The Not-So-New Threat to New Year's Eve
By: Analysis | Stratfor.comDecember 31, 2015

Authorities across Europe have issued warnings and increased security efforts in light of intelligence indicating that jihadists may be planning attacks. Belgium has canceled its traditional fireworks display in Brussels along with other public festivities. Alerts have extended beyond Europe, too: Russia has canceled New Year's festivities in Red Square, and the United States and the United Kingdom have issued warnings to citizens living in Beijing to avoid the commercial Sanlitun area of the city over Christmas. There is also concern regarding large New Year's Eve gatherings in New York and other U.S. cities.

Warnings such as these are not new. Similar warnings have emerged nearly every holiday season since 2000, and they are not entirely without merit. Al Qaeda attempted to pull off a spectacular multi-continent attack at the turn of the millennium and then plotted an attack against the Strasbourg Christmas Market in 2000. The Pan Am Flight 103 bombing and the failed shoe and underwear bombings also happened on or near the holidays.

This year, the threat of a New Year's attack is felt keenly in the wake of the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino and a stream of threats by the Islamic State, including a propaganda video released in November that contained images suggesting a suicide bombing in Times Square. Islamic State operatives allegedly planning New Year's attacks were arrested in Belgium, Bosnia and Turkey. The arrests came on the heels of several other arrests in Belgium and Austria of people allegedly connected to the Paris attackers, and the United States announcement that coalition airstrikes had killed Islamic State operatives involved in plotting attacks against Europe. With political discourse over refugees and immigration at fever pitch, the potential for an attack during New Year's celebrations is certainly on everyone's mind.

However, the possibility of an attack during end-of-year celebrations is really no greater than it was on the eve of Nov. 1 or Dec. 1 — and it may even be less because of increased awareness and security measures. It is important to remember that the operatives most likely to conduct such attacks are limited in their terrorist tradecraft and would struggle to launch a successful attack on a hardened target or even a soft target during a time of heightened alert. Moreover, the very arrests that are raising awareness of the threat are also probably disrupting not only suspected plots but also other attack plans authorities are not aware of. For example, in late 2011 or early 2012, San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook and his neighbor Enrique Marquez allegedly scrapped a plot after several arrests in California.

It is not unusual to see a flurry of arrests prior to a perceived attack date, especially in Europe. Many of those arrested are usually quietly released later without charges being filed. The authorities view the possibility of disrupting a plot in the works, or of perhaps gaining some actionable intelligence of such a plot, worth the effort even in cases where prosecution is not likely. Such arrests also serve the political purpose of reassuring the population that the authorities are doing something.

The more we learn about the preparation and execution of the Paris attack, the more evident it becomes that the cell behind the attack was not a highly professional organization as initially thought. Instead, we have learned that their suicide belts were exactly that — they failed to do much more than kill the operatives wearing them — and that the attack was poorly conceived and executed. At the same time, these facts remind us that it is very easy to conduct deadly attacks against soft targets like sidewalk cafes and the Bataclan Theater, especially when the operatives are willing to die during the attack.

The world was able to get through Christmas 2015 without a major attack, but whether or not there is an attack on New Year's Eve or New Year's Day, it is important to remember that terrorism is a fact of modern life. On Jan. 2, the Islamic State, al Qaeda and a wide array of other terrorist groups will still be working on plots to attack and kill innocents just as they were on Dec. 30. People still need to maintain the proper mindset, practice situational awareness and be prepared to take action to mitigate the impact of the next attack when it does happen.

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