Europe: a key battleground for radical Islamists

In the first six months of 2017, Western Europe has experienced a surge of terrorist attacks conducted by radical Islamist militants. Terrorist incidents in France, the UK and Sweden left 41 dead and 247 injured. In addition to successful attacks, two high-profile failed assaults occurred respectively in Paris on June 19th and in Brussels on June 20th. Despite ongoing security measures, this string of attacks highlights that Sunni extremist militants acting alone or with local and/or transnational ties continue to have the will and capabilities to hit security forces and civilians throughout the region. Europe’s “new normal” will almost certainly continue to be characterised by a substantial volume of periodic terrorist attacks aimed at hurting countries’ economies, leading to social tensions and impacting the overall political environment.

Creation of a virtual reality

While the Islamic State has steadily been losing ground in Syria and Iraq, the group has been successful in developing close-knit support networks throughout Europe. In addition, the organisation has managed to create a virtual reality. The key tenets of the Islamic State’s Sunni extremist ideology will continue to be disseminated and influence targeted segments of European populations despite the group’s military defeats. Having created an ideology that will survive the organisation’s shrinking territory in the Middle East might be one of the major achievements. The fact that the group’s propaganda will remain supported by modern means of communication increases the likelihood for the Islamic State to continue to exhort a strong attraction among radical Islamist groups in Western Europe.

The growing problem of radicalisation

The presence of a strong Islamic State’s ideology goes hand-in-hand with the growing number of radical Islamists throughout Europe. Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, the number of persons identified as holding Sunni extremist views has increased throughout the region. In Belgium, this number passed from 1,875 in 2010 to 18,884 in 2017. In Sweden, the Swedish Security Service (SAPO) identified approximately 200 radical Islamists in 2010. The number is likely to reach 2000 in 2017. A similar trend is in place throughout Western Europe, with a growing connection between radical Islamist groups and organised criminal networks. This creates a situation in which the Islamic State’s propaganda will continue to have a receptive audience thus increasing the risk of further terrorist attacks.

Quantity over quality

European states have become relatively more proficient in monitoring militants plotting complex attacks. In addition, the Islamic State’s strategic situation in Syria and Iraq increases the obstacles the group has to face when planning future attacks from the Middle East. As such, the terrorist organisation is placing an increased attention in pushing radical Islamists in Europe to independently carry out operations in the region. In this sense, the Islamic State favours the quantity of attacks over their quality. A high volume of terrorist incidents will enable the Islamic State to claim propaganda victories and maintain an offensive position in Europe. Even failed plots such as the ones in Paris and Brussels participate in the overall climate of fear.

Evolving tactics

The large numbers of potential recruits coupled with a special attention given to single-assailant and crude attack highlight the evolving strategy of the Islamic State. The group has been pushing followers to use all means available to hit civilian and security targets. Within the last three months, militants have increasingly tried to conduct attacks using home-made improvised explosive devices (IEDs). To be put together, these weapons necessitate some basic skill and a specific environment. However, explosive components needed for IEDs such as gas canisters and ammonium nitrate-based products can be easily bought publicly. In addition to the usage of firearms, knives and vehicles, radical Islamists inspired by the Islamic State will continue to try to use IEDs in a bid to cause mass casualties.

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