Europol Report Describes Afghanistan-Pakistan Connection to Trends in European Terrorism

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 12

Moez Garsallaoui (R) with his wife on the way to his June 2007 trial in Switzerland

Terrorist activities within the European Union (EU) declined in 2008 as compared to the previous year, according to the annual report published by Europol, the European Union’s criminal intelligence agency. [1] The report lists 515 failed, foiled or successful attacks reported by EU member states, a decrease from 583 attacks in 2007 but still higher than the 2006 total. The decline in terrorist activities was also observed geographically, with only seven member states reporting attacks, two less than in 2007 and four less than in 2006. There were 1009 individuals arrested last year in relation to terrorism activities, a several percent decline in comparison to 2007. Nevertheless, despite an undisputable decline, the threat of terrorism to the EU “remains high,” according to Europol deputy director Mariano Simancas (AFP, April 17).
The Varieties of Terrorism
The terrorist threat to Europe encompasses many different forms of terrorism, from left-wing to right-wing extremism, jihadi activities, ethno-separatism, and single issue terrorism. Each form of political violence saw a decline in 2008, with the notable exception of left-wing terrorism, which increased by 25 percent. Left-wing and anarchist extremists remained operational in Greece, Spain and Italy. In addition, French intelligence warned of a “resurgence” of left-wing terrorism which was confirmed by 37 arrests in 2008, significantly more than in any other European country over the last three years (Nouvel Observateur, November 25, 2008).
Separatist terrorists remained by far the most active in Europe. They carried out a total of 397 attacks in 2008, of which 98 percent took place in France and Spain, causing the deaths of four people. The number of attacks decreased by 25 percent in comparison to 2007, mainly due to a relative lull in activity by the Fronte di Liberazione Naziunale di a Corsica (FLNC). In Spain, the Basque separatist organization Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) is thought to be encountering difficulties. The group was weakened by the arrests of three successive military leaders in the last six months, the latest being the arrest of Jurdan Martitegi (El País [Madrid], April 18). The Europol report notes that the growing use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by the ETA, a trend that started in 2007, indicates that it is “encountering increasing difficulties in the acquisition of commercial explosives.”
The Islamist Threat to Europe
In most European countries, however, Islamist terrorism continues to be seen as the biggest threat to security because it attempts to cause mass casualties whereas ethno-separatist terrorism generally targets material symbols rather than individuals or groups. EU counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove recently said; “The [European] intelligence community considers that the al-Qaeda related threat is still severe and that it is still the main threat to Europe and its internal security” (EuroparlTV, February 2).
There was only one attack in Europe attributable to Islamist terrorism in 2008, when 22-year old Muslim convert Nicky Reilly attempted to detonate a homemade bomb in a shopping mall restaurant in Exeter, South-West England, but injured only himself. Reilly is mentally ill and highly vulnerable. He apparently self-radicalized through the internet, although he had also been in contact with radical Muslims. He was jailed for life in January 2009 (Times, January 31).
In 2008, excluding the United Kingdom, 187 individuals were arrested on suspicion of involvement in Islamist terrorism, mainly in France and Spain. [2] This represents a decrease of 7 percent as compared to 2007, and an even greater decrease as compared to 2006. This continuous decrease in the number of arrests seems to indicate a relative diminution of jihadi activities in Europe, although including statistics from the UK would likely lead to a slightly less optimistic conclusion. The number of member states which reported arrests related to Islamist terrorism also decreased from 14 in 2007 to 10 in 2008. The majority of these arrested individuals came from North African countries.
For its part, the UK indicated to Europol that it arrested 256 people in relation to terrorism without providing specific details relative to the distribution of these arrests among the different forms of terrorism. However, given the level of jihadi activism in Great Britain, it can be assumed that a significant share of these arrests was related to Islamist terrorism. The 256 arrests in the UK was an increase in comparison to 2007 (201) and 2006 (156).
Two thirds of arrested individuals could not be linked to organizations known by the authorities and belonged instead to small autonomous cells. This fact seems to confirm the growing threat of self-radicalization and homegrown terrorism that Europe is facing. Part of the explanation for this shift in the radicalization pattern lies in the increasing quantity and quality of Islamist propaganda in Europe. Indeed, there is an increasing number of radical Islamist websites and forums in European languages indicating, according to Europol, an expansion of jihadi propaganda efforts to reach specific audiences. This phenomenon has been observed in Germany, for instance, with messages and videos, including calls for attacks and instructions for the building of bombs, posted directly in German or in Arabic with German subtitles (see Terrorism Focus, February 20, 2008).
Terrorist Recruitment in Europe
In its report, Europol states that “Islamist recruitment activities have largely been driven underground. Radicalization activities are noted to have moved from mosques and other public places into private spaces.” Jihadi forums constitute the archetype of such “underground” and “private spaces”. The internet can also be used as a resource-tool for jihadi training, as in the case of Britain’s Nicky Reilly.
Nevertheless, the internet has not yet replaced real-life interactions regarding radicalization, recruitment and military training, but should rather be seen as a complement or a substitute. A very good illustration of this was provided by the December 11, 2008 arrests in Belgium. [3] While some members of the cell entered into contact with Malika el-Aroud (the wife of the cell’s leader, Moez Garsallaoui), through her French-language jihadi website, “SOS Minbar,” Garsallaoui was recruiting young Muslims in person in the streets and mosques of Brussels. Through the website, a “dialogue” was established with some subscribers which could lead to a meeting with Garsallaoui. Once recruited, members were sent to the tribal areas in Pakistan, where they received religious and military training, followed by a “jihadi exposure,” i.e. following fighters to the warzone without having the authorization to take part in the fight. Eventually, members of the cell were ordered to return to Belgium to establish a sleeper cell.
The Afghanistan-Pakistan Connection
The Belgian cell illustrates another major problem, which is the connection between the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and the terrorist threat in Europe. Indeed, as the report states, “Afghanistan and Pakistan seem to have replaced Iraq as preferred destinations for volunteers wishing to engage in armed conflicts.” These recruits pose a threat to European troops deployed in Afghanistan. Germany, for instance, is particularly worried about the presence of several of its citizens (most notably Eric Breininger) in the region who are allegedly plotting operations against German troops (see Terrorism Focus, January 28).
When fighters return – such as members of the Belgian cell, or members of the Sauerland cell in Germany – they pose a direct threat to European security. As expressed by U.S. Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, “the primary threat from Europe-based extremists stems from al-Qaeda and Sunni affiliates who return from training in Pakistan to conduct attacks in Europe or the United States.” [4]
Although most European countries recognize that Afghanistan and Pakistan constitute a threat to their security, they generally tend to see the military operations in Afghanistan more as a part of the problem than as a part of the solution. Mirroring this point of view, the Europol report states that “a number of member states judge that they continue to face a high-level threat from Islamist terrorism for reasons that include [a] military presence in Iraq or Afghanistan,” but nowhere does the report mention the fact that European military and civilian missions in conflict zones could help strengthen EU homeland security.
Last month, however, the European Commission, the executive branch of the EU, announced a new three-year, €225 million program aimed at combating terrorism and the trafficking of WMDs (AFP, April 17). This program will focus on Pakistan and Afghanistan, which are described as “bases for radicalization and terrorist training,” as well as the Sahel region where the threat is “growing”. In both regions, the program proposes to support the establishment of anti-terrorism structures, the formation of competent authorities, and the development of regional cooperation. Nevertheless, with only a few details of the plan available, it is not yet possible to assess whether this program inextricably links stability in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region with European security, or whether it is more a program destined to compensate for European lack of commitment to the mission or prepare for a future disengagement from Afghanistan.
The terrorist threat in Europe remains high, although statistics show a certain decline in terrorist activities. One should be careful, however, when interpreting these statistics because the lack of details from the UK data could be misleading and also because the year 2007 saw a dramatic increase in terrorist activities, meaning that last year’s decline could merely be a return to “normality.” Although separatist terrorism is statistically much more significant, Islamist terrorists are still seen as the biggest threat to Europe given that most of their plots involve mass-killings. Today’s threat is tightly related to the situation in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Nevertheless, most EU member states believe their presence in Afghanistan is more a cause of terrorism in Europe than a remedy for it.

1. “TE-SAT 2009 – EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report”, Europol, April 2009.
2. The statistics given to Europol by the UK contained for the first time numbers from Northern Ireland and are therefore not comparable with previous years. Moreover, the UK sends only one global number for attacks and arrests, but does not provide the specific distribution among the different forms of terrorism, rendering it harder to draw conclusions based on statistics.
3. Paul Cruickshank, “The 2008 Belgium Cell and FATA’s Terrorist Pipeline,” CTC Sentinel, April 2009.
4. Dennis C. Blair, “Annual Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence,” U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, February 12, 2009.