia's Al Shabab is still active and all terror bodies are linked to each other not only by ideology but also through logistics.

The Barcelona attacks must act as a case study to learn lessons and take preventive action to foil future terror designs.

Also read: 10 lessons I learnt from Ahmed Patel Vs Amit Shah Gujarat Rajya Sabha polls drama

Writer

Shantanu Mukharji Shantanu Mukharji @shantanu2818

The author is a retired IPS officer who has held key positions in the Government of India handling sensitive security issues within and outside India.

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