Countering Christmas Jihad
“Soon on your holidays” — a sentence that would typically befit the celebrations of Christmas — was recently turned into a terrifying threat, when posted on an ISIS-related network. The post included pictures of Santa Claus being stabbed by masked ISIS terrorists, among other chilling images, including landmarks from the Eiffel Tower to Times Square.
These threats did not just target Western communities, but Middle Eastern ones as well, where churches have a history of being targeted by deadly attacks, such as the one in Egypt in December 2016. During that attack, St. Mark Cathedral’s adjoining chapel was bombed by terrorists, killing 25 worshippers and injuring dozens of others. Since the attack, Egypt has increased security measures to safeguard all churches and places of worship, especially during the Christmas season.
The recent wave of ISIS threats to attack civilians on Christmas has forced governments worldwide to tighten security in the face of ISIS’ decline. (The group has suffered major defeats in the Middle East, namely in Syria, Iraq, Libya and the North Sinai.) Consequently, the US State Department has issued a heightened alert for all American travelers to Europe to exercise caution, particularly at holiday events.
Accordingly, these countries have taken drastic measures to safeguard the celebrations of Christmas this year; the following are a few examples of such measures:
Six suspects were taken into custody during a November 21 raid on eight apartments by a police force of about 500 officers. These preemptive strikes have saved Germany from another devious plan that aimed to kill dozens, if not hundreds of people.
Germany experienced a vicious attack by ISIS terrorists in 2016, on a busy open air Christmas market in Berlin. German police shot Tunisian asylum seeker Anis Amri dead four days later in a shootout — after he had killed 12 people and injured 56 more in the truck attack.
German authorities have beefed up security measures to protect public areas, particularly the country’s estimated 2,600 Christmas markets. Market organizers in Bochum, for example, decorated concrete barriers protecting pedestrian areas with festive Christmas wrapping. Armed police patrols have been increased, and stop-and-search checks were introduced at venues across the country.
France has been rocked by a series of terrorist attacks and mass killings in recent years. In response, the French Parliament approved tougher new laws giving security forces unprecedented powers during emergencies. This action was inspired by the December 2015 Paris attacks, which left 130 people dead and 413 people injured.
Officials recently canceled a Christmas market in Lyon because security costs would be too high. Paris’ Champs Elysees Christmas market was also cancelled due to fear of possible attacks. In the famous Strasbourg Christmas market, police patrols have been increased, and 140 private security agents have been hired for added protection. During the Christmas weekend, traffic will be restricted to the Grand Ile “Great Island” in the historic center of the French city, turning into it into a pedestrian zone.
Amid political turmoil following the Catalan independence referendum and a possible repeat vote, Spain can’t ignore its security priorities as Christmas approaches. Spain has been a target of Al Qaeda and ISIS terrorists for years, as it remains the crown jewel of their fabled caliphate.
In August, Spain woke up to an attack in Barcelona, when 22-year-old terrorist Younis Abouyaacoub drove a van into pedestrians, killing 14 people and injuring 130. In the days before Christmas, the Spanish government has stepped up their security in all major cities, despite fears that the number of police forces is not adequate to counter the threat of ISIS returnees from Iraq.
In Barcelona, bollards and hedges were installed in the city center and around the Sagrada Familia Cathedral to stop vehicles from approaching pedestrian areas. In the Spanish capital of Madrid, authorities placed 1,100 kg concrete blocks on the famous Gran Via shopping street on December 1, and won’t remove them until January 7. Plans call for closing the street to all private vehicles by summer.
Britain endured a series of seemingly lone wolf attacks this year, including May’s bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester that killed 23 people and wounded 116. Security forces in the UK are now using drones to give officers at a command center, and other offices, live images of potential targets.
Scenes of unarmed English police “bobbies” are being replaced by heavily armed officers guarding Christmas markets and other high volume areas. Moreover, metal detectors, large concrete barriers and stop and search checks are highly visible at open markets across the United Kingdom.
The United States remains the prime target of all jihadist terrorist groups across the world.
Manhattan saw two terrorist attacks in the past six weeks – Sayfullo Saipov’s truck rampage that killed eight people on a bicycle path, and the attempted suicide bombing by Akayed Ullah at Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal.
New York police are using sand-filled sanitation trucks and sharpshooters to secure Times Square celebrations, which is similar to steps taken last Christmas and during last month’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
While ISIS and Al Qaeda have suffered battlefield defeats in the Middle East, they are far from finished plotting attacks and enticing lone wolf supporters across the world to do their vile bidding. So far, the 2017 holiday season has been more safe and peaceful, indicating that the increased security measures may have helped.
Hany Ghoraba is an Egyptian writer, political and counter-terrorism analyst at Al Ahram Weekly, the author of “Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy,” and a regular contributor to the BBC.