Europe’s Fast-Changing Terrorist Threat

Source: Global Risk Insights

The attacks that shocked Paris in 2015 and hit Brussels in 2016 brought fears in Western Europe that the region would face a wave of complex and well organised terrorist incidents. However, the series of assaults that occurred since June 2016 highlight the true nature of what is increasingly defined as Europe’s “new normal”. The deadly crude attacks in Magnanville, Nice, Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, Berlin, London and Stockholm underscore how single assailants or small squads armed with double-usage tools such as knives or cars car inflict high casualties and score propaganda victories. These terrorist acts generate an overall feeling of insecurity and prompt fresh security concerns.

A virtual ideology

As much attention is focused on the Islamic State relative loss of territory in the Middle East, the Sunni extremist organisation has been successful in creating a virtual reality in which its ideology continues to flourish. While the group may be deprived of Mosul and Raqqa, it is highly unlikely that its structuring propaganda message will lose its attractive power over specific segments of Muslim populations in Western Europe. Supporters of the group are proficient in the use of social media, messaging applications and dedicated forum. They use these tools to galvanise, recruit and push to act militants residing throughout the continent. This virtual reality leads to a real risk of further crude attacks in which radicalised perpetrators obtain support from small cells and networks present throughout Europe.

Criminal-militant: a thin line separating two worlds

While radical Islamists with ties to the Islamic State are using the virtual space to spread their propaganda, a key specificity of the current terrorist threat is the growing link between criminal networks and militant cells. The transition from petty or organised crime toward armed militancy is a growing concern. Islamists have managed to provide an ideological framework in which the separation between the two worlds is thinned out. This increases the volume of potential active militants; it widens the overall support base available for radical Islamists in European urban centres and it provides them with a relative freedom of movement in specific densely populated urban districts.

The wider issue of radicalisation

As demonstrated by recent studies in Belgium, the radicalisation of youths generates a key long-term social and security risk in Western Europe. As governments and local authorities struggle to implement comprehensive socio-political plans to counter the radical Islamist propaganda, the volume of those charmed by Sunni extremist ideologies is on the rise. The vast majority of people close to those circles are unlikely to directly take part in terrorist attacks or other types of violent operations. However, this evolving reality generates a situation of social fractures built on partial or complete opposition to the state that creates a space that can be used by violent extremist groups.

Low-cost / high-impact attacks

Attacks inspired-or directly planned-by the Islamic State are likely to remain a major driver of the terrorist threat in Western Europe in the foreseeable future. The majority of these will probably continue to involve the small-squad or single-assailant operations that result in attempted stabbings, shootings, car-rammings or the usage of homemade explosives. As demonstrated by recent incidents, such assaults will almost certainly continue to focus on soft and symbolic civilian targets but there is also a realistic risk of terrorist incidents targeting police and military forces. These operations will remain a major added value for the Islamic State’s European campaign as their planning phase is low-cost and necessitates a very limited manpower investment but they have a high economic, political and psychological impact on the cities that are hit. Even failed attacks have the potential of participating to a certain extent to the overall feeling of insecurity. This justifies the Islamic State repeated calls for all its followers to conduct as many crude attacks as possible.

Riccardo Dugulin is a Senior Analyst and Head of the Europe desk at Drum Cussac, a British business risk management firm specialised in security threats. Riccardo is also a regular contributor on Global Risk Insights, an online-based political risk publication.