With recent Home Office figures suggesting that arrests for terrorism-related activities in the United Kingdom are on the increase Dr Dave Sloggett explores if attraction of being involved in terrorism exists on the European stage:
While headline figures published by the Home Office suggest that terrorism remains a key issue for law enforcement authorities in the United Kingdom a wider European Union analysis shows that this is far from an isolated problem.
In a report published by EUROPOL in 2011 it was noted that across Europe in 2010 249 foiled, failed or completed terrorist attacks had been reported in nine member states with the majority of those occurring in France (84) and Spain (90). This was marginally down on the figure of 316 reported in 2009. In the same reporting period 611 individuals were arrested for terrorism related offences. This was broadly in line with the figure of 623 reported in 2009.
In 2011 EUROPOL reported that the figures declined as 174 actual and failed attacks were reported in seven member states with France (85) and Spain (47) still showing high numbers. In the United Kingdom EUROPOL reported figure of 26 is related purely to those charged with offences. Figures for arrests were also down at 484. Graphs produced by EUROPOL show a consistent reduction of terrorist arrest and disrupted activity since 2007.
The figures produced by EUROPOL do however paint a slightly distorted view of the overall levels of terrorism in Europe. The attack by two religiously motivated individuals at Frankfurt Airport that saw two American military personnel killed is not counted as the attack was not deemed to be an act of terrorism in German Law. The overall trends reported by EUROPOL therefore have to be treated with some caution. However that does not suggest that Muslim extremist activity in Europe is ending towards an end game.
From Finland in the east to Spain in the west Al Qaeda’s ideology continues to resonate with small numbers of people in Muslim communities. In December in what is an unprecedented move a Norwegian newspaper published a list of people it said were Islamists that had travelled abroad for terrorist training. The article showed that thirteen people living in Norway had travelled overseas since the terrorist atrocities in America in 2001. The analysis also contained one example of a Norwegian currently in Syria.
In Germany Chancellor Merkel is on record observing that a lack of social integration of Muslims has helped create the conditions in which some Muslims feel isolated and marginalised from society. Once these conditions exist it seems almost inevitable that some will drift into activities that will lead them to adopt more extreme interpretations of their religion. The German authorities are on record expressing their concerns about German families travelling to Afghanistan to fight their own soldiers working for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
As an indication of the enduring nature of the threat in Germany a German-language video was posted on the ‘Attiyyah’ blog of Mohammed Mahmoud the alleged leader of the Millatu Ibrahim group. The 10-minute 13-second video urged supports to become involved in terrorist activity and to seek martyrdom. In March 2012 an analysis conducted by the German Intelligence Services had also suggested that in the wake of the death of Osama Bin Laden Al Qaeda was changing tack and had started to encourage lone wolves to become active. This pattern has been repeated elsewhere across Europe and in the United Kingdom.
France is increasingly concerned by the activities of Al Qaeda’s closest operational franchise – Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its links with the groups now operating in Northern Mali. This is an area of Africa that has long-standing ties with France and the alarm bells having been going off in the Élysée Palace since the end of the military campaign conducted last year in support of rebel forces in Libya. The replacement of Colonel Gadhafi had one unintended consequence. Attempts to stabilise Libya had the opposite effect in Mali.
The problem of potential terrorism in France is not limited to overseas connections. Increasingly the authorities are also seeing examples of the so-called lone wolf. On 23 March 2012 a Jihadist forum started a specific thread aimed at recruiting lone wolves in France citing the activities of Mohammed Merah. He was the individual that shot seven people over a number of days including a number of French soldiers and Jewish school children and their teachers in a horrific attack a day earlier. Merah had claimed to be a member of an outlawed (proscribed) group called Foresane Alizza (Knights of Pride) which has close to 2,000 Facebook followers and 400 Twitter followers.
The jihadist forum was clearly intent on encouraging copy-cat attacks. Thus far those propagating the messages have failed in their attempts to motivate any vulnerable candidates to follow in Merah’s footsteps. Quickly it emerged that Merah had been arrested in Afghanistan and eventually released. At that point he appeared to have remained on the radar horizon of the French intelligence services suggesting perhaps naively that the attack should have been prevented. At the time the French Prime Minister Francois Fillon was forced to defend the situation saying there had been no actionable intelligence available beforehand.
In the wake of the attack a furious debate broke out in France fuelled by the schisms that exist in the country between right and left wing political views with one commentators acknowledging that over 1,000 French citizens had travelled to Afghanistan to take part in terrorist training and retuned home. In the furore following the attacks by Merah claims and counter-claims were published about how many of these remained active and on the radar horizon of the French intelligence services. A leading regional newspaper in France called Le Parisien, Aujourd’hui en France also carried an article speculating as to how lone wolves were being recruited in France. In their analysis they claimed that at least 20 radical preachers were at work in France promoting Al Qaeda’s ideology.
The thread on the jihadist forum was highly structured with suggestions of how to conduct what it termed as a ‘field war’ alongside a ‘media war’. The thread contained some quite specific guidance on the kinds of weapons to obtain and how to train and prepare for a mission. In the ‘media war’ element the thread was quite specific in its encouragement of people getting involved in cyber-attacks. This is quite typical of the information that is routinely made available in a variety of locations on the Internet.
In Finland a large Somali diaspora has seen a number of arrests with individuals accused of becoming involved in efforts to support the Al Qaeda franchise Al Shahaab that operates in Somalia. In Demark the backlash from the publication of the twelve cartoons that depicted the Prophet Muhammad in a number of what were seen by the publishers to be humorous or satirical situations still rumbles on. When deep offence is caused to religious sensibilities the repercussions can last for a long time.
In June 2012 four men were sentenced to 12 years in jail by a Danish court for planning a terrorist attack on the Jyllans-Posten’s newspaper offices. Three of the suspects had been arrested at a flat in December 2010 in Copenhagen with the fourth arrested a day later trying to enter Sweden. The men all were either born or had family connections in Tunisia, Egypt and Lebanon. In May 2012 another two Danish citizens of Somali origin were arrested. One was seized in the town of Aarhus whilst the other was detained at Copenhagen airport returning from a visit overseas.
Terrorism in Europe is also not simply restricted to activities within a specific state. Taimour Abdulwahab travelled from Luton to Stockholm in November 2011 to carry out an atrocity in Sweden. For the United Kingdom security apparatus the potential for people to travel from the hinterland of Europe into the United Kingdom cannot be forgotten. To combat this collaboration through Interpol is vital.
For the United Kingdom security services the trends illustrated in the Home Office report suggests that the threat from Muslim extremism remains credible. However that has to be seen against the backdrop of what is happening in Europe. In the struggle to counter the activities of extremists it is clear the United Kingdom is not alone.