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The New-Old Terror Wave in Europe (Part 3)

A Comparison of European Terrorism Cycles

This essay is part of a 3-part series. Click here for part 1 and part 2.

Part III: The Current Terrorist Wave and its Management

Just as ideologies and political motivations, tactics, targets, and casualties have changed significantly in some ways and not at all in others during this latest terrorist wave. Tactically, the appearance of suicide bombing is clearly the most striking novelty. Suicide bombers’ most prominent outcome is not the number of fatalities but its psychological effects in society. Even if immolation as a tactic has been used more frequently by the Tamil Tigers or the PKK (both non Jihadi organizations), the way that media covers the use of such a tactic makes it seem as if its exclusive to so-called “radical Islamist” groups. Suicide bombing, then, is perceived not just as the ultimate fear-inducing weapon, but also one that typically characterizes the foreignness and barbarity of these groups and the ideology — interpreted by the public as religion and culture — that they support and fight for. However, suicide bombing, while justified as a type of martyrdom by many terrorist groups, should be taken as a tactic, pure and simple; a very effective one, but one that is not, once again, exclusive to Jihadi terrorist groups.

Suicide bombers have, in a way, replaced car bombs or improvised explosive devices (IED) by themselves. The use of this tactic is also a reaction to learned experience by European security agencies. Car bombing dominated the previous wave in the United Kingdom, Spain, and France. This made police forces alert to suspicious or abandoned vehicles. Both Al Qaeda and IS tried to make use of that tactic in Paris and London but failed when discovered by authorities. This does not mean that this modus operandi has been completely abandoned or that it won’t be used in the future in conjunction with a suicide bombing.

Gunfire, vehicle ramming, and knife-attacks are clearly this wave’s new tactic. This is in part related to the difficulty of acquiring and successfully handling explosive materials (as once again the Cataloña IS cell demonstrates), and to IS calls for “lone wolf or pack of wolves” attacks. Using firearms during the previous wave was sporadic and only used when the objective of the operation was hijacking an airplane or taking hostages, kidnapping public figures who had bodyguards or police escort, and, lastly, for target assassinations. IS inaugurated mass shooting as the objective itself of terrorist actions. The Paris attacks of November 2015 are the best example: use of automatic weapons to kill people at bars, restaurants, streets, and concert halls. Knives and vehicle ramming attacks have increasingly become more common among incidents across Europe. They have been carried out by people either encouraged and directed by IS (via online communication) or by assailants purely inspired by IS actions or previous “lone wolf” attacks.

This overall strategy has drastically changed the aim of the attacks and their effects. Targeting soft-targets has two priorities: first, inflicting the maximum possible amount of civilian casualties; and, second, attacking “society’s way of life.” This seems to be a common denominator since Jihadi terrorism spread to Europe. Before IS, even GIA and Al Qaeda had planned and executed multiple actions targeting civilians in order to inflict major damage. Even if the amount of fatalities of this wave does not come close to the previous one, since 2004 there have been many incidents with heavy death tolls.

This level of violence is not purely nihilistic, there’s logic to it. European societies democratically decided to militarily intervene in many Muslim countries. Each terrorist attack, therefore, symbolizes “bringing war” back to Europe. Simultaneously, IS, like any other terrorist group before, expects its campaign of attacks in Europe to trigger certain types of political repercussions.

As all kinds of political actions, terrorism is about sending a message and waiting for a response. Neo-Marxist groups thought that their actions would trigger a social revolution by either showing the proletarians the state’s weaknesses or by pushing the authorities towards hammering down any kind of possible dissent. Violent and wide police repression would have sparked a mass revolt against the state. Separatists and nationalists saw their insurgency as a war of attrition. A series of continued bombings would eventually demoralize the public and exhaust the security forces to a breaking point, which, once reached, the groups’ demands would have either been accepted or at least they would have forced the state into negotiations.

Similarly, the Islamic State’s terrorist campaign strategy aims to spark poignant reactions from European societies by inflicting the largest possible number of fatalities and attacking targets that would trigger the greatest amount of outcry. The incidents in Paris, Nice, Manchester, London, and Barcelona were intentionally directed against civilians: children, families, teenagers, and young people that were out having fun at restaurants, music concerts, clubs, cafes, fireworks shows, promenades, sports events, and more. After the Paris attacks of November 2015, IS expected the immediate public response to pressure the French government to stop bombing Syria and Iraq. Instead, the intervention intensified, prompting IS to borrow from the “clash of civilizations” discourse and intensify the carnage of the operations in order to trigger a violent backlash against Muslim communities in European societies.

The recent attack in a London mosque is just the latest of a series of assaults against Muslims in European countries since 9/11, which have increased since the Paris attacks. The Islamic State hopes that every violent act helps in lighting the fuse of a “civil war” in Europe between Muslims and non-Muslims (not very differently to what European nativist organizations, such as Britain First, claim is an irreversible trend and, indeed, that was also the aim of neo-fascist organizations in Italy during the 1970s and 1980s). Terrorist attacks, both orchestrated directly by IS or inspired by it, trigger copycats that pledge allegiance shortly before or during their actions. People with extreme nativist beliefs, perhaps supported by far-right organizations, then “fire-back” at Muslim communities, which might induce some European Muslims to perpetrate violent acts in revenge. (This seems to be true in the case of the Westminster Bridge’s assailant). This would clearly be IS’s dream-scenario in Europe: a spiraling of violence that pressures governments into enacting harsh nativist policies curtailing the citizenship rights of Muslims, increasing their surveillance, incarceration for suspected radical political activities, and expulsion for involvement in Islamist organizations.

Nevertheless, the two most striking differences between the jihadi terror wave and the neo-Marxist one are the reactions to the attacks, and the respective geopolitical contexts. With the exception of Northern Ireland during the Troubles, the military was never used as a counterterrorist instrument by any of the affected countries. Even if ETA, RAF, and Action Directe targeted the armed forces of Spain, West Germany, and France, none of the respective civilian governments sent troops into the streets of Madrid, Frankfurt, or Paris. Terrorism was exclusively a police matter, and mostly a domestic concern under the purview of the respective Ministries of the Interior. True that in certain countries such as France and Spain special jurisdictions were created to investigate and prosecute terrorists, suspects were still tried as criminals under the normal procedures of penal law. No states of emergency were declared in order to circumvent the need for standard judicial oversight for arrests, search warrants, surveillance, questioning, and detention. The political nature of terrorism may have labeled perpetrators as “enemies of the State” though they were never considered “enemies of society or Western civilization.” They committed crimes that had a political message and repercussions for the political order. Their existence and actions was never framed, by the majority of public opinion, as an existential threat to society and the “normal way of life”.

This is not how jihadi violence is framed and handled today. While the core of the counterterrorist actions and judicial prosecutions are still managed by civilian authorities, there has been a drastic surge in the involvement of the military in providing security and functioning as a first line of defense against terrorist actions. Both France and Belgium have deployed troops to survey and protect citizens from further terrorist actions in the streets of many of their cities. Airports, tourist attractions, train stations, and other possible soft targets are continuously guarded by the armed forces. Italy deployed military personnel in Milan, Rome, Florence, and Venice in order to assist the police in safeguarding crowded tourist sites, such as Ponte Vecchio or Piazza San Marco.

While the Italian territory has not yet been a victim of jihadi terror, its participation in the anti-IS coalition, being the cradle of Christianity, and a very popular tourist destination, make it a prime target. The presence of troops serves to dissuade potential attackers and reassure tourists. The United Kingdom briefly deployed military personnel in the streets of British cities following the recent attacks in an effort to limit the damage of potential new incidents. Lastly, the German government considered deploying the Bundeswehr in August 2016 but refrained from doing so when taking into account the constitutional hurdles that would need to be overcome.

In France a state of emergency has been declared since November 2015, greatly empowering the counter-terrorist capabilities of the police forces. L’ état d’urgence had only been declared three times before in the French hexagon: twice during the Algerian war of Independence, 1958 and 1961, in order to suppress two coups d’état by French-Algerian generals against the French Government. The last one was asserted during the civil unrest in the banlieues of several French cities in November 2005. In these cases, the aim was to restore social order and protect the republican institutions that assure peaceful and democratic life. While the attempted coups certainly threatened the French political order, it’s debatable as to whether the 2005 riots or the current IS terrorist campaign actually defied the French democratic order. This is particularly so if we take into account that no state of emergency was declared during the riots of 1968 and 1995 or throughout the violent operations of FLN, OAS, Action Directe or GIA in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. In those instances, the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence was also challenged, but there was resolution through normal legal procedures.

The use of the l’état d’urgence in 2005 and 2015 can be analyzed as the government showing effectiveness, swiftness, and coarseness, in dealing with situations that create public anxieties. However, we can’t disregard the consequences that a post-9/11 world and a post-multiculturalist Europe can have in the management of “non-native” or post-colonial populations. Jihadi terrorism is approached as so foreign and barbaric that it cannot be framed only as a crime to be investigated, prosecuted, and prevented. The enemy is waging war within and against Europe, and therefore the police and normal criminal legal procedures are not sufficient to maintain order. Yet, warfare is how jihadist organizations interpret European foreign policy in the Maghreb and the Middle East. Furthermore, they even think of European policies as a continuation of 19th and 20th imperialist and colonialist policies.

Regarding the geopolitics, the current terrorist wave in Europe has been fed by a series of gruesome civil wars and foreign interventions in the Islamic World. The Algerian Civil War (1993-2002); the Afghan US intervention (2001-present); the Iraq War (2003-present); the Syrian Civil War (2011-present), and the Libyan Civil War (2011-present) have nurtured jihadi organizations in two main ways: first, by giving them fertile territories to grow, and secondly, by offering them opportunities to legitimize their ideologies. Failed states areas around the Mediterranean basin have been crucial for the emergence and consolidation of jihadi groups; transforming them into their bases of operations to freely direct attacks and recruit, and train operatives. At the same time, those conflicts are perceived as examples of Western intervention into Islamic affairs and used as iconic symbols of martyrdom in the name of Islam to legitimize jihadi operations against civilians in the streets of European cities. As long as these conflicts are not resolved and those countries stabilize, and as long as there’s no change in the foreign policy of Western countries, extreme violent ideology will still be regarded as legitimate by the very, very, few that follow that path.

However, the recent attacks inspired by IS and carried out by so-called “lone wolves” showcase that there’s a radicalization process going on in Europe that combines external and internal politico-social sources of grievances. Perpetrators seem to be motivated by the wars in Muslim lands, and the marginalization and stigmatization of Muslim communities in European societies[1]. The strong reemergence of popular nativist movements and the adoption of anti-Muslim legislations by several right-wing governments, to subtract votes from the far right, have only fueled jihadi discourses.

The current terrorist wave is here to stay for a while. If we consider the longevity of previous waves, it would be safe to assume that jihadi violence will affect Europe for, at least, another 10 years (1994-2027). The stabilization of Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan are key in order to reduce the violence. The fall of the Berlin Wall precipitated the already declining activities of neo-Marxist and neo-fascist groups. The institutionalization of autonomous regions in both Spain and Great Britain pushed the IRA and ETA into quitting armed struggle. The end of IS’ Caliphate will help in the long term as long as there’s no power vacuum in the Levant that replaces IS with another similar organization. Expecting a sudden and idealistic change of Western foreign policy is naïve but the prospect of military interventions should not be taken lightly. What Europe is going through today is a direct consequence of the American-British led invasion of Iraq in 2003, just like GIA’s operations in France were a consequence of Paris’ backing and support of the anti-FIS coup d’état in 1992.

The impeding fall of the Caliphate will trigger more attacks, as European foreign fighters return to heir countries of citizenship to recruit, plan, and commit massacres. Operations led by returning fighters will be the deadliest and the most sophisticated. Actions similar to the London Transportation System attacks in 2005, or the Paris attacks of 2015 can still happen, but will become extremely rare; perhaps only one per year. Those are the most complex type of actions that can be carried out and require the involvement of many people, expertise, and time. Therefore, they are more likely to be prevented by the security agencies because of informants, the hazardous manipulation of explosives, the acquisition of prohibited weapons, or the qualms of would be terrorists.

On the other hand, Islamophobic discourses, actions of nativist groups, and perceived anti-Muslim policies will further provoke solitary IS inspired attacks. Actions such as the ones that happened in Nice or Berlin are more difficult to prevent. Low-tech and low-cost terrorism will become the preferred tactic and up to 10-15 attacks per year could be expected. Targeting tourist locations and attractions will become more common considering the chance of harming American, British, and Israeli citizens — such as the very recent Cataloña attacks showed- and the effects that it would have on the economy. Yet, European police and security agencies learn very fast how to counteract possible terrorist plots and how to limit the damage of on-going attacks. Though, locking down a city might play into the terrorists ‘goals.

Lastly, if foreign policy cannot be changed in the short term, public mainstream narratives of jihadi terrorism should in order to stop the stigmatization of the European Muslim community. Terrorism, of any kind, is a security issue that should be handled as any other type of violent criminal offense. While the militarization of European streets might give some people reassurance it wont stop all attacks; it will in fact create new targets — such as the recent acts against French soldiers in Paris — and perpetuate a narrative of being at war with foreign forces. Additionally, the constant rhetoric blaming political Islam and defining jihadism as a foreign, and therefore barbaric, ideology has not produced any type of positive results. It is imperative that counterterrorist policies and public discourse change from addressing the religious and cultural roots of jihadi violence into focusing the politico-sociological context that impulses mostly young men into committing ferocious acts that they justify on the account of previous and current oppressions carried by European governments and societies. Terrorism is a strategy, not an ideology, that has been, and still is, used by groups made up by white, male, female, young, old, Christian, Jewish, bourgeois, working-class, anarchist, left-wing, right-wing, nationalist, Europeans that have committed attacks as deadly as the ones perpetrated by European and non-European Muslims.


[1] Naturally, the infinitesimal minuscule proportion of European Muslims that become radicalized and are even willing to plan and execute terrorist acts are heavily motivated by personal issues and grievances that push them into legitimating their violent actions. Just like only a very small percentage of the European left or of members of national communities seeking independence adopted extreme views and committed terrorist acts in the name of social equality or national emancipation. A common trait among all perpetrators is the idea of making their lives purposeful for something greater with an eschatological type of ideology.

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Emmanuel Guerisoli

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