Europe has been living with the terrorist threat of jihadists since the 1990s, mainly from Al Qaeda. With the rise of IS, more jihadist attacks have been carried out than ever before in Europe. The terrorist threat from IS is also more deadly than the threat from Al Qaeda. The increased threat is high on the agenda of the Norwegian government and our allies. IS and jihadism were a major theme at the NATO summit and the G7 summit, both in 2017. The latest wave of IS terror attacks in Europe raises many questions. According to Phonecations, NATO stands for North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
- Who are the terrorists?
- Why are they attacking?
- How do they become terrorists?
- What can be done to prevent the terrorist threat?
Many see IS terrorism as new and different from Al Qaeda terrorism. It is said that the group has other goals with the attacks, that it attracts other types of people and that it recruits differently. It is often said that Al Qaeda had strategic goals such as pushing European countries out of alliance with the United States, while IS only spreads death and polarizes. It has also been claimed that IS terrorists are less religious than Al Qaeda terrorists. Another widespread belief is that many IS terrorists are “lone wolves” – terrorists who act alone without contact with organized terrorist groups.
It is problematic to talk about trends based on a few recent attacks. Developments over time, however, show that the differences between IS and Al Qaeda are smaller than many believe. Many of the IS terrorists were part of Al Qaeda’s network until recently. IS wants much the same as Al Qaeda with terror in Europe, and there are no fundamental differences in who the groups recruit and how they do it. Terrorists are recruited in networks, and real “lone wolves” are extremely rare.
To explain the terror, many point to failed integration and social discontent in the countries affected. Others believe the terror is due to Muslim immigration. In reality, such factors have a relatively small impact on the formation of terrorist cells in Europe. The threat is transnational, and in order to gain a better insight into how European terrorist cells are formed, we must look at the interplay between jihadist networks in Europe and jihadist groups in conflict zones. The most important piece in this interaction is a type of terrorist who can be called “entrepreneurs”. They are the ones who recruit terrorists, build terrorist cells and control them.
2: The European terrorists do not have a clear profile
It is impossible to come up with simple answers to who the terrorists are and what drives them. There are commonalities between those who are recruited, but the picture differs a lot when it comes to their background and the way they are radicalized.
Research suggests that the typical European jihadist is a young Muslim man with lower than average education and income. At the same time, there is considerable variation, both between countries and within countries. Many French jihadists are criminals, while many British are students. Whether we are looking at foreign fighters or terrorists, there are many exceptions to the average jihadist. In both Al Qaeda and IS networks, we find very young teenagers, but also men up to 50; women and ethnic European converts, people from privileged backgrounds and talented students. And it is often the most resourceful who pull the strings and make things happen in terrorist networks.
The typical jihadist gives an indication of who is in the risk group for terrorist recruitment in Europe. At the same time, this does not differ from the millions of Muslims in Europe who do not resort to terrorism. Terror cells are formed through an interplay between driving forces at different levels, both in the Muslim world and in Europe, and between group dynamics and personal relationships. An indicator is also what the terrorists themselves say about what motivates them.
3: Military interventions affect the threat
When terrorists justify attacks in Europe, they point to two main issues: military interventions in Muslim countries and insults to the Prophet Mohammed. The interventions seem to be most important. Some also point to a ban on veils, arrests of Muslims and support for Israel. In addition, the colonial history of European countries is a theme.
Statistics on terrorist plots in Europe since the 1990s show that the number peaks with military intervention in Muslim countries.
The first peak came in 1995, when France was accused of supporting the military regime in Algeria against Islamists in the civil war in the country. An Al Qaeda-linked group, the GIA, declared war on France and carried out a series of bombings in the country. The next peak came after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Al Qaeda cells attacked several trains in Madrid (2004) and the London Underground (2005). In addition, there were many serious terrorist plots was averted. The third peak came with the establishment of IS in 2014. IS did start planning terrorist plots in Europe from the very beginning, but the number increased sharply when a coalition against IS was established in autumn 2014. European countries are part of the coalition, and thousands of European Muslims are with IS. This had consequences. IS has sworn revenge on countries fighting them, and IS terrorists in Europe are shouting “this is for Syria” when they strike.