Foiled France Train Attack Highlights Europe's Very Modern Terror Problem

In the aftermath of the attempted terror attack on a train bound for Paris last Friday, analysts have raised questions over what Europe can do, if anything, to protect itself from the increasingly unpredictable nature of such threats.

On Sunday, French police confirmed the gunman to be Ayoub el-Khazani, a 25-year-old Moroccan man, who boarded a high-speed international Thalys train in Brussels armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle, a Luger automatic pistol, ammunition and a box-cutter. He was only prevented from unleashing carnage after three off-duty U.S. servicemen and a Briton wrestled him to the ground and managed to subdue him. They have now been awarded the Legion d'Honneur—France's highest honour—for their bravery.

The outcome of the attempted attack could have been far worse. The problem, security experts say, is that the numbers of potential terrorists in Europe has now reached unprecedented levels, due to the allure of so-called Islamic State (ISIS), which has seen thousands of young men across Europe drawn to its murderous ranks. In January, Rob Wainwright, the director of the EU's law enforcement agency Europol warned that between 3,000 and 5,000 European nationals have travelled abroad to countries like Syria to train or fight with jihadi groups, and now pose a significant threat should they return to Europe. Claude Moniquet, a former French intelligence agent and the chief executive of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Centre, a Brussels-based think-tank and research group, estimates there could be as many as 10,000 "dangerous" people in Europe, taking into account sympathisers and those involved in the logistics of attacks.

Unlike Al-Qaeda, a group that Moniquet says is far more selective when it comes to recruitment, ISIS operates more of an open-door type policy. "ISIS takes everyone, even if they're criminal, crazy or not completely Muslim," Moniquet tells Newsweek. "This means today we have an enormous amount of people to watch."

"As a result, you will have more successful terrorist attacks than you had 10 years ago," he adds. "They will be on a smaller level, but for instance if you take Charlie Hebdo, it was a relatively small attack, but the impact on society, and even worldwide, was enormous. If Friday's attack had been successful, there could have been dozens dead. It would have been a slaughter."

The message ISIS is sending to its followers across Europe has also changed, according to Hannah Stuart, a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, a British think-tank. Whereas previously the group called on its followers to travel to Syria as they needed recruits for nation-building, "Now the message is, 'If you want to fight, stay at home and commit attacks there'," Stuart says.

In response to Friday's attack, the French and Belgian authorities will increase border security across the continent, particularly on international trains. Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, called for tighter security controls on Monday, suggesting identity checks and baggage controls at a press conference in Brussels.

But not everyone is convinced that increasing security at train stations is possible. "In France we have 15,000 daily trains and billions of passengers," says Moniquet. "Of course we can't strengthen security on every single train in France and in Europe—it's impossible.The only answer is to strengthen terrorism policy, to have better intelligence, better cooperation and more surveillance. At some point you must say: 'OK I will accept limitations on my privacy for the security of everyone."

Yet el-Khazani was already known to intelligence authorities in Spain, France and Belgium. He was listed in France as a security threat and known to intelligence services as a radical Islamist who went to Syria in 2014, according to the Guardian newspaper. Just because a person is known to the authorities, this does not mean that they are being monitored around the clock, something that would be financially impossible given the numbers estimated to pose some sort of risk.

"If you've got a very big intelligence picture, as we now do, you've got to prioritise, to focus on this one or that one—assessments that are made on the basis of existing information," says Raffaello Pantucci, director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and author of the book 'We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain's Suburban Terrorists'. "This guy was clearly someone of concern, he had registered on radars repeatedly, but what we don't know is how many other people who look like him on paper are currently being faced by intelligence services."

The attack has also called into question Europe's controversial Schengen zone, which allows people to travel passport-free through 26 European countries, which is already under pressure as a result of Europe's migrant crisis. This week, there have been calls from several senior politicians to reconsider the Schengen Agreement, including the comments made by the Belgian prime minister.

However, analysts do not believe this would solve the issue, rather it would simply move the problem elsewhere. "This attack didn't happen because it was an international train that crossed borders in the Schengen area," Dr. Rem Korteweg, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, a London-based think tank told Newsweek. "It could have happened on any busy commuter train in any metropol in Western Europe. So it is a mistake to think it was targeted because it was a Thalys train."

Perhaps the most gripping aspect of Friday's attack were the brave individuals who managed to avert large-scale bloodshed with their heroic actions, but their intervention also reveals plenty about terror in Europe today. Both Korteweg and Moniquet believe that the unpredictable nature of terrorism means that ordinary people will increasingly be expected by their governments and security services to help them thwart attacks.

"This is what European governments would like us all to be—vigilant citizens who take on responsibility," says Korteweg. "Governments know they can't track 100 percent of potential attackers all the time, so they have to rely on vigilant citizens."