Spaniards have long lamented that Las Ramblas, the winding main artery of Barcelona, has devolved over the years from the tree-lined strolling place of Catalan flaneurs into a tourist trap filled by kitsch vendors and a cheesy sex museum. Now it will be associated with the deaths of 13 people when a van driven by a jihadi terrorist smashed into the crowded walkway on Thursday. More than 100 people were injured. It was one of several attacks along Spain’s Mediterranean coast, including an explosion at a house suspected of being a bomb factory. ISIS has claimed responsibility.
In the litany of European terrorist attacks over the last three years — Paris, Brussels, Manchester — the last three days in Spain were the least deadly. But in terms of European security — and the threat still posed by a terrorist group thought to be on its last legs in Syria — they are just as worrisome. And they are also just the tip of the iceberg: Last year, Europe suffered 47 terrorist attacks that killed 142 and injured 379. More than 90 other plots either failed or were foiled by police and security services. Nearly all were the work of extremists.
This data comes courtesy of a very timely report on trends in European terrorism from Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. While Cordesman and his team didn’t come up with the data — the figures come from IHS-Jane’s and the University of Maryland’s excellent center for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (or Start) — their study provides crucial context of how the threat has changed over time, particularly between 2011 and 2016. On Friday I contacted Cordesman to see how the Catalonian attacks fit into those larger patterns.
Tony Cordesman is the reigning polymath of the defense-policy elite. He has written more than 50 books for both the professional and lay audiences, and in the last year alone he has put out reports on stabilizing Iraq after ISIS; the dollar cost of America’s current wars; China’s emerging power; key metrics and developments in the Afghan War; the postwar rebuilding of Syria; hard choices in the war in Yemen; the national security economics of the Middle East — well, that only takes us back to March, but you get the idea.
Cordesman said no one who looks at the data in detail over time sees clearly predictable patterns. If you look at trends from 1970 to 2016, you see just the opposite: sudden shifts in patterns of violence, targets, methods of attack, and weapons by country.
We need to remember that we never saw Sept. 11 coming in the US and largely forced terrorist to chose other targets and methods of attack afterwards. This isn’t a “war” you can “win” by predicting how it will change.
If you look at the data, you see all too clearly that the patterns of locations of terrorism keep changing, and that this is an ongoing struggle that reaches far beyond ISIS. Historically, terrorist and extremists have also always been willing to find strange bedfellows, ranging from outside governments to drug lords.
The real risk, however, is that some movement or figure can unite extremist and jihadist movements on a broad enough level to be truly dangerous. The ideological core here is a level of extremism at the far margins of Islam, just like extremism in Israel, and Christian extremism in the US and Europe.
Historically, such movements tend to fragment and limit themselves, and there are literally well over a hundred jihadist movements recognized by the State Department. Some, like ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Taliban, however, are already far larger than others. No one can predict whether a truly charismatic leader will unify many such movements, and this is the most serious threat.
ISIS is also only a small part of the problem today. The Start database used by the US State Department in its annual country reports on counterterrorism indicates that ISIS was responsible for 4,343 incidents in 2011 to 2016 — from its rise to the end of last year. This was 6.1 percent of the world total during the same period and 7.2 percent of the total in the Middle East and North Africa. Defeating the ISIS caliphate will not begin to defeat terrorism.
More than that, it will do nothing to reduce the causes of terrorism in the Islamic and other parts of the world: massive population growth, economic development and major unemployment problems, and resentment of secular governments.
There are good reasons why almost no one actually involved in the fight against terrorism believes this will be over in less than a couple of decades, and the current impact of the ISIS caliphate must be kept in perspective.