Watch Tuesday, October 18, 2016 at 10pm on WMHT-TV
Charlie Hebdo. Paris. Brussels. Since January of 2015, a wave of attacks by terrorists linked to Al Qaeda and ISIS has overwhelmed Europe, killing nearly 200 people and injuring hundreds more.
Could those attacks have been prevented? And why does Europe remain so vulnerable to the terrorism threat?
FRONTLINE and ProPublica present Terror in Europe – a multiplatform investigation telling the inside story of the missteps and systemic breakdowns that allowed known terrorists to strike in the heart of Europe, the problems that persist today, and the unprecedented threat the continent now faces.
“We’ve sat down with some of Europe’s top counter-terror officials — and they’ve acknowledged that most of the plotters of these attacks were already on the radar of European intelligence services,” says ProPublica senior reporter Sebastian Rotella, who has been covering terrorism for two decades. “Even more importantly, they describe alarming long-time problems that have hurt European counter-terror efforts.”
In unusually candid interviews, these counter-terror veterans tell Rotella how the attackers escaped detection, and how European countries have failed to put in place effective intelligence sharing and border enforcement — such as procedures for tracking air travelers that became standard in the United States after the 9/11 attacks.
“The institutional flaws in the European system are multiple,” Jean-Louis Bruguiere, who was a top French anti-terror judge for two decades, tells FRONTLINE and ProPublica. “I don’t know what we are waiting for.”
Years before the attacks in Europe, Rotella was already reporting on some of the jihadists who would go on to commit them, and the counter-terror officials trying to stop them. Over the course of the past year, he has been reporting from inside a reeling Europe, including Paris and Belgium — which has provided more ISIS militants for its size than any other country in Europe.
Terror in Europe reveals stunning details of many missed chances in the runup to the attacks. It tells the story of how previously convicted terrorists who attacked Charlie Hebdo were to hatch the plot with al Qaeda in Yemen — and of the decision to end surveillance on them. It details how more than a dozen Paris and Brussels attackers shuttled across Europe and back and forth to Syria, crossing borders and fending off police repeatedly — even though most of them were wanted or on watch lists.
And the investigation shows the difference between how terror suspects have been treated in America versus in Europe — where sentencing has been much more lenient.
“We were mistaken in our assessment of quite a lot of people who we thought were less dangerous than they actually were,” Marc Trevidic, France’s senior counterterrorism magistrate from 2007-2015, tells FRONTLINE and ProPublica.
Amid a crisis that is threatening the future of the European Union, Terror in Europe explores the fundamental challenges facing the continent as it debates the need for new security measures versus the basic tenet of free movement among countries.
“Everyone dreams of a society with zero risks,” Alain Grignard, a senior counterterror official of the Belgian federal police, tells FRONTLINE and ProPublica. “But the zero-risk option does not exist.”
As ISIS loses ground in the Middle East and the spectre of future attacks in the West looms large, Terror in Europe is an in-depth look at an unprecedented threat — and a continent that remains vulnerable.