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.
Part 2 of the interview is here.
S. B. One of your most recent articles, published on Politico, is attracting a lot of attention as it raises a crucial issue: the common mistake of measuring the terrorist threat by the number of attacks carried out. Instead, you suggest that we should also focus on the plots foiled by counterterrorism efforts. Why do you think this is imperative? Should this involve both the European counterterrorism community and society at large?
P. N. The attacks that are launched are what is left after security services have done their job of foiling plots. We need to include the foiled attacks to gain a better understanding of the threat. If we only look at launched attacks, we risk being unprepared to face tomorrow’s threat.
When I began to study European jihadism back in 2003, there were no attacks, only foiled plots. These plots suggested to me that something was brewing and they showed that jihadists wanted to attack European countries that had joined the US-led “War on Terror”. Then it happened, in Madrid in 2004 and in London in 2005. There was a similar pattern in 2011-14 with relatively few attacks, but multiple plots signaling that something was about to happen. Then after 2014 came the wave of attacks linked to IS.
Another reason is that only focusing on launched attacks distorts the analysis of trends in how terrorists organize and operate. For instance, before the attacks on cafes, a concert hall and a football stadium in Paris in November 2015, many believed the threat in Europe merely consisted of “lone wolves”, who were carrying out small and simple attacks on their own. However, when I looked at the the foiled plots in the years leading up to those attacks, there were multiple plans by larger cells to launch complex “Mumbai-style” attacks in Europe. And then exactly such an attack happened in Paris at a time when the capacities of European security services were stretched due to the major rise in European foreign fighters and the refugee crisis.
Another thing we can learn from studying foiled plots is that foreign fighters have been more involved in attack activity than it may appear if we only look at launched attacks. The foiled plots show there are multiple cases where foreign fighters have either sought to carry out attacks on their return or directed someone they knew back home to carry out an attack via encrypted apps.
As for the question of whether or not it is imperative to analyze foiled plots, I would say it is, both for researchers and counterterrorism practitioners. With regards to society at large, I generally think it is best to provide as much and as accurate information as possible about the threat, but I am still a bit conflicted. Knowledge about the many foiled plots can increase fear and polarization. It could also lead to contagion if extremists become inspired by the information provided.
In any event, it is very important that politicians understand that a decrease in attacks does not necessarily mean that the threat is disappearing. There are many things we would prefer to spend money on rather than extremism, but if we are to avoid future waves of attacks, upholding and strengthening preventive measures is crucial.
S. B. In 2018, many European countries have foiled attacks and blocked well-documented plots. Could you give us some relevant figures?
P.N. There are many figures floating around based on different definitions and information. There is no shared understanding of what kind of incidents to include in the statistics and no official database.
I have my own system of tracking terrorist plots which I have developed since 2003. I gather information about all the plots that I can find through day-to-day monitoring of media, reports and other sources, and maintain a chronology. Using this method I manage to track most plots, but I also miss out on some for sure.
If I am to include an incident, there has to be concrete information about an attack or planned attack by someone considered to have a jihadist motive. There also has to be a certain level of planning involved. More spontaneous acts of violence by extremists or “hate-crimes” are not something I look at.
Then I make a qualitative assessment of the information regarding the perpetrator, the target and the evidence, dividing the plots into well-documented and vague segments. I base my analyses on the well-documented cases. The vague plots are put on hold to see if more information surfaces so I can include them. One could also look at the well-documented plots as a conservative number. If we add the vague cases we get kind of a worst case scenario in terms of the scope of plotting.
Several databases log jihadist terrorist plots in Europe, but larger ones such as the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) look at all kinds of terrorism and do not systematically include foiled plots. GTD data are very different from mine on Europe.
Europol’s EU Terrorism Situation & Trend Report provides statistics based on what is reported to them by member states. They also include foiled plots and descriptions of cases. A few years ago I noticed that EU data differed from the data I gathered, but lately my data seem to be more in tune with the information issued by Europol.
For 2018, I have counted 23 plots in total so far, where I define 12 as well-documented and 11 as vague. There have been six attacks. For comparison, in 2017 I counted 23 well-documented plots, 23 vague plots, and 16 launched attacks, including the deadly attacks in Manchester and Barcelona. The latter could have been much bigger had it not been for the fact that the terrorists’ bomb factory in Alcanar exploded due to mistakes during the manufacture of the devices.
S. B. Over the last few years, a trend universally acknowledged by terrorism and radicalization experts has been the gradual simplification of attacks. Terrorist acts do not necessarily require long-term planning and significant logistic capabilities. In line with the notorious calls by the late ISIS spokesman Mohammed el-Adnani, perpetrators often use simple weapons like knives and vehicles and plots can be developed by single attackers on their own. Do you think that this trend will continue to characterize the terrorist threat in the near future? Will attacks become simpler and simpler?
P. N. Well, it might be that most attacks in the near future will be of the small and simple type, such as knife attacks by solo plotters, because of the strengthened European counter-measures and the military defeat of IS. However, again, it is important to look at foiled plots to see the spectrum of possible attack modes. When we looked at trends over time at my institute, including both launched and foiled attacks, we observed that although there has been a trend towards simpler attacks since the late 2000s, there have also been plots to launch large-scale attacks all along. It seems to me jihadists would prefer to work in groups and use bombs if the security environment allows them to do so.
If we take a look at the foiled plots in 2018 alone, there is no doubt that IS supporters have had ambitions to carry out large-scale attacks in Europe. The plot by a group of jihadists in the Netherlands to attack a public event with automatic rifles and hand grenades while setting off a car bomb at another location is evidence of that. Two plots to employ the poison ricin for attacks, one of them detected in Paris and the other in Cologne, also signal that the terrorists do not shy away from more complicated attack modes. It is true that both IS and al-Qaeda have called for simple attacks by sympathizers when they have faced pressure and military defeat. This has contributed to the relative increase in small-scale attacks. But large-scale attacks are definitely still in the picture.
There is a debate going on as to whether or not jihadists need to have territorial control in an area to be able to carry out attacks of the magnitude of those in Paris in November 2015 and in Brussels in March 2016. While there is little doubt that territorial control and training camps helped build the capacities of al-Qaeda before 2001, and IS before 2017, it is important to remember that al-Qaeda managed to carry out its biggest attacks in Europe in the 2000s, the Madrid and London bombings, without having any territorial control.