Jihadist short-term threat to Europe

Ely Karmon,
PhD, Senior Research Scholar
International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) and The Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS)
The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC),
Herzlyia, Israel

The European terrorist arena in the period between the 9/11 attacks and the 2011 Arab uprisings in the Middle East was characterized by the prevalence of al-Qaeda (AQ) as the most important terrorist jihadist actor.

A growing trend, since the beginning of the 2000s, has enhanced the role of informal Salafist-jihadist networks and individual terrorist “entrepreneurs” (independently minded and highly charismatic terrorist innovators, highly motivated and resourceful individuals) in Europe, besides the formal terrorist and insurgent organizations like AQ and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

The informal networks share common characteristics: (1) lack of a formal organizational structure; (2) flexible membership; and (3) decentralization, which permit a high degree of flexibility in terms of their membership. Members of the same networks frequently have a prior acquaintance in the form of friendship or kinship ties, as members of the same ethnic group, share political or religious ideologies, or shared experiences in prison, training camps, or combat theatres.

The al-Qaeda inspired jihadist networks and entrepreneurs have been the basis for the organization of the wave of Foreign Fighters (FFs) migrating to the battle grounds in Syria and Iraq.

The UK “entrepreneurs” Anjem Choudary for instance, and the Sharia4 Movement he created, gradually became the most well-known and controversial activists associated with the European Salafist-jihadist scene, supporting jihad by “hand, tongue, or heart.” Its outlawed franchise, Sharia4Belgium, together with similar Salafi, groups were at the heart of Europe’s radical Islamist community cooperating with ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

Most of the same social networks and entrepreneurs survive on the ground in Europe after the demise of ISIS, as the AQ – ISIS’s fight for their “minds and hearts” has only begun and its future is uncertain.

During these years there has been a proliferation of “incubators,” which serve as radicalizing agents: mosques, cafes, flophouses, prisons, student associations, NGOs, butcher shops and book stores.

The Internet has played an increasingly key role in recent years in the process of jihadist radicalization, as “force multiplier,” although the direct contact with a charismatic religious figure or an entrepreneur has its own weight. The Internet “enables terrorist actors to connect with more actors in more places more speedily, and at a reduced cost.” The ease of communication streamlines the formation of geographically dispersed cells. In addition to Facebook, Twitter and Telegram have become the favorite social networking site for jihadists to disseminate propaganda and communicate with like-minded individuals and groups.

The rivalry between ISIS and AQ is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

Changes in the patterns of radicalization. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, direct command and control of terrorist attacks in the West by AQ has been the exception, rather than the rule. AQ has provided the inspiration and claimed responsibility for attacks for the most part staged by citizens or residents of the states where they occurred.

A key strategic change of the post-9/11 period has been the increase in terrorism carried out by independent jihadi cells or individuals under the influence of the doctrine of “individual jihad” developed by the AQ strategist Abu Musab al-Suri in his book Global Islamic Resistance Call: growing reliance on decentralized operations by individuals and small cells in spontaneous operations spread over the globe who will inflict as many human and material losses as possible.

The emergence of ISIS. The civil war in Syria since 2011 and the emergence of potent jihadi groups in the Levant, in particular ISIS, reinvigorated the jihadi movement. Thus, the latest wave of foreign fighters is more numerous than the earlier waves and this time with a significantly larger European component. It involves even younger volunteers, less faith based, with more diverse personal motivations due to its unique asset of a vast proto-state, controlling a large territory.

There is a direct link between the Islamist terrorism of the early 2000s with that of today. Besides, vital jihadist structures of recruitment have not been neutralized by EU authorities. Similarly, between the early 2000s and today, key organizational patterns of the Islamist terrorism activity in Europe – in terms of structure, recruitment and training – does not seem to have changed significantly. Nevertheless, they have evolved.

Prisons play a critical role in both triggering and reinforcing the radicalization process and have gained in importance as “incubator.” It should be stressed that known non-arrested suspects or liberated terrorists from jail since summer 2018 can represent a major threat, as they possibly are highly motivated and trained.

FFs returnees. According to the latest EUROPOL 2018 Report, around 5 000 individuals from the EU were believed to have travelled to Iraq and Syria. About 1.500 returned home and 1.000 were killed. From a numerical point of view, the threat appears less important than feared as no massive return phenomenon has been observed, while the contingent of potential candidates for return tends to shrink, mechanically reduced by the number of deaths in the area and the number of persons detained or imprisoned on the spot.

Women in increasing numbers have travelled to Syria and Iraq since the proclamation of the caliphate. According to recent studies, women often received sniper training, carried weapons and staged suicide attacks. There is an increased awareness that women play a much more active role than hitherto assumed and their threat should not be underestimated as the male contingent is thinning out and being placed under increased supervision by law enforcement authorities.

The ethnic and geographical origin of jihadist terrorists is important in analyzing and monitoring jihadist networks and cell. The increasing radicalization among North African migrants’ children born and bred in Europe fueled the emergence of local networks and individuals who wished to join the global jihad. Since the beginning of 2017, a string of jihadist terrorist attacks involved Central Asian citizens, mainly of Uzbek, Kirgiz and Chechen origin. These former ISIS fighters, including hundreds of Chinese Uighur jihadists active in Syria, could also present a growing risk.

Converts pose serious operational but also cultural and social problems.  The percentage of converts appears to be higher for women compared to men. Converts reveal a greater tendency to adopt an extreme version of their new religion.

“Lone wolves” in the strict term of the definition, seem to represent only a small minority. Among 130 individuals arrested in Spain between June 2013 and August 2016 for terrorist activities related to ISIS, only 4.6% became involved alone, i.e. isolated from other jihadists; they were literally lone actors, not just single actors.

The massive waves of illegal immigrants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and North Africa since 2015 have raised fears that ISIS has used them in order to infiltrate Europe with terrorist trained cells. However, recent attacks in Europe have, for the main part, been committed by lone individuals who have not been to a conflict zone. It has been assessed to be more difficult now for terrorists to exploit the migrant flow, owing to increased security measures.

Shia terrorists are not mentioned by European authorities, as well as academic experts, as a potential threat to Europe.  However, dozens of pro-Iranian Shia militias, headed by the Hezbollah, whose military branch was designated a terrorist organization by the EU, invaded Syria since 2012 to fight alongside the bloody Bashar al-Assad regime. Their militants could represent a direct threat, as the recent Iranian foiled terrorist attacks in France, Denmark and Norway have proved, or as catalyst for the radicalization of European Shia Muslim youths in the revolutionary Khomeinist spirit.


The dramatic rise to power of the Islamic State by the end of 2014, challenged, and arguably eclipsed, al-Qaeda.  However, global jihadism after 2014 is rather a bipolar movement, divided between two main camps vying for power and influence. The rivalry between ISIS and AQ is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

The Paris and Brussels attacks of 2015-2016 have been the only strategically attacks organized by ISIS, in spite of the numerous threats to stage other attacks.

The fascination with ISIS will die out, at least temporarily, as a result of the failure of its state project, which constituted a critical part of its appeal. However, many of the conducive environments that permitted ISIS’s success in widely different locations around the world, including Europe, are still very much in place.

Some respite is now offered in which to address the conducive environment. The threat of a renewed major wave of jihadist terrorism in Europe depends on the way we seize the opportunity offered by the decline of ISIS’s self-declared caliphate.

Expert article 2488

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