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ISIS in Europe

By Jack Ryan, Research Assistant at Talking About Terrorism.

Madrid City

In March 2019, The Islamic State was driven from its last stronghold, and one could be forgiven for believing the war on terror was beginning to slow. However, since the removal of The Islamic State from Baghuz, there have been – on average – two Islamist plots per month either successfully executed or thwarted in Europe.

Europe now finds itself facing a terror-related disaster, the levels of terror related activity we see today are well above those of which we saw before the rise of The Islamic State.

The decentralization of The Islamic State has led to a new style of terror across the globe, individual attacks by so-called ‘lone wolves,’ individuals who support but are not generally supported by The Islamic State. The frequency of lone-wolf attacks has increased. These attacks are significant and challenging to police due to the possibility of an attack taking place anywhere. There is no physical marching army to track to a battleground; instead we have individuals who have been converted all over Europe.

Last year, a UN report stated that the Islamic State, despite its losses in Syria, was consolidating and preparing for an eventual resurgence in the region and also looking at ways to facilitate international attacks. Lone wolf attacks are a manifestation of this tactical change. The Islamic State continues to use social media channels to call Europeans, especially those at risk of radicalization, to Jihad and encourages them to go out and attack in the name of the Islamic State.

The use of media to call others to Jihad is not a particularly new tactic; Al Qaeda used its English language magazine which inspired the Boston Marathon Bombers in 2010. However, as individuals around the world have greater access to the internet, Europe’s ability to stop these messages proliferating is wavering.

A new challenge Europe faces is the return of ex-fighters and others who joined the Islamic State. According to The National, a report on Belgium reveals that if all extremists who left return to the country and remain incarcerated, one in 10 women in prison will be an ISIS fighter. This poses another threat to the region, the possibility of radicalization in prison.

The UN Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate has warned Europe of the “great risks” posed by returning female ISIS recruits and insisted they “urgently” examine their prosecution and rehabilitation policies.

Analysts writing in a UN report found that Europe is still very much at risk. The analysis hints at the possibility that the Islamic State may also be “monitoring political developments in Western European nations and considering attacks that would inflame domestic divisions”.

Europe’s counter-terrorism strategy, as a whole, has come leaps and bounds in the last decade. France has had a particularly aggressive approach to counter-terrorism, given the attacks it faced as a result of the Algerian Civil war in the 1990s. This has led to increased disdain from marginalized groups often at risk of radicalization. For other, less aggressive states such as Belgium and Italy, it was their support of the US campaign in Afghanistan that brought about the enmity of Europe in the eyes of jihadists.

It is for the reasons mentioned above that Europe holds a multitude of Islamic State targets, their unity as a bloc of states also means that an attack on one is an attack on them all, a more significant victory in the eyes of the Islamic state.

Government agencies have woken at the threat of the Islamist terrorism, for example, a German funding scheme for civil society non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the counter-terrorism field started in 2015 and increased to over 100 million Euros annually in 2017.

Whilst ISIS pushes for more remote attacks and lone wolves acting on their behalf, Europe will remain at serious risk. However, the increased funding for counter-terror efforts and the ever-increasing unilateral approach to counter-terrorism will inevitably bolster Europe’s ability to tackle Islamist terrorism.

For more brief analysis, click here.


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