The European Battleground

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 23

The assassination of the controversial Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh has provoked some uncomfortable debates in Europe. The killer was not dispatched on his mission by sinister al-Qaeda masterminds scheming somewhere from their hideout in Asia. On the contrary, the assassin epitomizes the new European jihadists: a very loosely connected network with little or no organizational links to Osama bin Laden.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) noted in its 2004 annual report that support and recruitment for Islamist terrorism is increasing worldwide [1]. Any illusions that Europe would be spared a mega-terror attack were shattered with the coordinated attacks on commuter trains in Madrid in the spring of 2004. In the aftermath of that attack, European security services increased their efforts and collaboration to thwart another atrocity. While border security has been boosted significantly to deter terrorist infiltration from abroad, this measure appears to be largely irrelevant to the nature and scope of the problem. The unfortunate truth is that Europe does not need former Afghanistan veterans or skilled al-Qaeda operatives to wreak havoc. In terms of jihad, a small minority of European Muslims are more than capable of attacking their own countries.

While even the security services experience difficulties in sizing up the threat, a few examples illustrate the scope of the problem. A confidential British study estimated that there are up to 10,000 “active” supporters of al-Qaeda in the UK [2]. German intelligence outlined a recent estimate of about 31,000 Islamic extremists in Germany who are believed to be a potential security risk [3]. Whatever the real figures and the definition of an active supporter, both figures state beyond dispute that militant Islam is firmly entrenched in the European heartland.

But who are these European jihadists? What little research is available tends to focus on specific Islamist communities within particular countries, consequently a proper understanding of the ideology, socio-economic and psychological profiles of European jihadis remains elusive. Often, their own words present the best material for research and analysis. An interesting example of jihadist correspondence was the letter pinned to the body of Van Gogh with a butcher’s knife. The means of delivery guaranteed a wide audience, and in fact the letter does deserve some attention. As shocking as the murder was, it was also intended as a publicity stunt and it succeeded in both respects. A closer look at the letter reveals a remarkable confusion on behalf of the author, or more likely authors as it was signed Saifu Deen al-Muwahhied. [4]

A juxtaposition of Qur’anic verses taken out of context, HAMAS inspired political diatribe, obscure Talmud references and amateurish analysis of current Dutch political issues; the letter presents a fascinating insight into the jihadi mind. It is a mirror image of a marginalized community of believers who explicitly condemn Europe and Holland and who vehemently label any critics as infidels and apostates. Despite the shrill Islamist rhetoric, the terminology and concepts are rooted in an exclusively European socio-cultural context. Consider this quote from the letter:

“There shall be no mercy for the unjust, only the sword that is raised at them. No discussion, no demonstrations, no parades, no petitions; merely death shall separate the Truth from the Lie.”

The uncompromising eloquence of the statement signifies a closed community that has abandoned the idea of dialogue and is literally beyond reach. The frequent use, and much more frequent abuse, of Qur’anic references to rationalize the defensive posture of allegedly besieged Muslim communities confuse the origins of the European Islamist ideology. While Islamists have been quite successful in presenting their struggle in religious terms, religion is in fact a secondary issue in the radicalization process in Europe.

Islamism had very little support in Europe during the 1990s, and even less in the 1980s. It was always a fringe phenomenon that appealed to individuals living on the margins of society. Islamism gradually started to attract a following, in various forms and through various movements, from the mid-1990s onwards. This slow development has accelerated considerably since 9/11 and continues to be reinforced by events in the Middle East and elsewhere. The war in Iraq became a battle cry for European based Islamists who wasted no time in dispatching fighters to link up with Ansar al-Islam and other groups through an elaborate underground network. Given the sizeable European military presence in Iraq this traffic has already led to the bizarre situation where Europeans from different backgrounds have ended up fighting each other in the Middle East.

As much as it appears to be religious in nature, Islamism is only one strand of a trend that signals a profound transformation of Europe’s Muslims. The quest for an identity has found outlets in secular lifestyles, often mimicking that of the host country’s culture or at the opposite end of the spectrum, that of jihadist Islam. European Islamism is anything but original; it is an artificial construction that springs from an unsuccessful encounter with European socio-economic structures.

Instead of a religious awakening, Islamism signifies a spiritual wasteland inhabited by self-appointed prophets and brigands, usually without any form of theological schooling or authorization. This is where terrorist recruitment thrives. Not in mainstream Muslim communities across Europe, but through underground Mosques and social networks of likeminded people.

While recruitment to terrorist training camps in Afghanistan was conducted more or less openly before 9/11, this is no longer the case. European jihadists no longer travel across the world, which would be pointless since the facilities of al-Qaeda have been dismantled. This would be good news, except for the fact that radicalization and recruitment to jihad in Europe has increased over the last three years.

Generally speaking, there are three distinct types of European recruits: First, there are the unassimilated newcomers from Muslim countries who find it impossible to adjust to life in European countries. These are not necessarily destitute; members of the Hamburg cell came from a middle-class background. Secondly, there are the 2nd or 3rd generation immigrants who for all intents and purposes should be considered Europeans. They are no longer in touch with their homelands, which to them signify little more than an aberration that can be either romanticized or discarded. On the other hand they feel excluded from mainstream society which they end up rejecting completely. Zacarias Moussaoui is an example of this type because he did not fit into Morocco or France and instead opted for Islamism in the UK. The last type is perhaps the most curious, that of the European converts. Richard Reid, the infamous shoe-bomber, converted in prison and was quickly spotted by British Islamists who exploited him for sinister purposes. A tragic and unassuming figure, Reid almost made the top list of European mass-murderers had his explosive device functioned properly and downed the targeted flight.

European security services have responded to the challenge by increasing their counter-terrorism staff, some specifically stating that candidates with a non-European background are highly desirable. A parallel recruitment drive has been launched by the terrorists who understand the operational advantage of European citizens. Put in simple terms, MI5 is looking for foreigners while al-Qaeda is principally interested in Europeans.

It is interesting to compare the European predicament with that of America. It appears as if American Muslims are considerably less susceptible to Islamist ideology and that the security problems facing the U.S. originate from abroad. Not so across the Atlantic. In spite of the rude awakenings in Madrid and Amsterdam, Europe still has a lot to learn about the new trends of Islamic radicalism and jihadi recruitment.

When the dress code in French public schools provoked furious debates between the champions of French secularism and committed French Muslims, al-Qaeda was quick to exploit the issue [5]. Ominously, al-Qaeda displays a better understanding of the current concerns and assimilation problems of European Muslims than European governments; an understanding that has been skillfully exploited to polarize European societies and to attract new recruits.

Michael Taarnby is a research fellow for the Danish Ministry of Justice. His current project is entitled, “Islamic terrorist recruitment in Europe.”


1. The International Institute for Strategic Studies, Strategic Survey, London 2004.

2. Telegraph. “Drive to halt spread of al-Qa’eda in UK.” 31. May 2004.

3. Der Spiegel, “Geheimdienste warnen vor Islamisten-Terror in Deutschland.” 13. November 2004


5. Audio message from Ayman al-Zawahiri, broadcast on Al-Arabiyya television in Dubai 24 February 2004.