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barcelona attack

It was inevitable that, following the collapse of the caliphate in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State would have fueled terrorism elsewhere. The episodes in Barcelona and Catalonia are not the first and will not be the last. The exodus of militants from war zones, their infallible ideological and religious approach to martyrdom, viewed as the only possible outcome, were all too predictable.

The Islamic State wants the dream of a caliphate to survive its demise. A terrorist attack embodies the ongoing struggle against an imaginary enemy. The fight takes a different form, but its motivations don’t. It is impossible to create a caliphate on Earth? Well then, the entire planet will become the target to strike, kill, remind the world of our existence and spread fear.

The ideology

The Islamic State’s strength never relied on its masses of combatants, but in the subliminal message it conveyed. It was never the strength of its weapons, but rather of its propaganda. This is what still convinces and charms so many youngsters. It it thus not that relevant to discover whether the terrorists in Barcelona were lone wolfs or part of a bigger plot, if they had just returned from a conflict zone or were infatuated by radical islamism because of their marginalized life in a European ghetto.

The religious ideology that nurtures ISIS terrorism has to fall or be sterilized for us to win the battle. This is a long process that will inevitably have to involve that Muslim world that was its breeding ground. A long time means more attacks and more deaths. The Italian plan to collaborate with muslim groups to monitor and train the preachers in the mosques is a move in the right direction.

Are there any other ways to fight islamic terrorism? Until its ideology is defeated, prevention and repression are the only means to contain the phenomenon.

ceuta melilla
The Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla


Prevention requires a certain degree of international collaboration in the fight against islamic terrorism. Exogenous transnational phenomena need transnational collaboration. This is what probably lacked in Barcelona. Spain and Morocco – where the terrorists are from – are not in good terms. The two countries are at odds over the Spanish support to the Saharawi and the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. This has probably had an impact on the collaboration between intelligence agencies. The independence push by Catalonia could have also partially sterilized the collaboration between Madrid’s and Barcelona’s security forces. The cross fire of accusations that followed the attack is an indirect confirmation.

Prevention is only possible if a series of steps are taken: control over the territory and of mosques, control over communications, wiretaps, control over internet traffic and chats, files on people potentially at risk, monitoring of their collusions, monitoring of conversions and indoctrination in jail. These filters, known as “hubs”, are necessary because it is virtually impossible to control everything and everyone, but we need to identify where we can spot the clues of a terrorist attack in the making.

There are about 2 million muslims living in Spain, only 41% of them have Spanish citizenship. Another 40% – and this is where the collaboration between intelligence agencies is crucial – is of Moroccan descent. Total control is thus impossible.

Clues is what prevention is all about. The access to a radical website, extremist comments on Facebook, the purchase of fertilizers or other chemicals needed to produce explosive, the unlikely purchase of a disproportionate number of gas tanks, the monitoring of the call centers used by islamic migrants, the rental of a van, trips abroad by subjects at risk.


Repression is the final outcome of a successful prevention process, where clues have become evidence and control turns into action. Sometimes security forces resort to repression when it is too late. This happens when prevention fails. To kill or apprehend a terrorist after an attack is only useful to identify the network and the workings of a cell. However, it is still a failure of the prevention process.

The use of statistical data

The use of data on the latest attacks can be partly useful in identifying the stereotypical radicalized islamic terrorist. It could seem as a frighteningly empirical method to spot potential martyrs, but, if put to good use, it can actually help select people on their way of turning into a terrorist. The limit of this method is the political and economic geography of the countries targeted by the attacks. The UK, France or the Scandinavian countries produce different social motivations for terrorism. In other words, they involve people statistically very different.

Nonetheless, several reports have tried to find the common traits of a potential terrorist: 27 years old on average (but he could also be a minor), male (97%), legal resident in a European country (14/15%), strikes in the country he lives in (73%), is a convert (17%), had a brush with the law (60%, while one out of two has spent time in prison) and has limited military experience (18/20%). Overall, only 8% of attackers acted on behalf of the Islamic State, 26% of them had no contact with ISIS, while the rest had only limited indirect links with either Daesh or other radical islamic armed factions.

It is worth keeping in mind that among the 30 thousand or so islamic fighters that have fought alongside the ISIS, one every five came from Europe. Given that the combatants’ death rate is roughly 30%, this means that about 4 thousand foreign fighters could return to their countries of origin and inspire the homemade terrorists willing to sacrifice their lives in the name of Allah. Until now the phenomenon is statistically of little significance.

After all, a military background is not that necessary in this asymmetric warfare. A bomb can be built following instructions found on the net and the dream of becoming a martyr (70% of attackers die in the process) obfuscates any reason to avoid personal risk. You don’t have to be a soldier to drive a car or a truck on a crowd.


The targets

Terrorists aim to inflict the largest number of victims possible; symbolic targets have given way to large crowded spots. Cities help being anonymous and complicate the process of identifying individuals and controlling them. On average a terrorist attack kills 8 people and wounds another 30.

The question is whether such a large experience, knowledge, collaboration between intelligence agencies, preventive and/or repressive activities, data and reports is sufficient to avoid future terrorist attacks. The answer is no. Terrorism can strike anywhere and anyone and is virtually impossible to prevent. It strikes against random people and not symbols. The more the better, as publicity is directly proportional to the number of victims.

87% of terrorist were already known to security forces before an attack. This means prevention has virtually failed us. Wrong risk factor analysis have prevented from blocking the threats posed by these individuals. Nowadays, an anti-terrorism expert has to be both a psychologist, a sociologist, an anthropologist and be knowledgeable about islamic theology. Only if you truly know the enemy you’re facing, the way he thinks, his weaknesses and strengths, what he wants and how he wants it, the frustration that stimulates him or the social marginalization he lives in, only then can your enemy be fought and defeated.

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