Terror atrocities by Islamic militants could drive Europe straight into waiting arms of the far-right
Published 27/07/2016 | 02:30
Of all the places Islamist terrorists have chosen to ply their wicked trade in Europe these past few weeks, the sleepy French town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray is one of the more unlikely settings for committing acts of extreme violence.
Unlike the high-profile, Isil-inspired attacks France has suffered in Paris and Nice, yesterday's ordeal in this small town in Normandy, situated 6km south of the great French cathedral city of Rouen, began with an attack on a group of worshippers attending morning Mass.
After entering the town's Norman church and taking several worshippers hostage, the two knifemen were heard to shout "Daesh" - the Arabic acronym for Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil) - before slitting the throat of an 85-year-old Catholic priest, Fr Jacques Hamel.
By targeting this quiet French town, the killers, who were subsequently shot dead by French police marksmen, have shown that nowhere is safe from the malign designs of Islamist fanatics. Nor is the growing threat posed by Isil militants confined to France.
As the seemingly relentless wave of terror attacks Europe has suffered in recent weeks demonstrates, Isil extremists now appear capable of striking at will at any point on the continent that they choose.
Intelligence officials have issued several stark warnings that Isil has actively sought to exploit the migrant crisis to set up a network of terror cells in Europe, specifically targeting key European countries like Britain, France, Italy and Germany.
Now it seems all of these warnings are being borne out, with all the implications that could have not only for European security, but for the continent's future political stability. It has long been a central tenet of Islamist ideology that, if the extremists were able to destroy liberal, Western democracies, they would then be able to establish a regime based on Islamist principles in their place.
It might seem far-fetched that a bunch of ill-disciplined barbarians living in their self-styled caliphate in northern Syria could actually destroy the civilised world. But they are deadly serious about achieving their aims.
Western Europe has been here before, of course. Just like today, terrorist atrocities became a feature of everyday life in the 1970s and 1980s when far-left activists, such as Germany's Baader-Meinhof gang and Italy's Red Brigades, undertook a series of high-profile terrorist attacks aimed at destroying Western democracies in the hope that they would be replaced by communist rule.
Ultimately, these ideologically-driven groups failed because they were active at the height of the Cold War, when few Europeans were keen to sacrifice their personal freedom for dedication to the Soviet cause.
Now, as Europe faces disruption on a similar scale generated by a new generation of Islamist-inspired terrorists, its leaders must show similar resolve if they are not to fall into Isil's trap of allowing the current wave of terror attacks to bring about a true European political crisis.
The political reverberations from this new wave of atrocities, which began with the Bastille Day attacks in Nice that claimed 84 lives, are certainly starting to be felt throughout Europe. And with elections due in Germany and France next year, they could have worrying implications for the continent's future.
In Germany, the government's failure to grasp the public's mounting resentment towards Chancellor Angela Merkel's open- door policy in handling the migrant crisis has caused the remarkable rise of the Alternative for Germany party, which won almost 25pc of the vote in a state election in Saxony-Anhalt in March, almost beating Mrs Merkel's Christian Democrats.
In France, meanwhile, Front National leader Marine Le Pen has been quick to exploit the wave of anger directed towards President François Hollande over his handling of the terror threat. Yesterday, commenting on the attack at Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, she accused the entire French establishment, both left and right, of sharing "immense responsibility" for creating the circumstances in which Islamist terrorists can operate in France.
The prospect of right-wing nationalists exercising real political power in France and Germany is one that even the most ardent Brexiteer will view with dismay.
But the longer Isil is able to maintain its terrorist offensive against Europe, then the more likely this becomes, especially if the fanatics continue to attack soft targets like the church selected in yesterday's attack.
For all the Republic's secularist pretensions, Catholicism remains part of France's national identity, and the murder of an elderly priest is just the kind of attack that could provoke sectarian tensions of the sort we are more used to seeing in the Middle East, as opposed to the heart of Europe.
This is just the kind of political chaos Isil wants to create in Europe, which is why its political leaders must steer clear of this simple but deadly trap.