One of France’s most high-profile trials in history wraps up this week amid a sharply changing security landscape across Europe, where the war in Ukraine and far-right violence have reshaped threat perceptions once dominated by Islamist extremism.
Verdicts are expected Wednesday in Paris, where 20 men stand accused of being involved in the November 2015 Islamic State attacks around the French capital in which 130 people were killed and hundreds more wounded.
Top defendant Salah Abdeslam, considered the lone surviving attacker, has captured news headlines throughout the months-long trial. He risks life without parole, France’s toughest sentence.
Since opening last September, the trial has revived memories of Islamist violence that spiraled across Europe and the Middle East a few years ago, when IS controlled a swath of Iraq and Syria, and French and other fighters were recruited to join its ranks and sow chaos at home.
But today, the IS caliphate has collapsed. Jihadi violence has dispersed, transformed and migrated to sub-Saharan Africa. Meanwhile, other security threats are on the rise in Europe, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marking the newest and possibly most significant change, analysts say.
“After the war on terror that has dominated the last 20 years, there is a return to the politics of great power rivalries, to the more traditional nature of international relations,” said Thomas Renard, director of the International Center for Counter-Terrorism, referring not only to a rising Russia but also China.
“That doesn’t mean terrorism is going to magically disappear,” Renard added, “but it’s going to be a lesser priority, certainly at the international level.”
Across Europe and other Western countries, terrorist attacks declined by more than two-thirds in 2021 from their peak in 2018, according to the Global Terrorism Index that was published in March by the Institute for Economics and Peace. Meanwhile, Africa’s Sahel has become the world’s latest terror hotspot, the index said.
In Europe, politically motivated attacks — driven by far-left and far-right ideologies —have eclipsed Islamist and other religiously driven attacks that once controlled the region’s terrorism landscape, the index found.
“Terrorism is becoming more centered in conflict zones, underpinned by weak governments and political instability,” IEP Executive Chairman Steve Killelea said, adding, “as [the] conflict in Ukraine dominates global attention, it is crucial that the global fight against terrorism is not sidelined.”
Bodies, haunted survivors
A few years ago, there was little chance that terrorism would be sidelined. In January 2015, Paris saw a pair of radicalized brothers and a fellow assailant gun down more than a dozen people in separate attacks targeting the satirical Charlie Hebdo newspaper and a kosher supermarket.
In November of that year, Paris experienced far worse: a bloody bombing and shooting rampage by a French-Belgian IS cell on a balmy Friday night. The extremists targeted young people packing the city’s bars, restaurants, soccer stadium and the Bataclan concert hall, leaving a trail of hundreds of bodies and haunted survivors in its wake.
With police barricading streets around Paris’ main courthouse during the lengthy trial, Abdeslam has been variously contemptuous, defiant and seemingly contrite.
He has apologized to victims, yet maintained allegiance to IS. Abdeslam claimed he chose not to detonate his explosive belt to avoid more carnage. Prosecutors argued instead that the belt malfunctioned.
Many of the 19 remaining defendants also face life sentences for playing key roles in assisting the killers in November 2015. Several have been tried in absentia.
After 2015, Europe experienced dozens of other deadly attacks. The following year saw bombings in Brussels and an attack on a Christmas market in Germany. Terrorists also mowed down pedestrians in the French Riviera city of Nice in July 2016 and on the London Bridge a year later. Among the most horrific incidents was the beheading of a French schoolteacher in a Paris suburb, in October 2020.
Today, experts and state security services worry not only about the potential threat posed by Islamists who have recently been released from European prisons or soon will be, but also other challenges.
“The threat has become more diffuse and more diverse,” Renard said. “We’re no longer confronted with a clear terrorist organization with a clear network of trained individuals. Rather, we’re dealing with a lot of loose individuals, loners, either linked to jihadi or to far-right ideology.”
Russia’s influence in Africa
Russia’s war in Ukraine is also reshaping European security priorities both at home —where the European Union has designated billions of dollars in military aid for Ukraine, and where Baltic states fear they may be next in Moscow’s crosshairs — and in Africa.
In Mali, Russia’s Wagner Group, with its reportedly close ties to the Kremlin, has edged out France and the European Union as the ruling junta’s key partner in its war on terror. Along with fighting the country’s myriad armed groups, Wagner mercenaries are allegedly waging a disinformation war against France and are blamed by rights groups for civilian atrocities.
Russia’s influence and interests extend well beyond Mali, analysts say, with Wagner a potent force in the Central African Republic, and Moscow’s influence expanding in other Sahel countries.
“The EU increasingly understands that its contest with Russia — sparked by [Russian] President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine — is spreading to different theaters, including those in Africa,” European Council on Foreign Relations analysts Andrew Lebovich and Theodore Murphy wrote in a recent commentary.
Their warning — also signaled by France in recent months — is being echoed in other European capitals, including Madrid, ahead of this week’s NATO summit in Spain.
Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine could spin off other security threats, Renard said, pointing to the influx of foreign volunteers joining Ukraine’s side against Russia.
“If this conflict continues over time and loses international attention, you could see some of these battalions splinter and reorganize along more ideological narratives. And that could become another form of terrorist organization,” Renard said.