17th Mar 2018


Terrorism shakes Europe

  • The first attack hit Paris on 7 January when two gunmen burst into the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine's newsroom, killing ten people. (Photo: Valentina Calà)

From the Charlie Hebdo killing in January to the Friday the 13th attacks in November, France and its capital Paris have become the epicentre of a growing terrorist threat in Europe.

The tremors could be felt in Copenhagen, Brussels and even the meeting rooms of EU institutions where the fundamental European principle of free movement has come under pressure.

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  • Under the motto "Je suis Charlie" (I am Charlie), people marched in a symbolic move to support French and European values of freedom of expression and tolerance. (Photo: villedereims)

The first attack hit Paris on 7 January when two gunmen burst into the Charlie Hebdo magazine newsroom, killing ten people and injuring 11 before killing a policeman on their way out.

Most of the victims were cartoonists for Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly whose offices had already been the subject of an arson attack in 2011. Islamist radicals targeted the magazine because of cartoons depicting Muhammad.

The attack hit a nerve in France, where some of those murdered were popular figures and where people felt it was an attack on freedom of expression and the country's deep-rooted secular values.

The killers, brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi were tracked down by police and killed two days later in a printing company office near Paris.

Meanwhile, a third man attacked a Jewish supermarket in Vincennes. Amedy Coulibaly killed 4 people and took 17 hostages for several hours before being killed during a police raid. It later transpired that he had killed a policewoman the day before near a Jewish school he may have intended to attack.


About a month later, cartoonists and freedom of expression were once again under fire. This time in Copenhagen, where on 14 February, a gunman shot one person dead and injured 3 policemen at a debate on "Art, Blasphemy and Freedom of Expression".

One of the participants in this event organised as a reflection on the Charlie Hebdo massacre was Swedish artist Lars Vilks. Vilks was the author of drawings of prophet Muhammad in 2007.

Later that day the gunman, a 22-year old Danish resident of Jordanian-Palestinian origin, killed a security guard and injured two policemen at the Copenhagen Great Synagogue. He was found and killed by police the following day.

The next alert came in late August and heralded a new era for Europe.


On 21 August, a man boarded a Thalys high-speed train in Brussels and started to open fire on passengers with automatic weapons on the way to Paris. He was tackled and disarmed by several passengers including two off-duty US soldiers.

The attack prompted calls for security gates in train stations, as well as an initial debate over more checks on passengers travelling from one country to another inside the Schengen area.

The failed Thalys attack was also a first indication of a new tactic by islamic terrorists, aimed at killing as many people as possible going about their daily occupations.

Contrary to the Madrid and London attacks in 2004 and 2005, when bombs were planted in public transportation, the latest attacks involve automatic weapons and terrorists ready to die in action. The ultimate expression of this was the November Paris attacks when terrorists shot people before blowing themselves up.


On 13 November, eight men carried out a series of three coordinated attacks in Paris.

They shot at people in restaurants and bars, they attacked the Bataclan concert hall and detonated three bombs next to the Stade de France.

The attacks left 130 people dead and 352 injured and prompted French president Francois Hollande to declare a state of emergency that was later extended for three months.

On 11 January, after the first Paris attacks, around 3 million people and 50 world leaders marched in Paris and many towns across the country. Under the motto "Je suis Charlie" (I am Charlie), the march was a symbolic move to support French and European values of freedom of expression and tolerance.

In November, the response was more muted, because demonstrations were banned under the state of emergency, and also because the trauma was deeper.

Politically the response was more operational.

Mutual defence

EU member states granted France the first activation of the EU's mutual defence clause to help in operations against militant islamic groups in Africa and the Middle East. They also decided to step up their security cooperation.

The attacks showed that countries do not share enough information about potential terrorists travelling from one country to another in the Schengen free-movement area.

The Paris attackers, though the majority were French, came from Belgium and had travelled to and from Syria without being checked or put under surveillance.

Belgium and Europe discovered that Molenbeek, a part of the Brussels region, was apparently a safe haven for terrorists.

A terror scare also led to the lockdown of Brussels's inner city and shopping malls on 21-23 November, with the army deployed to secure streets, schools and public transportation.


At an emergency meeting after the Paris attacks, EU justice and interior ministers agreed to make more use of the Schengen and Interpol databases to track identified radicals and criminals.

EU officials complained that member states do not feed and use the existing databases, to the detriment of the fight against terrorism.

"Fifty percent of information put in our database comes from only five member states. Member states do not use it equally," Europol chief Rob Wainwright told MEPs in November.

"We need more connections between all services."

Ministers also decided to introduce systematic checks on EU citizens at Schengen external borders, in order to spot the so-called foreign fighters - EU nationals going to Syria and Iraq to train and fight with the Islamic State group - who could commit attacks in Europe.

The measure was also considered as a way to protect the Schengen area from the risk of controls at internal borders. Such controls were reintroduced by some countries, including Germany, in response to the migrant crisis and there were calls for more controls.


Ministers put pressure on the European Parliament to adopt the Passenger Name Record (PNR) legislation before the end of the year. They said this EU database would allow police and intelligence services to spot suspect travellers.

Agreement on the PNR legislation between member states, the European Commission and the Parliament was delayed for many months because MEPs had concerns about the protection of personal data.

But despite these efforts, as well as measures to stem the funding of terrorism and radicalisation, the Europol chief warned that they might not be enough.

"It is reasonable to assume that further attacks are likely," Wainwright told MEPs.

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2015 Europe in Review Magazine.

Click here to read previous editions of Europe in Review magazines.

In Paris under shock, all feel attacked

In the wake of the terror attacks that killed at least 129 people Friday, Parisians pay homage to the dead and, 10 months after the January killings, wonder what will come next.

EU agrees on Schengen checks for all

EU "collective reaction must be ruthless," said French minister, as controls are to be stepped up for migrants and EU nationals.


A counter-narrative to violent extremism

The prevention of recruitment of EU citizens by terrorist organisations must lead to a discussion about the societal root causes of such a phenomenon, to be addressed through a long term strategy.


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