Will the Paris Olympics be a terrorist target? These three factors could be key

Despite careful planning and exceptional measures, the Paris Olympics remains a terrorist target.
Wednesday 19 June 2024

In recent months, Islamic State has escalated its calls to attack sporting events in Europe. Governments are increasingly concerned about the specific threat the terrorist group poses to the upcoming Paris Olympics and Paralympic Games.

But how concerned should we be? While definitive answers on the dangers posed by clandestine actors are inherently hard to get, there are three important factors to look at: intent, capability and opportunity.

Questions of intent

An attack on the Olympics would certainly offer the type of global impact few other targets could provide. But there’s still the question of whether Islamic State would want to devote the necessary resources to carrying it out.

Currently, the Islamic State affiliate with the greatest propensity for transnational attacks is the Afghanistan-based Islamic State–Khorasan Province (IS-KP), which was behind the recent massacre at the concert hall in Moscow that killed more than 140 people.

There has also been a surge of Islamist extremist terror plots in Europe since the outbreak of the Gaza war in October 2023, several with apparent connections to IS-KP. One of these attacks targeted Swedish fans at a football stadium in Brussels.

Some recent Islamic State statements have hearkened back to the group’s 2015 Paris massacre that killed 130 people. The group has called on supporters to “recreate the glory of the Paris 2015 raid and subdue the Crusaders in masses”.

But while IS-KP is Islamic State’s most Western-focused affiliate, it prioritises targeting local regimes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, central Asian countries like Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and regional powers like Iran, Russia and China.

Moreover, Islamic State is not in the same position as it was in 2014 and 2015. Back then, the group’s territorial expansion in Syria and Iraq had been impeded by a Western-led military coalition, which prompted it to treat attacks in Europe as one of its highest priorities.

This raises the question of whether Islamic State might instead try to generate panic around the Olympics as part of a broader strategy of exhausting its opponents.

There is a long history of Islamist extremist movements openly articulating a strategy of draining Western governments of resources by inducing exorbitant security measures to prevent potential attacks.

In 2010, for example, al-Qaeda planted two printer bombs on a cargo plane in a plot called “Operation Hemorrhage”. Although it failed, the group claimed it only cost around US$4,200 (A$6,350) to carry out, but would force the United States to spend billions on airline security upgrades.

Islamic State might decide on a similar strategy around the Paris Olympics, given that provocation and attrition of resources are both common terrorist strategies.

Questions of capability

There are also questions about whether Islamic State has the capability to directly organise an attack on the Olympics.

IS-KP has demonstrated its capability of carrying out complex, transnational terrorist attacks, like the suicide bombing of a political rally in Pakistan in July 2023, a double suicide bombing in Iran in January 2024 and the mass shooting at the concert hall in Russia in March.

However, IS-KP’s capabilities should also not be overstated. Within Afghanistan, the movement may have been weakened since the US military withdrawal in 2021 and the Taliban’s return to power. The group’s claimed attacks in Afghanistan declined by more than 90% over two years – from 293 attacks in 2021 to 145 in 2022 to only 20 in 2023.

This helps to explain why IS-KP has shifted its focus overseas in recent years. This is also consistent with research showing that weaker insurgent organisations are more likely to engage in transnational terrorist acts. Their goal is often to offset local losses by broadening their struggle and demonstrating resolve.

IS-KP’s current capabilities, thus, remain unclear. Despite the attacks in Russia and Iran, it remains uncertain whether it could launch a large-scale attack in Europe when authorities are on high alert.

Questions of opportunity

Finally, there are questions of whether the Olympics would be perceived as a promising opportunity for an attack.

Islamist extremist propaganda has long emphasised the potential of sporting events as targets. In 2012, al-Qaeda’s Inspire magazine described “crowded sports arenas” as “very easy” targets. A 2014 issue of Inspire similarly recommended attacking sporting events with “dense crowds”, “visited by […] high profile people”, guaranteeing global media coverage.

As such, Islamic State supporters in Europe – either acting alone or in small groups – could see the Olympics as a good opportunity, with or without direct support from affiliates like IS-KP. French authorities recently arrested a teenager plotting such an “Islamic State-inspired” attack.

Even so, opportunities to strike sports mega-events have vastly declined in recent years due to the increasingly expansive security procedures that organisers have put in place.

According to one research report in 2014, the Olympics, in particular, “provide a glimpse into the most painstaking security planning outside of warfare”. Olympic hosts now routinely take exceptional measures to keep their games safe, including high-tech surveillance, intelligence gathering, extraordinary workforce allocation and the use of military forces to secure venues.

France, for instance, reportedly plans to deploy about 45,000 police and security forces, 20,000 private security personnel and around 15,000 military each day to protect the event.

These exceptional security and surveillance arrangements often remain long after an event and become normalised. This raises critical questions about both the financial and civil liberties cost of keeping the Olympics safe, and whether this “terrorism tax” could play into the strategy of groups to sow fear and compel governments to spend exorbitantly on security measures.

However, it is inherently difficult to know what a terror group is likely to perceive as an opportunity.

For example, Islamic State could decide to attack a softer target in France or elsewhere in Europe during the Olympics, seeing more opportunity in generating publicity from the timing rather than the location. Australia experienced a plot like this during the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

This also raises the question of who else might see the Olympics as an opportunity for terror. As historical research shows, threats to the Olympics are not limited to major groups like Islamic State. The bombing of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics by domestic American terrorist Eric Rudolph is a case in point.

Similar individuals or groups with varying motivations could also have harmful intentions in France next month, albeit with perhaps limited capability for mass violence.

Andrew Zammit, Postdoctoral research fellow, terrorism and security, Victoria University and Ramon Spaaij, Professor, College of Sport, Health and Engineering, Victoria University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.