As the latest in a series of jihadi terrorist strikes in Europe in the past two years—though the first to target Spain since 2004—the Barcelona attacks have generated a series of debates in other European countries faced with the same phenomenon.
At the political level, the role played by the intelligence services—and more specifically intelligence sharing issues between Spanish and Catalan government bodies— was largely discussed. Given that a planned independence referendum in Catalonia is only a few weeks away, such issues further fuel existing tensions between Barcelona and Madrid. However, the main debate focuses on the profile of the attackers as well as their reasons for carrying out the attack. Much has been said about the fact that most of the attackers were born in Morocco: some analysts pointed to the existence of a “Moroccan connection”—i.e. transnational linkages—while others merely view it as a sign that Spain faces serious integration issues. On the other side of the Mediterranean, meanwhile, opinion makers shift the blame, highlighting that the attackers left their country of origin at a very young age and spent most of their time in Spain. Meanwhile, issues such as integration, migration and Islam are still discussed. Despite these debates, at the local level strong calls for unity and against intolerance were echoed, especially during the Barcelona anti-terrorism march (26 August 2017).
Although the patterns of the Barcelona attacks are similar to those of other recent attacks in Europe (claimed by IS, carried out by a cell mainly composed of young descendants of immigrants), some characteristics are now of crucial importance to policy makers and security bodies in Europe: the fact that middle and even small-size cities were targeted (Cambrils in Spain, followed by Turku in Finland one day later), the very young age of the attackers, and testimony showing that no one—including the terrorists’ own families—saw any prior signs of radicalisation.
From a broader perspective, Europe is faced with a double threat: on the one hand, despite Islamic State (IS) setbacks in Syria and Iraq, jihadi terrorism keeps consolidating itself as transnational movement. The fact that IS has developed as a global brand allows individuals with no link to the organisation to stage terrorist attacks under its name. As a result, in the past two years, the number of radicalised individuals in Europe has been growing so much so that it now reaches tens of thousands.
On the other hand, the threat posed by IS returnees (6,000 individuals are suspected to have travelled to fight in Syria and Iraq) is significant, given that a minority have an intention of committing terrorist attacks. Finally, as the recent attacks in Berlin, London, Spain and Finland show, differences in the profiles of the attackers as well as the shift toward low-tech methods (knives and cars) makes prevention extremely hard for security services. Despite of growing counterterrorist cooperation, the challenge therefore remains for governments, policy makers and security bodies to prevent and counter violent extremism.