Terrorism in Europe: What we know and what we should stop assuming

EPA/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA

A British Army soldier and a policeman on duty near the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, 25 May 2017.

Terrorism in Europe: What we know and what we should stop assuming


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Since Islamist terror activity gained momentum in Europe in 2015 a number of misconceptions, both in terms of commonly accepted assumptions and proposed responses to growing threats, have been prospering.

In the wake of the Manchester tragedy, a short reminder of our current knowledge, and of our possible misconstructions, in this critical national security area might seem timely.

1. On the top of the list, the first reminder that needs to be stressed time and again is that, in their very vast majority, terrorists operating in Europe are nationals of the countries being targeted, or are otherwise holders of other European nationalities. The increased correlation between terrorism and immigration is therefore, more often than not, ill-founded. The occasional infiltration by non-European would-be terrorists of genuine asylum seekers entering Greece or Italy is therefore largely epiphenomenal and does not justify any stigmatisation a priori of the immigrant or refugee community as such. If that were the case, then should foreign tourists, students and business people not also be singled out as likely threats when aspiring terrorists use occasionally fallacious tourism, education or business motives to enter the European Union?

2. Following from the above, and as is now increasingly acknowledged, terror activity in Europe is typically home-grown. The conclusion to be drawn in this respect is that the predominant, if not almost exclusive strategic focus by most European governments on increased border controls, particularly internal border controls, might fall short of, and therefore divert resources from, a more multifaceted approach to the problem at hand. Whilst efficient, adequately resourced and fully coordinated controls at the EU’s external borders are clearly a fundamental condition to the safeguard of Europe’s security, both in terms of terror activity and other threats, the time might have come to acknowledge once and for all that borders today are only one of the variables, and possibly not a predominant one, that should be taken into account when apprehending and responding to the rise of terror activity in Europe.

3. Based on the premise that current terrorist threats in Europe are therefore largely home-grown, the question must then be asked of the main drivers, and of the means to prevent and contain them, of Islamist aspirations in Europe. Whilst expert theories and favoured solutions have been burgeoning over the past couple of years, most of them, including those touching on education and the role of teachers throughout primary and secondary schooling, those advocating the establishment of “deradicalisation centres”, or those relating to the withdrawal of nationality from actual and suspected national terrorists, appear to be too long-term or otherwise unrealistic to have any effect on on-going national security threats. On the other hand, whilst it is increasingly acknowledged that social media and encrypted communication devices are today the most important instrument through which particular segments of the European population both become radicalised and are enrolled by Islamist networks, too little is still being implemented by media operators to control their content. Beyond numerous statements of good intentions, there is still a need for a more decisive and internationally concerted action to monitor and police current activity on social media and protected communication devices.

4. Similarly, the established trend in most European countries to classify suspected nationals into various categories of threat, and to modulate their level of surveillance according to the perceived degree of risk, appears increasingly ill-founded and inconsistent with the behaviour and modus operandi of contemporary would-be terrorists. This has been duly verified in recent terror acts in France and the UK, which have involved suspected national terrorists with an allegedly low level of risk. The same comment can be made about the established practice within European intelligence services not to apprehend, or even interview, suspected national terrorists with a low or medium level of threat in order to uncover their more senior connections and networks within and outside the country. This practice has clearly failed, or at least has often proved ineffective in detecting imminent terror attacks in time.

5. In the same vein, whilst all experts and insiders continue to report on the growing political willingness to facilitate the exchange of information among intelligence and other specialised services at national and international levels, adequate procedures, efficient technical means and a proper “culture of cooperation” are reputedly still in insufficient supply. At the very least, this is now becoming a critically anachronistic trend in an era of fateful security threats.

6. As importantly, political unity and solidarity in the wake of terrorist acts is still a concept that appears alien to many political parties in Europe. A recent case in point has been the reactions to the Manchester tragedy by some senior political figures in France, who have been prompt to question and undermine the ability of the newly elected President Macron to prevent similar attacks in France. Partisan and politically biased postures have clearly become a major nuisance for the development of a truly decisive and cohesive response to growing national security threats.

Whilst none of the above observations and policy leads is of course likely to make a dent to the proliferation of largely unpredictable initiatives by ‘lone wolves’ and to the development of what has rightly been referred to as ‘low cost terrorism’, the increased incursion of life-threatening menaces in the heart of European social and cultural values today demands at least that a consensus on key definitions, priorities and persuasive responses be sought by all the relevant political and civil society players,  as well as by public opinion.

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