Europol, a European Union law enforcement agency dedicated to improving the effectiveness and cooperation of member states’ security agencies, released its annual report on terrorism in Europe on April 28.  The report provides an overview of the current situation regarding terrorism in Europe and shows that while incidents of terrorism across the Union appear to be diminishing, “the threat emanating from terrorist groups remains real and serious.” 
While the actual numbers seem to indicate that separatist and other forms of terrorism pose a larger threat in Europe, “Islamist terrorism is still perceived as the biggest threat to most Member States.” In fact, Europol only tracked one effective Islamist terrorist attack in Europe during 2009 – Mohammed Game’s unsuccessful attempt to carry out a suicide bombing on a Milan military barracks – in contrast to 237 attacks defined as separatist, 40 attacks by left-wing groups and an additional 124 attacks in Northern Ireland (for Mohammed Game’s attack see Terrorism Monitor, November 19, 2009). There were also a smattering of right-wing attacks, single issue attacks and attacks with no definable political orientation.  Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s unsuccessful attempt to bring down an airliner over Detroit is repeatedly identified in the report as evidence of the threat from Islamist networks in Europe and in particular of “how the E.U. can be used as a platform for launching attacks on the United States.”
Overall, the number of attacks is down by 33% from 2008. This trend is also reflected in the number of arrests, which are down 22% from 2008 (with 587 arrested in 13 member states in 2009), and down 30% from 2007. The majority of arrests were of individuals involved in separatist groups, while the number of individuals arrested in relation to Islamist groups was down from 187 in 2007 to 110. It is worth noting that these figures do not include the UK, which according to the Home Office arrested 201 people from January to September 2009. This resulted in charges against 33% of those arrested, though it is not clear what their political orientations were.  In the Europol report, France (37), Italy (20), and Spain (40) marked the highest number of arrests related to Islamist terrorism.
But while the threat from Islamist terrorists is seen as important, it seems clear that on a daily basis it is separatist and other forms of terrorism which pose the most regular threat to European security. The Basque separatist group ETA laid claim to the most deadly attacks in 2009, killing four police officers in two separate attacks (part of some 14 separate attacks the group carried out in Spain), while two British soldiers were killed in Northern Ireland during the course of a year which saw some 124 separate attacks in the province by Loyalist or Republican factions.
Nevertheless, Europol’s assessment of the threat from separatist groups is sanguine in contrast to the growing threat that is seen from left-wing and anarchist groups. Some 40 such attacks were reported in 2009, an increase of 43% from the previous year (and part of a year-on-year trend) and included the death this year of a police officer in Greece. While many attacks by such groups are characterized as spontaneous, Europol highlights a “growing willingness” by such groups “to confront right-wing activists and police,” noting that “the ability to translate violent ambitions into action seems to have grown stronger.” Another growing menace is seen in the increased criminal activities by animal rights extremists which are “expanding throughout Europe,” while the threat from right-wing extremists remains a running theme with some evidence of attempted attacks and training in Europe. However, far-right groups appear to find it hard to maintain coherence, with the greatest threat from this ideology seen in “individuals motivated by extreme right-wing views, acting alone” rather than existing networks or groups. Nevertheless, Europol concludes that activities by all of these groups “are developing a transnational character” and “are now becoming more serious.”
The drivers for this ongoing din of menace are not particularly touched upon in the report, though some thoughts are offered as to why Islamist terrorism continues to pose such a large threat, while in practice seeming less threatening than separatist terrorism. The internet is referred to as an important driver in the growing trend towards Islamist terrorist activities “perpetrated by self-radicalized and often self-instructed individuals,” but the existence of terrorist safe-havens outside the E.U. as locations for training are perceived as posing a continuing threat.
Islamist terrorism clearly remains Europe’s primary counterterrorism preoccupation, but as the continent watches its economy falter, security assessors have started to worry about what the resulting impact might be in terms of political extremism. Europol’s annual accounting of trends across Europe shows that a possible spike in left, right, anarchist and single issue terrorism might be a possible result, something which is likely to only further distract already stretched security services.
1. For the official press release: http://www.europol.europa.eu/index.asp?page=news&news=pr100428.htm. The full report can be found at: http://www.europol.europa.eu/publications/EU_Terrorism_Situation_and_Trend_Report_TE-SAT/TESAT2010.pdf .
2. Earlier Europol Reports were discussed in Terrorism Monitor, May 1, 2008 and May 8, 2009.
3. Due to differences in counting and measuring, the United Kingdom is not included within the Europol numbers. Consequently, they statistics are frequently listed separately in the report.
4. “Operation of police powers under the Terrorism Act 2000 and subsequent legislation: Arrests, outcomes and stops & searches,” Home Office Statistical Update, February 25, 2010, http://rds.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/pdfs10/hosb0410.pdf .