New ISIS threats target Christmas markets, Vatican

Pictured here, police guard a Christmas market after a truck ran into shoppers at the market in Berlin, Germany, Monday, Dec. 19, 2016. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

As the Christmas season gets underway this week, Islamic State supporters are circulating several stark images urging radicals to strike against major targets in Europe, including sites in Italy and Vatican City that have so far been safe from the group’s attacks.

A low-tech attack on a mosque in Egypt Friday that killed at least 305 people illustrates the threat that armed terrorists can pose to large crowds gathered in small spaces for religious events. Militants reportedly used explosives to block off escape routes before opening fire from off-road vehicles on the hundreds who gathered to attend a sermon at the mosque in the North Sinai town of Bir al-Abd.

In the weeks ahead, citizens and visitors throughout Europe and the U.S. will flock to outdoor Christmas markets, festivals, and events that present similarly attractive and difficult-to-protect targets for terrorism.

Earlier this month, the State Department issued a travel alert advising Americans in Europe to “exercise caution at holiday festivals and events” due to the risk of terrorist attacks involving a variety of weapons.

“While local governments continue counterterrorism operations, the Department remains concerned about the potential for future terrorist attacks. U.S. citizens should always be alert to the possibility that terrorist sympathizers or self-radicalized extremists may conduct attacks with little or no warning,” the November 16 alert stated.

The SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist media and communications, has publicized recent messages posted by ISIS supporters zeroing in on Christmas markets and religious targets in Europe.

In one, a camouflage-clad terrorist and a wolf look down on Rome’s St. Peter’s Square, alongside text that begins, “The Crusaders' feast is approaching. Their convoys will crowd itself in front of you and prepare and plan for them. Show them the meaning of terrorism.” A rocket launcher and a rifle are also visible.

Another poster obtained by an intelligence company called BlackOps Cyber shows a jihadist standing over a bound Santa Claus in front of Regent Square in London. The text in English, French, and German reads, “Soon on your holiday.”

The same haunting threat appears on an image of a hand holding a bloody knife in front of a crowded Paris Christmas market. An ISIS-inspired terrorist drove a truck into a similar market in Berlin last December, leaving 12 dead and dozens injured.

Recent materials circulated by ISIS supporters have also featured a jihadist holding the decapitated head of Pope Francis and a terrorist driving a truck toward the Vatican.

According to Matthew Levitt, director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, European security officials are likely taking some of these threats more seriously than others.

“The authorities will assess them and will do what’s necessary and even they will take them with some grains of salt,” he said. “Just because the Islamic State puts out something about targeting the Vatican doesn’t mean that they are able to do that.”

Although Rome and the Vatican are frequent targets of terrorist propaganda, Italy has faced no major attacks in decades. Amid a surge in jihadist violence elsewhere in Europe over the last two years, the country has largely remained unscathed.

Experts point to a number of reasons why Italy has so far been spared from the kind of ISIS-inspired violence that has rocked major cities throughout Europe over the last two years.

According to Ben West, senior analyst for Stratfor Threat Lens, Italy’s experience with terrorism and political violence decades ago helped shape processes and infrastructure that left the country better prepared than some of its neighbors.

“I think you can trace it back to the assassination attempts in the 1980s against Pope John Paul II,” he said.

The Vatican in particular is already highly secured. Even if terrorists cannot get in, though, security lines outside the perimeter could make attractive targets.

“If we are going to see an attack, it’s going to be something along those lines, rather than a storming of the Vatican like we see in the propaganda,” West said.

Others cite Italy’s struggles with the Mafia and organized crime as contributing to its security environment, including surveillance and communications monitoring that go further than other European countries.

“All the process is fairly quick and this is something that we learned exactly from domestic terrorists and from Mafia, we developed these kinds of things,” Giampiero Massolo, former Italian director of intelligence, told Sinclair’s Scott Thuman earlier this year.

Massolo also noted that Italy aggressively deports suspected terrorists once they have been identified as a threat.

“We conduct a very severe policy of expulsions,” he said. “That is, we kick off people from this country in a very early stage, we don’t wait. Better sooner than later.”

Nicola Pedde, director of the Institute for Global Studies in Milan, suggested the Mafia’s control of the illegal weapons trade makes it difficult for jihadists to arm themselves.

“Italy has very strict regulation with effect to firearms,” she said. “So if you don’t have a legal capacity to buy and to hold firearms, the only chance is to resort to the organized criminality.”

None of these factors have left the country completely immune from jihadist threats. While nobody has been killed there by Islamic terrorists, there have been threats, plots, and signs that a support network exists inside the country.

Anis Amri, the Tunisian who attacked the Berlin market, was later killed by police in Milan. The man who drove a truck into a Bastille Day crowd in Nice, France and one of the terrorists involved in the recent London Bridge attack are both known to have spent time in Italy. Four suspects were arrested earlier this year in a plot to bomb a bridge in Venice.

In 2015, an al Qaeda-linked cell uncovered in Sardinia was revealed to have plotted a suicide attack on the Vatican in 2010 that was never carried out. That terror cell was also allegedly involved in a bombing that killed 100 people in Pakistan.

Sebastian Gorka, former deputy assistant to President Trump and author of “Defeating Jihad,” rejected the notion that Italy is countering terrorism in a drastically more effective way than the rest of Europe.

“I don’t think there’s anything unique about Italian national security measures, nor do I think it’s a question of luck,” he said.

According to Gorka, targets in Italy have simply not been as high of a priority for ISIS as countries like Britain and Germany that are more actively involved in global affairs and the conflict in the Middle East.

“The attacks in the U.K. and Germany are explained by their strategic value or their attractiveness to the narrative of jihadi targeting logic,” he said.

ISIS propaganda promising violence against western targets is nothing out of the ordinary, but Gorka cautioned against dismissing the latest messages as empty threats.

“Some of it is bluster,” he said. “Some of it is just propaganda, but in the majority of cases these publications tell us exactly what the jihadists believe and how they wish to hurt us, the tactics they will use.”

ISIS and al Qaeda publications promoted the use of vehicles to mow down civilians prior to a series of attacks in the U.S. and Europe doing exactly that. The Boston Marathon bombers built pressure cooker bombs that appeared to follow instructions from an al Qaeda magazine.

“If you want to know what the terrorists are going to do next, you have to listen to what they say,” Gorka said.

As the latest Christmas-themed threats emerged last week, police in Germany arrested six Syrian migrants suspected of plotting an ISIS-linked attack. Local media reports indicated they planned to strike the Christmas market in Essen on the anniversary of Amri’s attack, but officials told the New York Times it was too soon to tell what their target was.

According to Levitt, ISIS and its supporters may be striving to create headlines this holiday season with attacks in the west to compensate for military losses in Iraq and Syria.

“It’s a particularly sensitive time—given that this Islamic State has faced significant battlefield defeats and you’ve seen a lot of returning foreign fighters…some of whom just want to go home and reintegrate into society, but some, Europol has released in its most recent report, probably want to carry out attacks,” he said.

Levitt added that the apparent thwarting of the plot in Germany indicates European security agencies recognize the dangers they currently face.

“Anything that you and I might think of in terms of from Times Square to houses of worship, you can imagine that the authorities have on their radar,” he said.

By their nature, open air holiday markets pose a serious challenge for security officials.

“It’s difficult to defend those without diminishing the appeal of the Christmas markets,” West said.

British authorities have already taken steps to secure markets there following the Berlin attack and other attacks involving vehicles in England. Visitors to markets in major cities will see concrete barriers, armed police, bag checks, and in some cases metal detectors.

Even with those measures in place, West still sees vulnerabilities.

“I would not be surprised to see an acid attack at a Christmas market, especially in the U.K.,” he said.

Still, experts do not recommend allowing fear of a potential attack or the increased security presence to discourage people from shopping and enjoying the holiday events.

“It’s not about turning individual places into fortresses,” Gorka said. “Then the terrorists really win.”

Instead, he urged the public to remain alert, plan ahead for an emergency, and, if they are properly licensed and trained, consider carrying a weapon.

“Just use common sense,” he said. “Common sense is a very powerful defensive weapon and we need to start using it again.”

West recommended increased situational awareness in public spaces.

“Be vigilant,” he said. “I think the intent of these propaganda messages are to deter people from going to the Christmas markets.”

Despite the new ISIS threats and one very high-profile deadly attack last December, West emphasized that run-of-the-mill street crime remains a greater threat at holiday events than terrorism.

“You’re much more likely to get pickpocketed than you are to be run over by a truck,” he said.

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