On December 11, 2018, just as Europeans were beginning to think the jihadi threat in the region was shrinking, a terror attack struck the Strasbourg Christmas market. A French-Algerian Islamic State supporter, Cherif Chekatt, killed five and injured 12 in an attack with a revolver and knives. After a major manhunt, Chekatt was killed in an exchange of fire with police officers two days later. Investigations turned up a video in which the attacker pledged fealty to the Islamic State, and Chekatt was already known to the security services for having extremist leanings. (1) The Strasbourg attack was in tune with how Islamic State-affiliated jihadis have operated in Europe (a) in recent years and a reminder that although the Islamic State is weakened, Europeans are not in the clear from jihadi terror. On the contrary, although there were approximately half as many attacks by Islamic State terrorists in Europe in 2018 compared to 2017, (b) there is a high potential for future waves of attacks as Europe's jihadi networks have grown and strengthened their ties to the global jihadi movement since the outbreak of the war in Syria.
What is the actual scope of the Islamic State threat in Europe, and how did we get here? Based upon the author's previous works on jihadi terrorism in Europe, this article examines what has shaped this threat in the past, and may continue to do so in the future. (c) The author argues the threat from the Islamic State became so big in Europe because the Syrian war breathed new life into European jihadism and because the Islamic State took over al-Qa'ida's networks in Europe, making them effective tools for its violent campaign. This article further argues that the variation in the threat to different European countries can be traced to three main factors: 1) military interventions in Muslim countries; 2) jihadi networks; and 3) terrorist entrepreneurs. The author will come back to what each factor entails, but first how much of a threat does the Islamic State pose in Europe?
How Big is the Islamic State Threat to Europe?
Europe has lived with jihadi terror since the mid-1990s when the al-Qa 'ida-affiliated Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) carried out a series of bombings in France. In the 2000s, the threat matrix was dominated by al-Qa 'ida. Europe saw large-scale attacks such as the train bombings in Madrid in 2004 and the bombings in London in 2005. Al-Qa 'ida also plotted a number of large attacks that were foiled in the 2000s. The al-Qa 'ida threat continued into the 2010s, before the Islamic State emerged as an international terrorist threat in 2014.
From 2014 onward, nearly all plots in Europe have been linked to the Islamic State, whereas very few have been traced to al-Qa-'ida. The level of plotting has reached new heights. (2) Never before have there been so many jihadi terrorist plots in Europe as in the period between 2014 and 2018. Never before have so many plots gone undetected and resulted in attacks. Never before have so many Europeans been killed in jihadi terrorist attacks. More people have died from jihadi terrorism in Europe between 2014 and 2018 (at least 345) than in the previous 20 years (at least 267). (d)
As noted above, in 2018 the number of attacks dropped some 50 percent compared to 2017, and there were no mass-casualty attacks killing more than 10 people. This led many to think that the worst was over and that the military defeat of the Islamic State had decimated the group's capacity to project terror attacks onto Europe. This view was reflected in a U.N. report in the summer of 2018, which identified a possible causal connection between the drop in attacks and the damaging of the Islamic State's command and control, especially the death of the group's most active planners of terror plots. (3)
It must be stressed, however, that this drop in attack activity followed the unprecedented numbers of attacks seen in 2016 and 2017, and that executed attacks only represent part of the picture. It is a common mistake to gauge terrorist threats by the number of launched attacks only and to not include the plots that were foiled by counterterrorism agencies. When both executed and foiled attacks are looked at, there were actually more jihadi plots in Europe in 2018 than in any given year before 2015. (See Figure 1. (e))
The plots in 2018 (both attacks and foiled attacks) demonstrate that the Islamic State remains the main protagonist of jihadi terrorism in Europe. Perpetrators were either inspired by the group or linked to Islamic State networks in Europe, internationally, or online. The plots also show that the Islamic State threat is not merely one of small attacks, but also includes plans for large-scale ones.
In 2018, there were three attacks by single gunmen including Chekatt's attack in Strasbourg. In March 2018, for example, a Moroccan Islamic State supporter shot policemen and took hostages inside a shopping mall in southern France. (4) He killed five, injured 16, and said he was doing it for Syria. (5) The year 2018 saw multiple smaller attacks with knives. In May, for example, a French-Chechen Islamic State supporter stabbed a man to death and injured others near the Opera national de Paris. (6) There were also plots in 2018 to use vehicles as weapons; some had the potential to kill dozens as in Nice in 2016. In February, for example, British police arrested a convert who supported the Islamic State and had planned to ram a vehicle into crowds, probably in Oxford Street. He was in contact with Islamic State members in the Philippines. (7)
The security services also detected plots to employ a toxin in a terror attack. In June 2018, a Tunisian linked to the Islamic State was apprehended in Cologne for allegedly producing ricin to be used in a possible attack. (8) He had been in contact with individuals linked to the Islamic State and suspected to be based in North Africa or Syria. (9) There was also at least one plan by the Islamic State's networks in Europe to carry out complex armed assaults like those in Paris in November 2015. In September 2018, for example, seven alleged Islamic State supporters were arrested in the Netherlands for allegedly plotting to attack a public event with assault rifles and hand grenades. The investigation also indicated that they planned to set off a car bomb at another location. (10) So even though the number of attacks decreased in Europe in 2018, there was higher plot activity by jihadis in Europe last year than any given year before 2015, and several foiled plots were potentially very lethal. How did Europe get here?
How Did the Threat Get So Big?
In seeking to explain how the Islamic State threat became so big in Europe, it is necessary to distinguish between immediate reasons linked to Syria and the Islamic State, and more general drivers that have shaped the jihadi threat in Europe since the phenomenon emerged in the 1990s. The immediate reasons include the massive mobilization of European foreign fighters, some new tactical moves by the Islamic State, and the refugee crisis.
The civil war in Syria and the rise of the Islamic State breathed new life into European jihadi networks and became major recruitment tools for them. Many European Muslims became enraged by the Assad regime's abuses of the civilian population. The rise of what to some seemed to be a powerful Sunni 'state' implementing sharia and standing up to Assad became a major pull factor for foreign fighting. Over a very short span of time, the recruitment of foreign fighters gave European security services more potential jihadi terror threats to monitor than they had ever dealt with before. A large number of Europeans (estimates vary between 4,000 and 7,000) traveled to Syria as foreign fighters, most of them eventually joining the Islamic State. (11)
Before the Islamic State's rise to notoriety and the realization that the group would pose a threat to Europe, it was easy for young European Muslims to travel to Syria via Turkey. Moreover, European states had no clear position vis-a-vis their exodus. Assad's atrocities in Syria made it hard to condemn those who traveled on moral grounds, and in several countries, legislation was not in place or adapted to ban people from going to Syria. (f) The early travelers had many and often altruistic motives for going, (12) but as soon as jihadis started to dominate the insurgency, most of the Europeans ended up in groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State.
Historical data shows that a minority (some 11 percent) of foreign fighters who have traveled from Western countries to join conflicts in the Muslim world (for example...