The Homegrown Threat
In its new Counterterrorism Yearbook 2018, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has presented an interesting portrait of the changing face of Islamist terrorism in western Europe, excluding the UK.
Its author, Thomas Renard, has a prime vantage point. He is a Senior Research Fellow at Belgium’s Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations and an Adjunct Professor at the Vesalius College in Brussels.
Above all, foreign fighters are at the heart of the ASPI paper’s story, yet they come across as something of a distracting specter too.
As the tide turned against the self-styled Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, European security officials were more vexed than pleased. Gains in the Middle East could lead to trouble for them as European fighters gave up and returned home. The fighters may have been beaten on the battlefield, but they were still hardcore extremists. Moreover, they had built up invaluable technical expertise while overseas – they were no clumsy amateurs.
Yet 2017 was a year for “homegrown” terrorists in Europe, not returning foreign fighters. Renard reviewed 16 attacks in Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden in 2017 and found that all of them were carried out by homegrown extremists.
In fact, Renard notes, Islamic State only claimed responsibility for seven of the 16 attacks. Even these claims can be dubious, with little evidence to support them in some cases.
This makes for a clear trend, according to Renard:
The multiplication of unclaimed attacks perpetrated by isolated and unstable individuals with tenuous links to jihadi organisations, and attacks supported by doubtful claims, together confirm a trend identified by the European security services towards a more diffuse, multifaceted, unpredictable jihadist threat in Europe.
It is a trend that spells trouble. Homegrown attackers:
…are individuals who didn’t travel to Syria or Iraq, but who act on behalf of a foreign jihadist organisation with which they have either developed operational contacts (notably through online communications) or to which they feel ideologically connected but with which they have established only loose interactions, if any. This absence of travel and connections, physical or virtual, as well as the diversity of profiles among perpetrators, makes it more complicated for the security services to anticipate and prevent such attacks.
Indeed, this is a distinctly European problem with its own profile. Most of the attackers were first generation immigrants who had lived in Europe for many years or settled second generation individuals, the ASPI paper notes. It is likely that the first generation individuals arrived in Europe without terrorist intentions but were subsequently radicalized in Europe, like their second generation fellows.
The attackers are also generally older than foreign fighters, so mere youth is not necessarily a useful security indicator and middle age is no bulwark.
Common criminality features as well. Instead of battlefield experience, many of the homegrown radicals have criminal records.
Attack methods have changed too. Apart from the Barcelona attack, all of the strikes in 2017 were lone acts. In addition, with the notable exception of two failed bombing attacks in Brussels and Paris, the 2017 attacks were generally quite unsophisticated. This is a departure from the complex and technically advanced plots developed by terrorist cells of two or more individuals in the past.
Successes and Ongoing Threats
European police forces and security services are fighting back, with some success.
Renard says France foiled at least 13 plots in 2017 and Germany a further 11. Security was also ramped up in countries that had not suffered attacks in the years running up to 2017, such as Italy and Spain.
Furthermore, the toll declined: 29 people were killed in attacks in 2017, down from 135 in 2016. Yet Renard cautions that “the limited number of victims may be due to sheer luck more than anything else. It’s simply too soon to tell.”
Outside Europe, the self-styled Islamic State’s “Caliphate” has fallen. Many of its fighters were killed or detained outside Europe during the downfall. Key personnel – top fighters, recruiters, planners, and propagandists – are among the fallen. Some survivors have relocated to other conflict areas outside Europe and the “Caliphate”, such as Afghanistan. These developments have reduced the direct threat to Europe.
However, the potential threat from foreign fighters persists, not least in the homegrown context:
[Foreign fighters] could recruit and encourage individuals to act locally, without inciting them to travel in order to join IS. For instance, it’s believed that the Marseille attacker, Ahmed Hanachi, was radicalised by his brother, Anis, who fought with IS in Syria between 2014 and 2016. More broadly, returnees could become a real danger over the long term, acting as radicalising agents and new entrepreneurs of local jihadi cells, starting within prison, as has happened in the past.
Experienced recruiters certainly have a vast pool of targets. Renard refers to the estimate of the EU Counterterrorism Coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, that the EU is home to as many as 50,000 “radicalised” Muslims. This is a high and “inclusive” figure, Renard adds. But even a much lower number would obviously still be of great concern.
In fact, worryingly, “radicalisation may actually still be growing in several Western European countries”. A “snowball effect” may be in play, whereby radicals bring family or friends on side and they in turn win others over. The field is still largely open to them: “the conducive environment to radicalisation is insufficiently addressed across Europe”.
To make matters worse, “mutual radicalisation” has become a serious problem and far right attacks on targets such as refugee centers in Germany have increased. Polarization is rising and it helps people bent on violence on both sides.
Other concerns include the upcoming releases of convicted and imprisoned terrorists, including foreign fighters; co-operation with technology companies in complex monitoring, content deletion and encryption issues; and the risk that Islamic State’s loss of personnel and power may lead to gains for al-Qaeda.
New Measures, New Controversies
European countries are developing new measures and tools to deal with the shifting focus from foreign fighters to homegrown radicals.
Technology is important, as noted above, because online radicalisation is a key issue. It is also a difficult problem to tackle. Inevitably, some measures are controversial on freedom of speech grounds, such as the criminalization of visiting jihadi websites.
Other strong measures include increasing use of deportation and stripping extremists of their citizenship. Germany, for example, has resorted to deportations of foreigners after the Berlin attack, using existing powers that it had not employed in the past. Italy has ramped up its deportation numbers considerably, as reported by EER in March.
Here too there are objections. In some cases, expulsions can be carried out when the evidence against an individual is insufficient for prosecution in court. In addition, deporting someone creates a problem for the receiving country. It may be overwhelmed by its own security threats and in no position to handle yet another radical effectively. This in turn may help the development of foreign networks that could strike back at Europe.
Efforts have also been broadened to include people such as social workers and healthcare professionals. This too has been controversial. Security is not their profession, but now they are important components of a vast security effort.
Prevention and Deradicalization
While “hard” security responses to terrorism have been introduced and strengthened across Europe, other approaches to deradicalization and prevention need more work, Renard contends, especially in the face of the “conducive environment to radicalisation and terrorism”.
They include countering radicalization in prisons, better rehabilitation programs for returning foreign fighters, systematic assessments of results in the “try and learn” policy phase of recent years, and the identification and avoidance of counterproductive policies.
The ultimate objective is ambitious and timing is important, the paper concludes. The goal should be nothing less than a “comprehensive and coherent strategy” and it should be achieved “before political attention and will are diverted from terrorism to other topics – something that’s been labelled ‘CT fatigue’, which has occurred before.”
Finding the Way
The impression one gains from this paper, like so many others in recent times, is that Europe is undoubtedly determined to counter the severe threats it is facing.
Many countries have even deployed large numbers of soldiers on the streets. This is a useful if depressing measure of deep change. For obvious historical reasons, many Europeans have long wished for peaceful cities with no need for army patrols.
Now, by contrast, there is open talk of war. For example, Renard notes the French interior minister saying his country is “in a state of war” which requires a “lasting response to a lasting threat”. For his part, the French defense minister has a blunt view on foreign fighters who are still overseas: “the more jihadists who die, the better”. Most European governments do not go so far in public, Renard writes, but they do “share this view off the record”.
Yet Europe is also finding its way. While the sharp end is fairly straightforward, at least in operational terms, moving upstream to radicalisation and prevention is a complex, delicate and constantly evolving challenge. Some steps may seem blindingly obvious but are arguably misguided. Others may look counterintuitive to some, or even wrongheaded, but they can work.
Perhaps the next edition of the ASPI Yearbook will paint a more positive picture. One must hope so. But if there is any perfect watchword in counterterrorism, it is caution. Europe can learn, adapt and move forward, but terrorists have this option too, and they know it.