The Growing Threat of Islamic Militancy in Europe

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 8

Since the bomb-attacks in Madrid on March 11, 2004, dozens of militant Islamic activists have been detained across Europe. At the same time, several active cells dealing in everything from propaganda to smuggling Islamic activists to Iraq have been broken up by various European police authorities. Across the continent the struggle to come to grips with Islamic terrorism is going on unabated, and despite the fact that since March 2004 no major terror-attack has occurred on the soil of any European state, there is now a growing realization that Islamic militancy poses a very serious mid- to long-term threat to European security.

The picture looks broadly similar all over the continent. From Spain to Scandinavia, detentions and the dismantling of networks are the norm. In Spain, over a 1000 people have been arrested in connection with the attacks in Madrid in March 2004, and although most of them have been released, subsequent investigations invariably lead to the discovery of more cells. Despite these successes Spanish intelligence sources insist that there are still at least several hundred people around the country committed to attacks on Spanish targets.

In France, six men (all of French-Algerian extraction) were recently sentenced to up to 10 years in prison for their roles in a 2001 plot to bomb the U.S. embassy in Paris. This was one of three terrorists operations that French authorities have foiled in the last few years. But even to a greater extent than in Spain, French sources with inside knowledge of anti-terror investigations and counter-terrorism work, claim that these operations merely constitute the tip of the iceberg.

In Britain, the government finally managed to get its new anti-terrorism law through parliament, despite strong misgivings and objections from the House of Lords and civil libertarians. These measures were needed, the government argued, to help combat the growing threat of Islamic terrorism in Britain. The law enables the authorities to place terrorist suspects under house arrest without trial instead of sending them to prison. The compromise that finally got the new law through Parliament revolved around a so-called “sunset clause”, which means the law will expire in a year, with the Parliament set to review it.

Even in quiet Scandinavia, the threat of Islamic violence and activity is palpable, albeit not to the same extent as in Britain, France or Spain. Among several Islamic organizations active in Scandinavia, one of the groups mentioned most frequently is Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT). HT is particularly active in Denmark where it primarily engages in propaganda work and legal financial activities. The group has not been tied to any terrorist events, but according to both Danish and Swedish sources the ideology of this pan-Islamic and seemingly ubiquitous organization effectively serves as a gateway to more sinister organizations.

Trends and Examples

The examples outlined here clearly point to a growing threat from Islamic militants in Europe. Unfortunately this growing threat is not registering in the information media and other sections of European society, mainly because of lack of attacks. Another worrying trend is the persistent difficulties faced by western European governments in devising better cross-border cooperation and intelligence sharing. It seems that constant calls by officials in the European Union and individual member governments for exactly this kind of cooperation are not being fully heeded by those tasked with devising and implementing cooperative arrangements.

This is all the more unfortunate in light of recent developments on the ground. There is ample evidence that since the invasion and occupation of Iraq, a growing – albeit still very limited – number of young men are heading to the conflict zone from Europe. There is inevitably the worry that the brutalized survivors of the conflict will return to their European homelands and will begin recruiting and radicalizing young Muslims. Historically speaking recruitment in Europe for jihad in different parts of the world – namely Kashmir, Chechnya and Bosnia – has been a constant feature for a number of years, but the war in Iraq intensified this trend. Counter-terrorism authorities across Europe have started to note an increase in both the number of recruits, as well as in the number of people returning home to develop networks and patiently plan for attacks. The emphasis here is on “patience” insofar as this is the Islamic militants’ most precious asset. Indeed as memories of recent attacks – particularly in Madrid – fade, the public and the authorities are likely to become less vigilant in the fight against terrorism.

Despite the lack of attacks, there have nonetheless been several close calls according to intelligence and police authorities. For example, according to the Spanish Minister of Justice Juan Fernando López Aguilar, last September a plot was uncovered that involved a number of Pakistanis planning to bomb “high-value” targets in Barcelona. Allegedly, the plot was only days away from being carried out when the arrests were made and the cell dismantled.

In regards to the transfer of fighters to Iraq there are various estimates as to how many people are involved in this endeavor. Iraqi government sources talk about hundreds (at the most up to a thousand) people being smuggled into Iraq over the past 24 months. These estimates are generally accepted by European officials who have amassed a considerable amount of intelligence on the transiting networks during the past two years. What is less clear, however, is the connection between leading operatives in Iraq, such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and European networks involved in recruitment. Although Zarqawi has been identified as a leading individual in these efforts, there is very little hard evidence to back up this claim.

This is not necessarily good news; on the contrary, the picture that emerges points to several independent networks involved in recruitment and transiting networks, sharing only the overarching ideology of Islamic militancy. Broadly speaking several general observations can be made about these networks and the people involved in them. It seems that recruits generally come from the margins of the societies they live in. They are typically in their 20s or 30s, have menial jobs or are living on welfare. It is also clear that most of the recruitment is done through radical mosques identified with militant preachers. Several of the cells discovered had patiently developed their networks in such mosques. These cells have expanded to connect with other similar networks in other European countries. This is aided by the fact that once an individual reaches the European Union, movement in and between member countries is relatively easy. The lack of coordination and intelligence sharing within European Union countries (something alluded to by several police and intelligence officials) also significantly boost this networking process.

A case in point was the arrest in June 2004 of “Mohammed the Egyptian” (Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed) in Milan. Milan is fast becoming a hub of Islamic activism, similar to Hamburg, Paris and London. Ahmed was arrested after having been actively recruiting young jihadists since 2001. Exploiting gaps in security structures and taking advantage of internal rivalries between various European police and intelligence bureaucracies, Ahmed could slip between countries, setting up cells in France, Italy, Spain and Germany in the process. The authorities in France, Germany and Spain all launched investigations, but since each country knew him by different names it took three years before he was caught. This is but one case, but it points to a persistent problem where lack of coordination between European intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies continues to undermine the fight against terrorism.

Another disturbing trend is the constantly emerging connections between European activists and terror-networks outside Europe, and not only in Iraq. Traces leading from networks in East and North Africa to mosques and cultural centers in Europe, via individuals (such as Ahmed) show growing, and until recently unknown connections that not only cuts across countries but also across continents. These connections, coupled with the continued growth of Islamic radicalism inside European societies, significantly raises the prospect of attacks in the mid to long term.

European authorities have detected and foiled several plots to attack targets in Europe during the past few years, but the trends described above are still clearly visible and there are no signs yet of any major concrete steps to remedy the structural problems hindering cooperation within the European Union. Reforms have been introduced and there is now a growing understanding of the magnitude and complexity of the problem among the people most closely involved in combating terrorism. It remains to be seen whether this will be enough to turn the tide.

Magnus Norell, PhD is Director of the Center for the Study of Low-intensity Conflicts and Terrorism (CLIENT) and a Senior Analyst at the Swedish Defence Research Agency.