Trains, Concert Halls, Airports, and Restaurants—All Soft Targets: What the Terrorist Campaign in France and Belgium Tells Us about the Future of Jihadist Terrorism in Europe

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Trains, Concert Halls, Airports, and Restaurants—All Soft Targets: What the Terrorist Campaign in France and Belgium Tells Us about the Future of Jihadist Terrorism in Europe


The terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015, which left 130 dead, and in Brussels on March 22, 2016, in which another 35 people were killed, underscore the heightened terrorist threat Europe faces as those who left European countries to join the ranks of the Islamic State or other jihadist fronts in the Middle East return home. Some come back disillusioned, others traumatized by their experience, but some return determined to bring the war home. Their goal is slaughter. Their targets vary—concert venues, sports stadiums, churches, restaurants, trains, airport terminals—all public places where people gather. That coincides with a long-term trend identified in previous MTI research—public surface transportation is especially attractive to terrorists seeking high body counts.

The attacks in Paris and Brussels were part of a continuing campaign of terrorism that began in 2014. Many of the earlier events attracted less international attention because police uncovered the plots or because their attacks failed. By connecting the events, we were able to discern more about the group behind the campaign. And this, in turn, told us more about the subculture from which this terrorist enterprise emerged.

The network responsible for the terrorist campaign combined fighters returning from Syria with local confederates who provided the returnees with logistical support and additional recruits. This combination enhanced the group’s operational capabilities. The relationships among the participants preceded the terrorist campaign. Many were petty criminals and had carried out crimes or served in prison together. Those returning from Syria were clearly a more violent bunch—they carried out most of the suicide bombings or died in shootouts with police.

The terrorist network emerged from a subculture that transcended the criminal underworld and a radicalized underground. While these young men went to Syria to fight for the Islamic State, some saw Syria as a base from which to launch a terrorist campaign at home. The network appears to be the creation of a terrorist entrepreneur who the Islamic State either ordered or exploited to carry out the campaign. It is not clear whether the Islamic State was the incubator or, as French authorities believe, the central command behind the attacks.

While this particular network has been largely dismantled, a number of suspects remain at large and the embryos of new networks have been uncovered. The terrorist threat to Europe remains high. The number of Americans going to Syria is a fraction of that seen in Europe, and domestic intelligence efforts have proved remarkably effective in uncovering terrorist plots.



Brian Michael Jenkins is the director of the Mineta Transportation Institute’s National Transportation Center and since 1997 has directed the Institute’s continuing research on protecting surface transportation against terrorism and other serious forms of crime. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in fine arts and a Masters degree in history, both from UCLA. He also studied at the University of Guanajuato, Mexico, and in the Department of Humanities at the University of San Carlos, Guatemala, where he was a Fulbright Fellow and received a second fellowship from the Organization of American States.

Commissioned in the infantry at the age of 19, Mr. Jenkins became a paratrooper and ultimately a captain in the Green Berets. He is a decorated combat veteran, having served in the Seventh Special Forces Group in the Dominican Republic during the American intervention and later as a member of the Fifth Special Forces Group in Vietnam (1966–1967). He returned to Vietnam on a special assignment in 1968 to serve as a member of the Long Range Planning Task Group; he remained with the Group until the end of 1969, receiving the Department of the Army’s highest award for his service. Mr. Jenkins returned to Vietnam on an additional special assignment in 1971.

In 1983, Mr. Jenkins served as an advisor to the Long Commission, convened to examine the circumstances and response to the bombing of the U.S. Marine Barracks in Lebanon. In 1984, he assisted the Inman Panel in examining the security of American diplomatic facilities abroad. In 1985–1986, he served as a member of the Committee of the Embassy of the Future, which established new guidelines for the construction of U.S. diplomatic posts. In 1989, Mr. Jenkins served as an advisor to the national commission established to review terrorist threats following the bombing of Pan Am 103. In 1993, he served as a member of the team contracted by the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey to review threats and develop new security measures for the World Trade Center following the bombing in February of that year.

In 1996, President Clinton appointed Mr. Jenkins to the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security. From 1999 to 2000, he served as an advisor to the National Commission on Terrorism, and since 2000, he has been a member of the U.S. Comptroller General’s Advisory Board.

Mr. Jenkins serves as a Senior Advisor to the President of the RAND Corporation. He is a Special Advisor to the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and a member of the advisory board of the ICC’s investigative arm, the Commercial Crime Services. Over the years, he has served as a consultant to or carried out assignments for a number of government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). As part of its international project to create a global strategy to combat terrorism, the Club of Madrid in 2004 appointed Mr. Jenkins to lead an international working group on the role of intelligence. Mr. Jenkins is the author of numerous published research reports, books, and articles on terrorism and security. His latest book is When Armies Divide.


Jean-Francois Clair is a former Inspector General of Police. He served 35 years in France’s Security Service, the Directorate of Territorial Security (Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire) (DST), the country’s internal intelligence system with responsibilities similar to those of the FBI in the United States and MI-5 in the United Kingdom. From 1983 to 1997, he was the head of DST’s Anti-Terrorist Branch. In 1998, he was promoted to deputy director of DST, a position he held until his retirement in 2007.

Dr. Clair received a PhD in Public Law from the University of Paris in 1969 and graduated from the Institute for Higher Studies for National Defense (Institut des haute études de défense nationale) (IHEDN) in 1993.

Dr. Clair currently teaches in the Graduate School of International Affairs at the institute d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences-Po) and at the Institute for International and Strategic Research (IRIS). He is a frequent lecturer at the George Marshall Center in Garmisch, Germany, and he has participated in international symposia on terrorism and security issues (Singapore, 2007 and 2008; Berlin, 2008; and Oslo, 2009). He is also in charge of research for the French Administration.

June 2016
Islamic State



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