This is the second part of the interview. Part 1 is here.
Petter Nesser is a senior researcher at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment’s Terrorism Research Group. He is the author of “Islamist Terrorism in Europe: A History” (C. Hurst & Co, 2015).
He is a political scientist, historian and Arabist, educated at the University of Oslo (UiO) and The American University in Cairo (AUC). Dr Nesser has conducted extensive research on European jihadism for more than a decade, concentrating on why and how terrorist cells emerge and how they operate.
S.B. You have a cyclical vision of the history of jihadism in Europe: waves of attacks are followed by decreases as states respond with tougher measures, only to pick up again a few years later at a higher level. What similarities and differences would you envisage between the previous waves and the near future?
P.N. Even though we have seen a decrease in plots in 2018, the number of plots is still higher than any given year before 2015. No-one can predict the future, but with levels of attack plotting still elevated, and in light of reports by European authorities about a significant rise in Islamist extremism, I worry that we might see another wave down the road. Whether or not such a wave will surpass the one we saw from 2014 to 2017 is difficult to say. European security services must have learned a lot from their experiences with the threat from IS. They seem to cooperate better and are better equipped to deal with the threat.
IS’s attack campaign in Europe showed very clearly how the threat is a transnational one and that perpetrators interact with jihadists in conflict zones. It is crucial to disrupt this transnational dynamic to keep the threat at bay.
What might characterize the future threat is that jihadists adapt to tougher counter-measures by being less visible and exploiting new technologies for recruiting, training and directing attackers. The trend towards terrorists being recruited and directed via encrypted apps such as Telegram is part of such a development. In the past, terrorist entrepreneurs built cells by meeting people face to face. Today and in the future more of this will probably happen online.
Analyses of foiled plots also indicate increased interest in using drones and chemical or biological agents for attacks.
So, overall, I expect the threat in the near future to continue along the same lines, but with more stealth and new uses of technology.
S.B. The so-called returning foreign terrorist fighters (RFTFs) and the inmates who are in jail in Europe for terrorism-related offences but will be released in future represent two alarming and interconnected threats. What are the relations between these two groups and how are they likely to evolve?
P.N. The large number of European foreign fighters means that there are more contact points between jihadists in Europe and counterparts in conflict zones than ever before. In the conflict zones, jihadists from different European countries also developed transnational relations with each other.
The foreign fighters are a diverse crowd of people who traveled for a host of different reasons, such as despair over the atrocities and a wish to join the humanitarian effort, at least in the early phase of the conflict in Syria. I am most worried about those who travelled via jihadist networks such as Sharia4 to join IS. Only a minority among those who return will probably take part in international terrorism in the future, but those who do can be capable of doing a lot of damage.
If we look into these networks, we will find that they involve both veterans of European jihadism and mostly young people who have been recruited during the mobilization over Syria. There is a historical continuity in European jihadist networks in the way that people who have been foreign fighters and terrorists during the 1990s and 2000s act as entrepreneurs of today’s networks. This pattern is seen in different countries across the region. We see people who have been convicted for terrorist activities in Europe in the 2000s showing up in Syria, Iraq and other places, and we see such veterans influencing people involved in IS-related terrorist plots in Europe. It was jihadists who had spent time in camps and guesthouses of al-Qaeda and the GIA in Afghanistan from the late 1980s who built Europe’s jihadist networks during the early 1990s. If history repeats itself, some of today’s foreign fighters may become tomorrow’s network entrepreneurs in Europe.
As for the prisons, they have been important for the mobilization of European jihadism historically. There are multiple examples where imprisoned veterans have radicalized fellow inmates and instigated them to take part in jihadism, as foreign fighters or terrorists. There are also examples of such imprisoned veterans having rejoined networks and taking up terrorist plotting once they are released. Being imprisoned for fighting what they believe to be a religious war is seen as a sacrifice and gives status in jihadist milieus.
S.B. In conclusion, a question concerning Islamism. You are an expert on both jihadism and Islamism in Europe. What is your personal definition of Islamism? What are the main characteristics of Islamism in Europe and what is its role in contemporary radicalization dynamics?
P.N. I use Islamism for all movements which want society to be governed by Islamic Law. However, Islamist movements differ on how to achieve this. Most parts of the Muslim Brotherhood movement work politically and through education to prepare the ground for future implementation of Islamic Law. Yet some branches such as Hamas also engage in violence. Salafists are in principle against politics and man-made laws, but in practice some Salafist groups in countries such as Egypt have also participated in elections. As for the jihadist Salafists, they shy away from politics and opt for armed struggle.
In sum, some parts of the movement are inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood and open to some forms of political compromises under given conditions. Other parts, however, are very dogmatic and extreme. They dismiss any form of political activity. Then you also have more introverted apolitical movements that only focus on worship and da’wa ,such as the Tabligh.
All of these trends are present in Europe, but my work has focused on the jihadists. I have not looked systematically into the connections between them. In my studies of terrorist networks and cells I have noticed that some of the entrepreneurs have been politically active and involved with other Islamist trends before becoming jihadists. But I am not sure if this has affected their choice to join violent jihadist groups, or how if it did. At the same time, among those who are recruited as foot soldiers in Europe’s jihadist networks, many have little experience with political or religious activism. Many of them are also converts to Islam.
Another thing I noticed is that during the 1990s and 2000s some of those who travelled to jihadist camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan exploited the infrastructure of movements such as Tabligh, by saying they were going to religious schools. They got help to arrange air tickets and accommodation, for example. I also found examples of people who have been involved in attack activity in Europe, such as the perpetrators of the attacks in London in 2005, who had been active in Islamic charities before becoming jihadists. I think we could use more systematic research into the extent to which people take the leap from other Islamist trends to jihadism.