The last couple of months have seen jihadist attacks in France and Austria, generating considerable news coverage and bringing the issue of terrorism back to the forefront of the public agenda. This article will attempt to contextualize these terrorist attacks, examining their strategic aims and what enabled them.
The frequency of jihadist plots has ebbed and flowed, though most reporting on terrorist incidents tends to exclude foiled or failed plots. Jihadists perpetrated 15 attacks on European soil in the years from 2015 to 2018. Though the pace of ISIS-inspired and ISIS-directed attacks has increased over the last few years, the numbers are not out of line with years past. As the threat of ISIS has become increasingly diversified and more geographically diffuse, especially in the aftermath of the demise of ISIS caliphate in Syria and Iraq, large scale plots involving complicated networks and top-down directives appear to be a thing of the past. Overall, such attacks still remain a marginal phenomenon.1
However, looking ahead to 2021, the risk level of such jihadi terrorist attacks occurring in public spaces of European capitals remains high.
These types of smaller attacks are intended to generate an increased fear of terrorism. Part of the underlying strategy, as is typical of all terrorist events, is to make citizens feel that such violent assaults can happen anywhere, anytime, and by anyone without much planning or preparation or forewarning. Another element of ISIS’s terror strategy in Europe is to promote a feeling of contagious violence, stimulating others to ‘follow the example’2 and carry out their own attacks. ISIS seems to be banking on the lone wolf phenomenon and copycat attacks, taking credit for attacks it did not help plan, finance or execute. The overarching goal is to incite a global insurgency that inspires Muslims across the world. ISIS wants to be seen as the world’s preeminent jihadi organization, and they see a focus on quantity over quality as their competitive advantage.
Another explanation of these recent attacks in Europe is that they are seen in retaliation for European intelligence services preventing potential ISIS recruits from travelling to Iraq and Syria. Certain European countries have significantly improved their capacity to detect and deter domestic terrorist attacks thanks in no small part to intelligence sharing. As Simocox points out, “Thwarted in these attempts, frustrated travelers sometimes launched rapid, unsophisticated attacks, rather than meticulously planned ones, in order to contribute to the Islamic State’s cause from their country of residence. In total, the 25 frustrated traveler plots that were set in motion in Europe between January 2014 and June 2019 resulted in eight attacks and led to 18 injuries and seven deaths.”3 A major obstacle for these intelligence agencies to overcome is complacency; ISIS has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to wait until an opportunity to strike arises. According to Nesser, opportunistic attacks, occur more frequently in countries ‘where network links make attacks more likely to succeed4’, pointing to the strength of the jihadi network in a respective country a prime indicator of a future attack.
The increased use of social media to recruit, instruct and encourage terrorist operatives has, as Krona argues, transformed ISIS into a ‘Virtual Caliphate’. ISIS has established online spaces and digital platforms that allow the organization to decentralize and subtly shift their emphasis to a religious duty to help fellow Muslims rather than a possible re-emergence of a caliphate.5
A comprehensive GLOBSEC Policy Institute study found a so-called ‘crime-terror nexus’ underlying the background of many European jihadis. Their results, based on data sets from numerous countries in Europe (France, UK, Spain, Italy and Greece), indicate that “…a significant number of European jihadis have been involved in some type of criminal activity before committing acts of political violence”.6 Almost one-third of European jihadis had a serious run-in with the law, committing crimes such as, robberies, burglaries and thefts, trafficking of goods and fraud, to name a few. Many of those who were arrested and convicted, served prison sentences and during their incarceration turned from criminals to terrorists by being radicalized through contacts with other radicalized prisoners. The GLOBSEC study also points to the overall nature of European jihad as a homegrown phenomenon, many of which are naturalized or first generation and generally made up of males who lack formal education.7 A glance at the modus operandi of recent European jihadists also indicates that firearms, knifes, vehicles have become the preferred weapons of choice since they are easily accessible, readily available, fairly inexpensive. These types of weapons are easy to acquire although they generally do not kill large numbers of people.8
Young Muslims in certain European neighbourhoods face unemployment, a lack of social integration, and discrimination, which can lead to social marginalization. ISIS has been able to exploit these political and cultural issues unique to the Muslim diaspora communities in its recruitment. Moreover, many European Muslim feel angry that their religion is frequently conflated with terrorism, casting a web of suspicion on all Muslims.9 There have been particular incidents over the years, such a Salman Rushdie’s provocative book, The Satanic Verses in 1988, the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh’s short film ‘Submission: Part 1” in 2004, the Danish cartoon crisis in 2005, and the depiction of the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad published in the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo in 2015 that led to outrage in the Muslim community and were deemed to be cultural insults. In addition to perceived Western insults against Islam, military interventions in Muslim countries by Western states have also been the prime trigger for such jihadi attacks.10
Turner explains that ISIS’s goal is to “push European states towards polarisation to facilitate jihadist ambitions, those being, continued intervention abroad and securitization of Islam at home, showcasing Europe as hostile to Muslims, all of which promote the idea of a ‘war on Islam’.”11 Terrorist attacks are meant to provoke an Islamophobic backlash. The ensuing retaliation is the intended goal. By provoking reprisals targeting Muslims living in Europe, reciprocal radicalization between the far right and violent Islamists, has worsened the situation.12
Evidence gathered by the Counter Extremism Project in Austria indicates that attacks directed against Muslims, asylum seekers, and associated institutions have persisted. Their annual report states that new far right groups like the Identitarian Movement Austria, whose rhetoric focuses on the perceived fear of ‘Islamization’ of Western societies, have gained popularity and that the migration influx into Europe has resulted in increased xenophobic sentiments, which have gradually fueled far-right extremism in Austria.13
1 Robin Simcox. 2019. ‘The Post-Caliphate Threat in Europe-and the Need for Continuing U.S. Assistance’, The Heritage Foundation. https://www.heritage.org/terrorism/report/the-post-caliphate-terror-threat-europe-and-the-need-continuing-us-assistance
2Thomas Renard.2016. ‘Fear Not: A Critical Perspective on the Terrorist Threat in Europe’. Security Policy Brief, EGMONT, No. 77, pp.1-8 http://aei.pitt.edu/86893/
3Robin Simcox. 2019. ‘When Terrorists Stay Home: The Evolving Threat to Europe from Frustrated Travelers’, CTC Sentinel, pp. 46-55; https://ctc.usma.edu/terrorists-stay-home-evolving-threat-europe-frustrated-travelers/
4Petter Nesser. 2019. ‘Military Interventions, Jihadi Networks, and Terrorist Entrepreneurs: How the Islamic State Terror Wave Rose so High in Europe’, CTS Sentinel, Vol. 12, Issue 3, p. 18, CTC-SENTINEL-032019.pdf (usma.edu)
5Michael Krona. 2020. ‘Revisiting the Ecosystem of Islamic State’s ‘Virtual Caliphate’’, GNET, https://gnet-research.org/2020/10/21/revisiting-the-ecosystem-of-islamic-states-virtual-caliphate/
6GLOBSEC.2018. ‘Who are the European Jihadis? Project Midterm Report.’ Brussels, Belgium, pp. 1-36; https://www.globsec.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/GLOBSEC_WhoAreTheEuropeanJihadis.pdf
8Seth Jones. 2018. ‘Keep Calm and Carry on. The Terrorist Threat in the United Kingdom’, Center for Strategic & International Studies, CSIS Briefs, pp.1-5; https://www.csis.org/analysis/keep-calm-and-carry-terrorist-threat-united-kingdom
9Onur Sultan. 2018. ‘Post-Daesh Challenges for Europe’ Horizon Insights, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 64-81; https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/b0be/f334a34ef21694671f977a51819493e2bbfe.pdf?_ga=2.192302383.46084718.1608718597-1889267841.1608718597
10Petter Nesser. 2019. ‘Military Interventions, Jihadi Networks, and Terrorist Entrepreneurs: How the Islamic State Terror Wave Rose so High in Europe’, CTS Sentinel, Vol. 12, Issue 3, p. 15-21, CTC-SENTINEL-032019.pdf (usma.edu)
11John Turner. 2020. ‘Manufacturing the Jihad in Europe: The Islamic State’s Strategy’, The International Spectator, Vol. 55, No. 1, pp. 112-125; https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03932729.2020.1712136?journalCode=rspe20
12David Rappaport. 2016. ‘Why has the Islamic State changed its Strategy and Mounted the Paris-Brussels Attacks?’ Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. 10, Issue 2, pp.24-32; http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/498/html
13Counter Extremism Project. 2020. Austria: Extremism & Counter-Extremism, https://www.counterextremism.com/countries/austria
Dr. Kristian Alexander is a Senior Fellow and the Director of International Security & Terrorism Program at TRENDS Research and Advisory (Abu Dhabi), as well as the Head of the Strategic Studies Department.