An impromptu memorial on Las Ramblas, the site of the August 17 attack in Barcelona, August 2017.
Albert Gea / Reuters

The frequency of Islamic State (ISIS) attacks in Europe remains exceptionally steady, with authorities struggling to respond to the scale of the threat. The incidents in Spain and Finland last week epitomized the trend. In Spain, a group of primarily Moroccan terrorists drove a van into a crowd on La Rambla in Barcelona, replicating recent attacks in France, Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Another van attack terrorized the Spanish town of Cambrils hours later. In total, 15 people were killed and over 120 injured. Meanwhile, in Finland, an 18-year-old asylum seeker named Abderrahman Mechkah, also from Morocco, killed two and injured eight in the city of Turku in a knife attack. Finnish authorities are treating the incident as an act of terrorism.

All of this is well in line with Islamist strategy in Europe in recent years. For one, the countries affected should not come as a major shock. Since the beginning of January 2014, 16 European nations have been targeted. The focus on Europe is, in part, down to ISIS’ own interpretation of Islamic theology. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi warned in July 2014 that the world was divided into two camps—that of Islam and “the camp of kuffar and hypocrisy… the Jews, the crusaders, their allies.” Pulling off a major attack in the United States would be ISIS’ preference, but conditions are more favorable in Europe, which has a more radical and less-integrated Muslim population. In Europe, ISIS has also been able to infiltrate refugee flows heading to the continent and take advantage of European governments not devoting sufficient attention to counterterrorism. 

Spain in particular has long been at risk. The deadliest Islamist attack to hit Europe occurred there in March 2004, when 191 people were killed in the al Qaeda-linked Madrid bombings. That led to a recruitment drive by the government to prevent another attack in the future, and since then there have been many successes. Seven plots have been thwarted since January 2015. Matthew Olsen, former director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, recently commented that “the Spanish authorities are at the top of the game in Europe.” However, the scale of ongoing Islamist recruitment meant another attack was inevitable. There is also an ideological and historical element to this. Parts of Spain are considered to be Muslim lands in the expansionist caliphate terrorist groups envisage creating.

Between September 2014 and December 2016, teens and preteens organized 34 plots in the West that were inspired or directed by ISIS.

This is the first time Finland has suffered an Islamist attack, but the threat has been looming for some time. Dozens of Finns traveled to Syria to join ISIS and take part in the fighting. In June of this year, Finnish intelligence agencies learned of and foiled a planned attack on a church in Helsinki.

The apparent background of the attackers also fits the mold. The strikes were perpetrated by a mix of homegrown and foreign-born terrorists, with many connected to Morocco. Those of Moroccan nationality or background have taken part in several plots in Europe, especially in Spain. The Madrid bombings, last week’s attacks, and the post-2015 arrests all had connections to Morocco, a country with a high rate of immigration into Spain and which shares a border with two Spanish enclaves on the north coast of Africa. The Finland knifing, meanwhile, reflects the increased number of plots that parts of Europe have faced from refugees and asylum seekers since 2015; and the fact that several of the terrorists were just teenagers is not unusual. Between September 2014 and December 2016, teens and preteens organized 34 plots in the West that were inspired or directed by ISIS.

A memorial for the van attack on Las Ramblas, August 2017.
Susana Vera / Reuters

Finally, the mode of attack fits with recent trends. A recent analysisof all Islamist plots in Europe since the beginning of 2014 demonstrated that the most common weapon of choice remains explosives. According to reporting from the New York Times, this was also the Spanish cell’s initial plan. The terrorists involved had plotted to detonate a truck full of explosives into a crowd of civilians before the cell’s bomb-making factory in Alcanar was accidentally blown up the day before the attack. Indeed, the intent to use explosives is infrequently matched by an ability to acquire them or use them properly.

The next most popular method of attack is the use of an edged weapon, as was the case in Finland. In over half of the plots Europe has faced, such weapons led to injuries or deaths. Yet these attacks were responsible for just two percent of injuries and one percent of deaths. This is the dilemma for terrorists: carry out a knife attack and it is more likely than not to succeed, but on the flipside, the body count tends to be lower.

In comparison, vehicles feature less regularly in terrorist plots. Including the two separate incidents in Spain, there have been only 11 such plans since June 2015. The most concerning aspect of vehicular attacks is that, while they have only been used in four percent of plots, they were responsible for 39 percent of the total number of injuries and 33 percent of deaths between January 2014 and May 2017. Further, vehicle plots seem most likely to succeed. Authorities have not publicly disclosed having thwarted any such plans in Europe. Since the beginning of June 2017, there have been five more such plots, so the pace is seemingly picking up—a result, potentially, of aspiring terrorists seeing how successful such operations are.

The intent to use explosives is infrequently matched by an ability to acquire them or use them properly.

Finally, the targeting of civilians is still terrorists’ main preference, with over a third of plots solely focused on soft targets. This was reflected in both the Spanish and Finnish attacks. In Finland, the perpetrator specifically stabbed women; the only men injured were those who tried to stop the assault. A terrorist attack solely on women is a new development. Before, when certain groups within civilian populations were targeted, it tended to be on religious grounds: Jews, Christians, and Sikhs have all been commonly victimized. We do not yet know the precise reasons women were targeted, but it is possible that the perpetrator regarded them to be sinful—dressing “insufficiently modestly,” for example.

Much of the discussion about the response to these attacks will be focused on practical measures that can deter such attacks, such as strategic placement of concrete bollards. The United Kingdom is considering extra background checks for those who wish to hire vans. On the political side, questions will be raised once more about Germany’s approach to immigration and European attitudes toward deportation more broadly. Mechkah came to Germany in 2015 in the guise of a refugee and then traveled to Finland and applied for asylum, yet the request was denied at the start of 2017. Around the same time, Finnish authorities received a tip that Mechkah had been radicalized. Unfortunately, however, he remained in the country and was free to carry out his attack.

In the long term, of course, it is what European governments can do to eliminate the appeal of Islamism as an ideology that will save the most lives. Progress on that front, unfortunately, seems some distance away.