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Special Report: Threat to Europe's Christmas Markets

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Christmas is fast approaching once again and there will be a substantial number of tourists visiting the estimated 2,826 traditional Christmas markets located throughout Western Europe. Christmas markets have spread throughout the continent from the historic heartlands of Germany, Austria, France and northern Italy to new locations in Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and the United Kingdom, among others.

Figures compiled by the Centre for Retail Research reveal 302 million people visited Europe’s Christmas Markets in 2014, spending a total of GBP4.45 (USD6.72) billion in goods and entertainment. They provide a valuable boost to retail sales during the advent season as well as a challenging security environment for organisers and local authorities alike, in part due to the heightened threat from terrorism in recent days.

Statements of strategy and intent

The so-called Islamic State (IS) have made clear their intention to conduct (or inspire) assaults against targets in Western Europe, most notably from August 2014, when the international military campaign against the group escalated. Issue 4 of IS’s English language magazine Dabiq released in October 2014 explicitly declared: ‘ is very important that attacks take place against every country that has entered into the alliance against the Islamic State, especially the US, UK, France, Australia and Germany.’

This position has been reaffirmed multiple times since, including by the group’s lead spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani in January 2015 who called for ‘the mujahideen in Europe and the disbelieving West to target the crusaders in their own lands and wherever they are found’. Most recently, issue 12 of Dabiq released in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks on the 18 November ominously declared, ‘the Islamic State will retaliate with fire and bloodshed [for] the multitude killed and injured in crusader air strikes’.

According to data compiled by the Institute for the Study of War, there have been a total of 19 attempted IS inspired attacks across Western Europe since January 2014, nine of which were successful. Over the same period, there were eight attempted assaults coordinated directly by IS (with varying degrees of input), three of which prevailed. Some analysts suggest the recent attacks in Western Europe may signify the beginning of a shift in the group’s strategic direction, to engage in more aggressive coordinated attacks, potentially as a direct result of the intensifying air campaign being waged against them and subsequent losses in territory and revenue. It is however difficult to empirically verify this assertion at this time.

Despite ambiguity surrounding the group’s long-term strategic direction and capacity to pursue it, it is clear that IS and its supporters are willing and in some cases able to strike ‘soft targets’ with a minimal security presence, to maximise potential casualties and disruption. Assaults in areas deemed ‘safe’ by the general public triggers an ostensibly more profound effect on the national psyche than incidents targeting locations or individuals with manifest strategic value. It foments a pervasive perception of insecurity and raises doubts about the state’s ability to prevent terrorist violence. In the words of al-Adnani: ‘a continuation of their state of alert, terror, fear and loss of security’.

Recent terrorist attacks in Western Europe:

  • 27 May 2014, Brussels: Mehdi Nemmouche, a French citizen who had spent a year fighting with Islamists in Syria shot dead four people at the Jewish Museum of Belgium.
  • 7 January 2015, Paris: Brothers Said and Chérif Kouachi, who had attended militant training camps in Yemen, shot and killed 12 people at the office of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
  • 9 January 2015, Paris: Gunman Amedy Coulibaly who had pledged allegiance to IS, killed four people in a kosher supermarket in a coordinated operation with the Kouachi brothers.
  • 14 February 2015, Copenhagen: Omar el-Hussein a radicalised petty criminal shot and killed two people and wounded five others at a cultural centre and synagogue in the capital.
  • 14 November 2015, Paris: seven attackers conducted a coordinated attack against multiple locations with automatic weapons and suicide vests that killed 132 people and wounded 368 more.

Christmas markets as ‘soft targets’

Christmas markets represent a target-rich environment for terrorists for a multitude of reasons. Their significant numbers (2,234 in Germany alone) make it difficult for security services to dedicate sufficient resources to adequately protect them all. The largest and most prestigious venues in London, Cologne, Brussels and Strasbourg (to name but a few) attract millions of visitors over the course of the season, ensuring substantial target density. They may also hold symbolic value for IS militants due to their connection with the Christian faith.

Precedent certainly exists for such an operation: in 2000 German and French police foiled an attempt by al-Qaeda-linked terrorists to detonate an improvised explosive device (IED) at Strasbourg’s market. Additionally, in 2010, German police warned its citizens that it had received firm intelligence detailing a plot to attack shoppers at the country’s Christmas markets.

So far this year security forces have stressed they have no information suggesting festive retail centres are being specifically targeted. However, the general heightened threat level has prompted many venues to hold crisis meetings to discuss security concerns and precautions. In some locations, stall owners have reportedly been trained to identify suspicious items or people so that they can be promptly reported to security personnel.

Attack feasibility

Several factors increase the feasibility of a violent assault against Europe’s festive retail outlets, either through a ‘lone wolf’ scenario or a coordinated operation. Automatic weapons are accessible throughout the mainland continent via long-established trafficking routes from the Balkans - predominantly Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia and Albania. According to a study conducted by the Flemish Peace Institute in Brussels, almost all of the illegal weapons in the EU come from the former Yugoslavia and surrounding area, including many of those used to perpetrate the continent’s recent terrorist attacks.

Until the recent re-imposition of increasingly stringent border checks in response to the on-going migrant crisis, people and weapons could circulate freely across the 26-member Schengen area, with minimal threat of detection. The November Paris attacks exposed the challenges faced by European intelligence agencies attempting to monitor foreign fighters returning from Iraq and Syria.

According to analysis published by The Institute for Economics and Peace, an estimated 180 foreign fighters had covertly returned from Iraq and Syria to France alone by April 2014. At least five of the Paris perpetrators, including the alleged mastermind Abdelhamid Abaaoud, fought alongside IS in Syria. He successfully migrated back and forth between Europe and Syria despite being implicated in a foiled January 2015 plot to attack police in the Belgian city of Verviers.

Latest figures compiled by The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) estimate 4,000 Western Europeans have left to fight in Iraq and Syria, doubling previous figures from December 2013. The largest numbers emanate from France, Germany and the United Kingdom; per capita, the worst affected countries are Belgium, Denmark and Sweden.

Fighters returning to the EU and with access to high-powered weaponry have proven difficult to track. The consternation generated has increased pressure for enhanced intelligence sharing and capability at the supranational level. Unfortunately, many nations remain unwilling or unable to cede sovereignty on intelligence issues, potentially rendering the EU vulnerable to further attacks in future.

Visitors and traders remain defiant

Understandably, visitors to Europe’s Christmas markets are in a nervous albeit defiant mood. Media sources report enhanced security at all of the continent’s biggest retail centres, with additional units of armed police patrolling the vicinities and conducting thorough searches upon entry. So far the only significant security alert occurred in Manchester on 27 November, after a hoax call regarding a suspect package prompted the evacuation of the site.

Strasbourg announced a number of measures to enhance security at the city’s market, including cancelling events specifically for children, restricting parking in the city centre and re-routing the tram line. Paris’ market on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées remains open following the 13 November attacks; however, the annual inauguration of the Christmas illuminations on the famous boulevard was cancelled as a mark of respect for the victims.

Against the backdrop of heightened terrorism concerns, Christmas markets throughout Europe have merited increased security attention. Travellers planning to visit one of Europe’s myriad festive markets should always remain vigilant and be aware of their personal safety. Contact regional tourist offices for specific details regarding potentially delayed or rescheduled events while local authorities undertake thorough risk assessments.