Europe's terror fight far from over

Story highlights

  • Salah Abdeslam, a suspect in the Paris terrorist attacks, was captured Friday
  • He could provide authorities with vital information about the current terrorist threat in Europe, authors say

Brian Jenkins is senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation. Jean-Francois Clair was deputy director of the Directorate of Territorial Surveillance, or DST, France's internal security service, from 1998 to 2007; from 1983 to 1997, he led the anti-terrorism branch of the DST. The views expressed are their own.

(CNN)Salah Abdeslam decided not to die with his brother Ibrahim in November's terrorist attacks in Paris. Why he did not go through with his alleged mission as one of the suicide bombers involved in the operation, we do not know. We know only that 10 days after the attacks, an explosives vest was found in a Paris suburb, some distance from the targeted sites, where Abdeslam's cell phone showed him to have been shortly after the attacks. His survival, and now his capture, may provide authorities with a window into the Islamic State's terrorist network in Europe.

Brian Michael Jenkins
On the evening of November 13, 2015, three teams of attackers carried out suicide bombings outside a football stadium and opened fire on several crowded Parisian nightspots; Salah's brother sat down at the table of one and detonated his suicide vest, killing himself and injuring several others. The third team seized hostages at a nightclub where a rock concert was being held. In all, the terrorists killed 129 people and wounded more than 100 others. Seven terrorists were killed during the assault, several others, allegedly including Abdeslam, fled.
One of those who escaped was Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the leader of the terrorist operation. A 28-year-old Belgian national of Moroccan descent, he had been in and out of prison several times for petty crime. In 2014, Abaaoud joined ISIS, where he sought to organize terrorist attacks in France. And the reality is that the Paris attacks were not an isolated event; they were in fact the culmination of a yearlong campaign.
    Jean-Francois Clair
    Last February, terrorists wounded three French soldiers outside a Jewish center in Nice. On April 19, a woman was killed in an alleged plot to attack a church near Paris, and on June 26, a French terrorist decapitated his employer. In July, French authorities arrested three people in connection with a plot to kill a French army officer. An individual arrested in August after his return from Syria reportedly admitted there was a plot to attack a rock concert. Also in August, quick-acting passengers thwarted an armed assault on the high-speed train between Brussels and Paris. And just three days before the attacks in Paris, authorities revealed details of an alleged terrorist plot in Toulon. Abaaoud was suspected of involvement in a number of these plots. He and another operative were killed in a shootout with French police five days after the Paris attacks. Authorities believe that left Abdeslam the last man still at large.
    Abdeslam is suspected of being the logistics man for the Paris operation. This sounds like a supporting role, but it would have been crucial to the group's success. Despite being on terrorist watch lists, the Paris attackers were able to return from Syria undetected, and their criminal connections would have enabled them to obtain weapons, most of which were smuggled into Western Europe from the Balkans. Lining up confederates who would provide the operatives with hideouts -- safe houses where they could meet and build their bombs -- bomb making material, food and cars to transport them to the attack venue were allegedly Abdeslam's areas of responsibility.
    The existence of an underground network marks a key difference between Europe and the United States. Homegrown terrorists and jihadists returning from Syria to the United States are more isolated than their European counterparts. As a result, and lacking a support network, most jihadist terrorist plots in the United States tend to be one-offs involving a single individual. Opportunities to join others often turn out to be police undercover operations.
    With this in mind, Abdeslam could provide authorities with vital information about the current terrorist threat in Europe. Of immediate interest, of course, would be whether he knows about any future terrorist operations on the horizon. Europol recently estimated that as many as 5,000 Europeans who traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State could pose a risk to their home countries. Some will have come back disillusioned by their experience. Others may be traumatized. But some will be determined to pursue their violent jihad. They will need local support.
    Abdeslam may also be able to tell authorities how the Syrian veterans got back into Europe. We know now that Abaaoud went back and forth, and that another of the returning veterans involved in the Paris attacks entered the European Union as a refugee. Are others returning as refugees with false identities and fake papers, or are they being smuggled back in via secret networks? This is a major concern of U.S. authorities, who worry that, once back in Europe, ISIS operatives will then be able to more easily get into the United States.
    If ISIS is defeated militarily in Syria and Iraq, its fighters will shave their beards and go underground to continue the armed struggle. But ISIS' European fighters stand out too much to survive in a clandestine resistance movement. They must either move on to other jihadist fronts or risk returning home. Underground networks will be needed to get them back.
    Abdeslam also might be able to tell authorities about how the Syrian-based attackers communicated with their local support networks in Europe. Most of all, Abdeslam could provide vital information about the European networks themselves. Since the Paris attacks in November, French and Belgian authorities have raided hundreds of locations and taken scores into custody. The support networks are damaged, but Abdeslam's own survival on the run suggests they still exist.
    The capture of Abdeslam is a triumph, but celebrations will be muted by the realization that while one gang has been neutralized, the contest is by no means over -- not on the front lines of the jihad in the Middle East and North Africa, and not in the back alleys and boulevards of Europe's cities.