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The New-Old Terror Wave in Europe (Part 1)

A Comparison of European Terrorism Cycles

This essay is the first of a 3-part series. For part 2 click here. For part 3 click here.

Part I: Understanding the Context

The start of this year’s European summer was obscured by the Manchester attack on May 22nd. The incident reinforced the fears that summer 2017 would be as “violent” as summer 2016, if not more. Last summer’s and this spring’s runs of non-state terrorist acts in various European Union member countries cemented the idea that since January 2015, Europe has been hit by a tsunami of terror; one that has never been experienced before. The perception is that Europe’s peaceful days are over and that the new normal is a level of violent attacks similar to what Israeli citizens witnessed during the Second Intifada (2000-2005), or what Russian cities endured during the Second Chechen War (1999-2009). While there’s no doubt that there has been a sudden increase in terrorist attacks, we should look at Europe’s recent history to see that, perhaps, Europe is not living a “new normal” but returning to an “old normal” in a new context, with novel actors, and somewhat different tactics.

Terrorism, understood as non-state political violence that inflicts physical harm on people and property outside of combat or occupied regions with the aim to frighten society and force a state to enact or change certain policies[1], is far from being a new phenomenon in Europe. In fact, it has been a very popular tactic through out the 20th century, particularly during the late 1960s and well into the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The level of terrorist violence that we are seeing since the Ile de France attacks in January 2015 are actually less than the ones during the 1970s and 1980s. The number of terrorist acts and fatalities in any given single year between 1972 and 1988 are higher, in both cases, than the period between January 2015 and August 2017. In fact, the total number of attacks per year drops below the January 2015 to August 2017 period only after 1996. Deaths, on the other hand, are lower after 1988 and only in the year 2004 are higher.

There are two main concerns that I would like to address here: first, that Europe’s “velvet years” were a historical anomaly and, therefore, not the norm to be compared with; and second, that the current sense of apocalyptic crisis is driven by the “foreignness” that is ascribed to the actual and possible perpetrators. While during the 1970s and 1980s, the enemies were defined ideologically or by nationalist goals, today they are civilizational threats, and the conflict has been framed in absolute and Manichean terms.

In what follows, I will detail the current state of affairs regarding terrorist attacks in Western Europe. I will then compare it with the violent events of the 1970s and 1980s, and conclude by elucidating the most likely political and security outcomes. Before beginning, let me define my geographical unit of analysis: Western Europe. For the basis of comparison, I will only look at attacks that have happened in the 15 European Union members before the 2004, 2007, and 2013 enlargements. I will also include Norway, Iceland, and Switzerland. While, currently, there have been threats of attacks in Poland and Hungary, among other Central European countries, when I am referring to Western Europe, in both 1970s, and 1980s and today, I will use the Cold War geographical understanding of the term. No attacks in countries beyond the Iron Curtain in those periods are included. Similarly, no violent acts in Turkey, Malta, or Cyprus are taken into account. There will be only one exception to this: Hezbollah’s suicide bombing of Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria, in 2012.

Besides the geographical range, we should also limit the periods we are comparing. It seems to be generally accepted that this wave of terror began with the attacks on the Ile de France in January 2015, which targeted the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, police officers, and a kosher supermarket. From then on, there were attacks in Copenhagen, Berlin, Paris, Hannover, Brussels, Nice, Würzburg, Ansbach, Berlin, London, Stockholm, Manchester and so on. When I started researching for this article, the United Kingdom was dealing with the aftermaths of the Manchester Arena and the London Bridge attacks, and now before sending the article for publishing there has been a series of attacks in Barcelona and its surrounding areas, and in the town of Turku in Finland. What all of these events have in common, and what has triggered this massive sense of insecurity, is that they have been carried out by the Islamic State (formerly Isis) or inspired by its rhetoric. If IS authorship is what stitches together these events, we should set its beginnings with the Brussels’s Jewish Museum shooting in May 2014, followed by the Tours, Dijon, and Nantes knife and automotive attacks in December 2014.

However, there is a difference between IS planned and organized attacks from Raqqa and perpetrated by their cells, and IS encouraged acts authored by non-affiliated individuals or groups. This is crucial because motivations for both are very diverse. In the former case, terrorist incidents must be framed as IS foreign policy instruments: they target European democratic societies in order to trigger a backlash against Western intervention in the Middle East or Islamic World. Their violence could be interpreted as an extreme anti-imperialist stance that tries to make (neo) colonial continuities visible. Yet, not every action that IS, or Al Qaeda and the like, takes can be framed as anti-Western.

As Professor Benoit Challand previously noted in his article after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Sayyid Qutb recalibrated the notion of jihad, understood as holy war, in order to legitimatize a violent struggle against the materialist styles of life sponsored by both capitalism and communism. This interpretation was later embraced by various groups, such as Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria and Islamic Jihad in Egypt, and adapted in order to justify the toppling of what they considered were morally corrupt regimes that had turned Muslim societies adrift. It was during the 90s that groups like GIA and Al Qaeda transformed jihadism into a transnational terrorist strategy designed to target the “far enemy”: the foreign non-Muslim countries that economically and militarily support the perceived illegitimate governments, in Muslim societies, antagonistic to Islamist influence over state affairs. The United States and France were the primary targets; the latter suffering a series of attacks by GIA against its citizens in Algeria and a series of bombings and plane hijackings in France between 1994 and 1996, while the US confronted a series of bombings, starting in 1996, against embassies and military personnel in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Yemen up until the 9/11 attacks.

From 2001 until 2012, Al Qaeda and its affiliates conducted a so-called “global jihad” against the West and its allies by carrying out terrorist acts in Bali (2002), Casablanca (2003), Amman (2006), Madrid (2004), Istanbul (2003), London (2005) and so on. It was during this period that a symbiosis between Al Qaeda and regional organizations started to develop and mature. While Al Qaeda was spearheading a jihad against the West as an extreme anti-imperialist struggle, particularly after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, associated groups had more local objectives but were willing to join the franchise in order to gain international notoriety. The same type of relationship is happening today between IS and other groups that have declared allegiance to the “new Caliphate” in Raqqa. Many of them do not have any anti-Western or anti-imperialist aim; their objectives range from setting up an independent Islamic Mindanao to combat what they consider the illegitimate governments of Libya.

Many Muslim citizens from Russia, Europe, North America, Central Asia, Maghreb, and Middle Eastern countries travelled to Iraq, and then Syria, to join the fighting against a foreign and non-Muslim occupying force (in Syria they were battling a corrupt dictator and later foreign forces). While some foreign fighters considered themselves part of a resistance and anti-imperialist movement, others shared IS’s extreme ideology and methods for creating a Caliphate, while others went there to train in order to go back home and execute terrorist acts.

However, as we have witnessed in the last year and a half, not all perpetrators have travelled to Syria or Libya, or the like. Attacks executed by people who have not traveled and trained in Syria can either be directed by IS — when the organization has had some type of previous online contact with the perpetrators and successfully drives them to attack — or claimed as being inspired by IS rhetoric and actions. Discerning the motives for these cases is very difficult. They range from post-colonial marginalization to schizophrenia, though most seem to share a common denominator: deep social frustrations rooted in ethno-cultural ostracism that need to be expressed violently. IS provides transcendental legitimation for channeling that anger and rage and making that violence mean something greater than just a gratuitous massacre.

Yet, defining those acts as “religious violence” or “culturally determined” — as many do — is oversimplifying and misinterprets the actual driving force behind them. Religion might be the source of inspiration or legitimation but it’s not what explains the recourse to violence; if it could, Anders Breivik’s massacre in Norway in 2011 should only be interpreted as a type of Christian martyrdom terrorism. Therefore, we should refrain from framing IS’s and Al Qaeda’s jihad in Europe as a strictly religious or cultural type of struggle but more as an anti-imperialist or anti euro-nativist type of terrorism instead. It is within this context that many Europeans consider that there has been a new wave of terrorist attacks in Europe since mid-2014.

Emmanuel Guerisoli is a PhD candidate of Sociology at the New School for Social Research. 


[1] Ad-hoc definition based on Bruce Hoffman’s own definition of terrorism as: “Terrorism is ineluctably political in aims and motives, violent — or, equally important, threatens violence, designed to have far-reaching psychological repercussions beyond the immediate victim or target, conducted by an organization with an identifiable chain of command or conspiratorial cell structure (whose members wear no uniform or identifying insignia), and perpetrated by a subnational group or non-state entity”; Hoffman, Bruce; Inside Terrorism, Columbia University Press, 2006, pp. 43.


Emmanuel Guerisoli

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