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Is the threat of Islamic extremist terrorism spreading to central Europe?

Ahead of the Pope's visit last week to Krakow, Poland, to lead nearly 2 million Catholics in World Youth Day celebrations, news broke that an Iraqi man had been arrested in the Polish city of Lodz three days earlier carrying a small amount of explosives.

The news swiftly followed the three Islamic extremist terrorist attacks that have taken place in Germany in recent days – including an attempt by a failed Syrian asylum seeker to blow himself up outside a music festival. It might seem as though the terror threat previously associated with France and Belgium is spreading eastward through Europe.

Police investigators work at the site of a suicide bombing in Ansbach, southern Germany, on July 25, 2016.
Daniel Karmann | AFP | Getty Images
Police investigators work at the site of a suicide bombing in Ansbach, southern Germany, on July 25, 2016.

Realistic expectations

"Visegrad countries (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) are stepping up security measures and increasing their investigative powers," Blanka Kolenikova, deputy head of Europe analysis at research firm IHS Markit, told CNBC via telephone.

Poland, which held a NATO summit in Warsaw earlier last month as well as World Youth Day, introduced border checks in early July and will keep them until Tuesday. German newspaper Deutsche Welle has reported a significantly increased police presence in Poland and Slovakia, particularly at public transport terminals The Polish Interior Ministry told CNBC via email that nearly 38,000 officers were "in charge of ensuring that the participants of World Youth Day were safe throughout Poland."

Kolenikova asserts that western European countries are still more likely to be attacked. But, a base level of risk exists for Visegrad countries because they are all NATO members, and thereby support U.S. interests.

"Recent events in Germany do not mean that there is a direct increase in the terrorism threat to central European countries," she said.

Nonetheless, countering Islamic extremist terrorism has dominated the political narratives of Visegrad countries. Far-right parties have risen in popularity across the continent. Anti-immigrant rhetoric and security were key issues debated in the Slovakian elections earlier this year, with Prime Minster Robert Fico telling the news outlet TASR in May that "Islam has no place in Slovakia."

"Governments are perhaps more nervous than ordinary people," Cvete Koneska, senior analyst for Europe at Control Risks, told CNBC via telephone.

The refugee question

Security fears have become focused on the increased number of asylum seekers and migrants from the Middle East. This, combined with the increase in terrorist attacks in France, Belgium and Germany, has led to some countries mounting border controls and thereby disrupting the Schengen Agreement, the European Union-wide deal that enables the free movement of people.

The Polish Interior Ministry told CNBC that by 27th July, its border checks had resulted in the 226 arrests, the majority of which were individuals attempting to cross the border without the necessary documents. The Interior Ministry also say that, "border checks have resulted in a number of persons sought on the basis of the European Arrest Warrant to be identified."

However IHS' Kolenikova believes that the migrant crisis isn't a security concern.

"People connect terrorist attacks to the refugee influx, but it is wrong to do so. Take Greece for example, which has one of the highest numbers of refugees but is at a low risk of international terrorism," she told CNBC.

Central European countries have a different, arguably less sympathetic, attitude towards the refugee crisis than their western counterparts. Refuting German Chancellor Angela Merkel's open door policy, Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo of the right wing Law and Justice party said to broadcaster Superstacja after the March attacks in Brussels: "Our stance is very cautious, which gives rise to major criticism from other countries in what we call the old EU, who hastily agreed to this influx of migrants into Europe."

She added, "I regret to say that the EU is not drawing lessons from what is happening."

Modern history might explain why central European countries feel differently towards refugees. Koneska points out that pre 1989, refugees were not commonplace in the region and there has since only been a short period of time for public attitudes to become accepting of the concept.

To counter any potential threat, the Visegrad countries are expected to increase the sharing of security information. Fresh security legislation has also been introduced across the board. Hungary perhaps takes the hardest line in policy as the country is a transit route for refugees, and therefore the most directly affected.

But, will these stepped up security measures prove successful? The Polish Interior Ministry say that their police force have "not reported any serious incidents that would jeopardize the security of participants of World Youth Day." But, both analysts agree that it is impossible to be sure of the effectiveness of new security measures as they have not yet been truly tested. "Success in preventing terrorism doesn't ever depend on one measure. But, the electorate's perception of a government's success in preventing security threats is also important."

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