ISTANBUL - European countries raised their terrorist threat levels this weekend fearing that Ramadan, the holy month when Muslims seek to exercise humility and charity and come closer to Allah, may hold more attacks similar to those on Friday that left over 60 dead and hundreds wounded across three continents.
Jihadists have a history of pulling off terrorist outrages during Ramadan and this year they added to the "catalog," with more attacks suspected of being in the offing.
When then U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was asked in 2001 whether American-led coalition forces should halt operations in Afghanistan in observance of the holy month he responded: “The Taliban and al-Qaida are unlikely to take a holiday.”
This Ramadan neither did the Islamic State group, which quickly claimed ghoulish credit for the bombing of a Shi'ite mosque in Kuwait that left dozens dead and hundreds wounded, and late Friday for the shooting spree at two beachside hotels in Tunisia, killing at least 37 mainly Western tourists.
Alert level raised
“No country is without risk, we have raised the level of alert to re-sensitize those units charged with protecting sensitive places,” Italy’s Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said in a press statement.
“Today has seen three attacks with dozens of dead carried out in three different places around the world, linked by one thing: violence and terror," Alfano said. “We will win the terror challenge only if we do not allow ourselves to be conditioned by fear."
On Friday as the terror attacks unfolded in Tunisia, Kuwait and France – where a man was beheaded by an apparently lone killer – Italian police arrested a Pakistani accused of planning a 2009 bomb attack on a Peshawar market that killed more than 130 people.
Italian anti-terrorism detectives suspect the man to be a member of a jihadist network in Italy, which is plotting terror attacks on Rome, including the Vatican, which has been on the receiving end of high-profile threats by extremists affiliated with Islamic State, formerly known as ISIL.
In February in a horrific video posted by extremists of the throat-slitting of 21 Coptic Christians on the shores of the Mediterranean near Libya’s coastal city of Sirte, a militant spokesman points northward after the executions, saying: “We will conquer Rome, by Allah’s permission.”
Calls for attacks
For the jihadists there were strong operational imperatives to carry out “spectacular" attacks this Ramadan, say analysts. All the attacks took place within hours of each other.
In recent weeks the Islamic State group’s so-called caliphate straddling Syria and Iraq has suffered battlefield setbacks, losing control of a key Syrian town on the border with Turkey, an important military base and several villages some 50 kilometers or so north of the Islamic State group’s defacto capital of Raqqa.
The response had been ferocious in Syria even before the attacks unfolded in North Africa, Europe and the Gulf – if for no other reason than to boost the morale of its own fighters.
According to anti-Islamic State activists in northern Syria there were clear signs of plummeting morale among some fighters.
“The Syrians in IS ranks took the losses especially badly,” Amir Salamah said. “The foreign fighters less so but then, if things fall apart for IS in Syria, they can more happily transfer to the front lines in Iraq.”
Islamic extremists launched a vicious raid midweek on Kobani, the Kurdish town on the border with Turkey that suffered more than its "fair share" of horror during a months-long siege by Islamic extremists that only ended in January.
Intelligence agencies in the West and in the Middle East and across North Africa had been expecting an onslaught since March when jihadists carried out a murderous attack on a landmark museum in Tunis, the biggest terror incident associated with the Islamic State group outside Iraq and Syria before Friday’s attacks.
In the wake of the Bardo Museum attack in March that left 20 tourists and a Tunisian security guard dead, Islamic State supporters started to use the Tunisian industry’s twitter hashtag #IWillComeToTunisiaThis Summer to display warnings suggesting they were also planning on coming to target Western holiday-makers.
And the intelligence agencies worries only grew when, last week, in an audio statement posted online, Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani appeared to foretell the mayhem to come.
He called on supporters to strike all infidels during Ramadan and also urged attacks be mounted against Shi'ite Muslims.
It was the first day of Ramadan last year that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the establishment of a caliphate straddling Syria and Iraq.
Western security officials say they remain unsure about the level of coordination between the attackers, if any, or whether they were directed and planned by the Islamic State group.
“We don’t know whether these attacks were inspired by IS or whether the group was actively involved in the planning and timing,” a British security official said. He declined to be named for this article on grounds he did not have authority to speak with the media.
More than coincidence
But independent analysts see the timing of the three attacks, which came within hours of each other, as more than just coincidence.
And they say the difference between inspiring or encouraging on the one hand and planning or coordinating operationally on the other is beside the point. The leadership of Islamic State’s jihadist rival, al-Qaida, doesn’t get involved in all the terrorism of its affiliates, they said.
“Attacks by IS are a continuation of what it has already been doing in Arabian Peninsula, Tunisia and France. Just all same day this time,” tweeted Aaron Zelin, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a U.S. research organization.
On an operational level, security officials in Europe and North Africa need to understand how the various jihadist groups, formally affiliated with the Islamic State group or not, are working together whether coordination for attacks is involved or not.
So far Tunisian security officials remain unclear as to which local jihadist group they think supplied the gunmen.
Some officials have pointed the finger at (accused) the Uqba Ibn Nafi Brigade, which was affiliated with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), but in September 2014 switched formal allegiance to the Islamic State group.
Others said Tunisia’s Ansar al-Sharia was involved, too. Both groups have sent fighters to the Islamic State group in Syria and to Libya to fight alongside its affiliate in eastern Libya, Tunisian security sources told VOA.