The fear of Islamist terrorism has reached new heights in Europe. A recent survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Compagnia di San Paolo, a research center in Turin, Italy, documented a sharp increase in the number of Europeans who are becoming increasingly nervous about their vulnerability to terrorism (https://www.transatlantictrends.org). About two-thirds of Europeans are resigned to the fact that living with terrorist threats might become part of their daily life. Some 70 percent of Germans feel that they are likely to suffer a terrorist attack, which is a 32 percent increase since 2005. These high numbers preceded the latest arrests of terrorist suspects in Denmark, Germany and Austria. Indeed, since the September 11 attacks on the United States, Europe has become a favorite target for Islamist terrorists. The number of plots discovered and foiled has forced many in Europe to try to understand why the continent has become a hunting ground for terrorist recruits, and how the extreme alienation and anti-state orientations of some Muslim European nationals develop and evolve into murderous forms of jihadism.
The fact that two of the three terror suspects arrested recently in Germany were converts to Islam shocked the country. Deputy CDU floor leader Wolfgang Bosbach concurred with the assessment that tends to see conversion to Islam as leading to radicalization and to ultimate recruitment by a terrorist organization. “We know that some who convert become radicalized,” Bosbach argued (Spiegel Online, September 12). Of course, this is not the first time that converts have been involved in terrorist networks. In 2005, a Belgian female convert stunned the country when she blew herself up in Baghdad in a failed suicide attack against U.S. forces. In Britain, people are still perplexed that one of the suspects arrested in the foiled transatlantic airline bomb was the son “of a Conservative Party activist.” This growing trend of converts embracing radical Islam has raised several questions about the role of Islam in radicalization.
Nevertheless, it not the conversion to Islam that is the prime factor in the new converts becoming terrorists. It is the group they associate with once they embrace Islam that creates the conditions conducive for radicalization. Radicalization, as Stefan Reichmuth, a professor of Islamic studies at the Ruhr University in Bochum, pointed out, occurs “in the context of acquaintances, the environment or the networks that one encounters after converting” (Deutsche Welle, September 11). Gudrun Ensslin, one of the leaders of the left-wing rebels of Germany’s Red Army Faction, became radicalized after she joined a group of disgruntled and angry middle-class youth who saw themselves as fighting the “arch capitalists.” This daughter of a protestant pastor did not veer into extremism because of her religious background. She did so when she “fell in with a group of far-leftists unhappy with German society” (Deutsche Welle, September 11).
Clearly, young converts are more susceptible to the “anti-imperialist” dimension of transnational jihadism, as is shown by the small number of disaffected European nationals who came to find solace in an anti-system Islamist supportive milieu that promises a way out of alienation and delinquency into a new life of jihadi brotherhood capable of challenging what it sees as a hegemonic and discriminatory Western system. It is, therefore, a mistake to view the jihadis’ terrorist madness as emanating exclusively from a crude moral absolutism. After all, the targets of the German suspects were not Christian landmarks, but the U.S. military air facility at Ramstein, an important transport hub for the U.S. war command and its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and U.S. and Uzbek consular facilities in Germany. The goal was to put pressure on both the German and Uzbek governments to close the Termez base in southern Uzbekistan. Germany uses the base for logistical support for its 3,000 soldiers in Afghanistan. A communiqué posted online on September 11 by the Islamic Jihad Union, a group affiliated with al-Qaeda which splintered from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, claimed that the IJU had intended to attack the United States and Uzbekistan because of their “injustice and brutal policies toward Muslims and Islam” (Spiegel Online, September 12).
It is increasingly evident that the jihadi enterprise draws strength in part from its development out of, and alongside, strong opposition to perceived Western expansionist policies. This strong rejection of the West’s perceived politico-ideological hegemony and its “free market” globalization is what helps to drive some jihadi actions. Nevertheless, a great number of Europeans think it is Islam that is the main motivating factor for terrorism. More pragmatic officials and experts, however, believe that instead of criminalizing Islam, it is necessary to criminalize attending terrorist training camps and strictly enforce the zero-tolerance policy for inciting centers in cities like Ulm and adjacent Neu-Ulm, where Fritz Gelowicz, a “little blond boy” raised in a popular middle-class family in largely Roman Catholic Bavaria, was introduced to the deadly ideology of terror, met Mohammed Atta, the ringleader of the September 11, 2001, attacks, and learned about terror training camps in Afghanistan (The Times, September 9).