How Should the EU Combat an Evolving Terrorist Threat?

The thwarted 'Mumbai-style' attacks at key European cities underline the need for even greater European counter-terrorism co-operation.

By Valentina Soria, Research Analyst, Counter-terrorism and Security Programme

After the foiled 'Mumbai-style' terrorist plots, Europe has put itself on high alert as a prime target of terrorist attack. Western governments have issued advice to citizens warning of plans to attack public targets in Europe. [1]

Indeed, in the jihadist propaganda against the West, Europe as a whole has often been associated with the US as the 'far enemy' that needs to be defeated. [2] One might therefore be brought to believe that the terrorist threat is more or less equally distributed in Europe and that jihadist terrorists, either as lone individuals or as structured cells, might have an interest in striking wherever suitable opportunities arise. [3]

Although this is certainly a strong possibility, it is important to remember that, so far, terrorist-related incidents, plots or attacks have taken place or have been initiated from a selected group of countries, namely Spain, the UK, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, France and Italy. Such countries have been targeted either because of their foreign policy stance (in particular their active involvement in Afghanistan and/or Iraq) or because specific events have sparked violent reactions: as was the case with the Danish cartoon incident, the assassination of the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh and the increasing number of terror alerts in France following the veil ban.

Terrorists certainly gained greater visibility, and their acts major resonance, by targeting such countries. However, to view the EU as a single target may be partly inaccurate, as terrorists still tend to look at, and perceive European states in slightly distinct terms. On the other hand, the new nature of the threat implies that the lone terrorist will take any chance of inflicting some damage to the enemy, no matter where such an opportunity presents itself. Nowadays it is highly likely that single individuals would be motivated enough to try and stage such attacks, while using new media to propagate their message. In this sense, no European state is completely immune.

This is clearly demonstrated by the number of countries that reported Islamist terrorism-related arrests in 2009. According to the 2010 EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, 109 arrests of Islamist suspects were carried out in 2009 in eight member states (Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, Spain, and the Netherlands). [4] Although this number was higher in 2008 (with ten countries reporting arrests of this kind), the variety of countries affected still indicates that the threat is widespread across the continent.

The EU is seen both as an appealing target for Islamist terrorists and a valuable platform for launching attacks on the US; it functions as a favourite logistical and planning base as well as a critical networking centre for operatives dispatched in several countries. The EU report also highlights the phenomenon of self-radicalisation and the potential implications this might have for the security of EU's member states; with one third of all arrested suspects holding EU nationalities, the home-grown dimension of the threat is further confirmed. Furthermore, several European states raised concerns of the increasing number of EU individuals travelling to conflict areas (mainly Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also Yemen and Somalia) with the intent of taking part in combat operations or attending a terrorist training camp in such regions.

This warning should not come as a surprise considering the extent of the phenomenon. In 2008 the UK's Security Service estimated that up to 4000 British Muslims had travelled to Afghanistan and Pakistan for military training since 2001, [5] while Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office has recently confirmed that seventy people (but the figure could be as high as 220) have travelled from Germany to those countries for the same purpose, a figure which would be proportionate to the size of the Muslim community in that country. [6] Clearly this trend has severe repercussions on European security. It implies that, on their return, such individuals could use the acquired skills and expertise to mount some sort of attack or to persuade others to follow their example.

It is well known that those who attend terrorist training camps do so with the additional aim of establishing extensive personal contacts that may be exploited when the decision to carry out a terrorist attack is finalised. [7] Cross-border connection and collaboration between jihadist operatives in Europe is a well developed phenomenon which often comes into light during major arrests. Following the detention of five Algerian nationals in Italy in 2005, an extended network of connections between members of Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat's cells based in that country and other Salafist Islamists across Europe was discovered. Interactions with Moroccan and Algerian cells in Spain, Norway, France, Germany, UK and Switzerland took the form of logistical support, weapons procurement and propaganda mechanisms.[8] During the same year, an alleged Al Qa'ida cell in Northern Europe was exposed when police in Bosnia arrested two men accused of planning a 9/11-style attack in Europe. It was then discovered they were directly connected to Al Qa'ida's so-called 007, Younes Tsouli, convicted in the UK in 2007.

More recently, three people were arrested in France for allegedly being part of a Europe-wide network that recruited volunteers to send to Afghanistan. They were detained after their numbers were found in the mobile phone of a man arrested in Italy a few weeks earlier for carrying a bomb-making kit. [9] In addition, French police arrested another nine men believed to be implicated in the recently thwarted Europe terror plots. These plots are now thought to have also involved two Britons and eight Germans, the latter probably part of the so-called Hamburg cell, formed in 2008 and including members recruited from the Taiba mosque in the city. [10] 

In combating this evolving terrorist threat, it is important to differentiate between measures which should be taken on a national level and those which might be adopted on a European level. At a national level, government departments and agencies need to redouble their coordination: such a fight does not affect just one aspect of national security but rather implies a multi-level and holistic approach. It becomes critical for every segment of the government to get involved and take on a proactive stance. Co-ordination is the key to avoid counter-productive compartmentalisation.

Secondly, it is necessary to tackle the appeal of propaganda messages circulated by jihadists and terrorist groups so as to delegitimise their cause and the methods employed to further it. The UK experience in this regard is rather indicative. It is a country with a significant home-grown radicalisation problem which has been trying for some time to tackle the issue through the implementation of a strategy (PREVENT) aimed at identifying and removing potential sources of alienation for the Muslim population. Such a strategy, although valid in principle, remains weak in operational and practical terms; substantial improvements are urgently needed.

It has been recommended that the PREVENT strand should be refocused on downstream preventive and deradicalisation work so as to draw a clear distinction between activities aimed at preventing violent extremism and those seeking to achieve broader aims. [11] The former should contribute to building effective community capacity and resilience and be managed by local authorities. [12] By dealing with these measures outside the more strictly defined security arena, it would be possible to prove that such initiatives are not designed as a cover for invasive intelligence gathering activity, as it has been often suggested in the past.   Other European countries with a significant Muslim community should be proactive and seek to properly engage the Muslim community in order to prevent radicalisation occurring in the first place.

On a European level, improved co-ordination and co-operation is key. As Europe remains committed to a criminal justice approach to terrorism that relies on efficient police-led work, intelligence-sharing practices need to be constantly improved in order to ensure the most rapid and effective flow of information among national security agencies within the European Union.

EU border countries also have a role to play in the fight with the new type of terrorist threat. These border countries will be of critical value once they have joined Schengen; it will then become necessary for them to adopt proper and efficient border control security measures so as to significantly contribute to the overall European security framework. [13]

Following the adoption of the EU Counter-Terrorism Strategy in 2005, member states have been able to implement relevant and useful measures, such as EU-wide security standards and boarder protection arrangements. The introduction of the European arrest warrant has also facilitated the practice of cross-border terrorist investigations and prosecutions, as it has recently been the case with the uncovered Mumbai-style terror plot.

Yet, the idea of strengthening valuable institutions like Europol and the CT Task Force within it, with the aim of enhancing intelligence sharing and cooperation across Europe, is still hampered by the reluctance of member states to transfer sensitive information to these organisations. Consequently, bilateral relationships remain the preferred option in terms of intelligence sharing, as counter-terrorism policy is still being predominantly shaped by national imperatives and substantial differences in threat perception. Ultimately such differences - well highlighted by the diverse reaction of some European governments to the threat of a Europe-wide terrorist attack - may hamper efforts to establish and promote a much needed co-ordinated response to the jihadist threat.


1. 'Mumbai-style' terror attack on UK, France and Germany foiled [Accessed 4/10/10]

2. (Kathryn Haahr, 'GSPC Joins Al Qaeda and France Becomes Top Enemy', Terrorism Focus, vol.3, issue 37, 26 September 2006; 'Bin Laden's Latest Propaganda', the Weekly Standard, 29 November 2007; Dan Murphy 'Bin Laden Seeks to Sway German Election, Obama Debate on Afghanistan', the Christian Science Monitor, 25 September 2009)

3. Refer to 'Terrorism: The New Wave by Michael Clarke and Valentina Soria.

4. TE-SAT 2010. EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, Europol, p.21

5. (Kim Sengupta, 'Exclusive: Army is Fighting British Jihadists in Afghanistan', The Independent,25 February 2009)

6. Duncan Gardham 'British Brothers Behind Mumbai-style Plot', The Telegraph, 30 September 2010

7. (Michael Clarke and Valentina Soria 'Terrorism in the UK: Confirming its Modus Operandi, RUSI Journal vol.154, n 3, June 2009)

8. Kathryn Haahr, 'GSPC in Italy: the Forward Base of Jihad in Europe', Terrorism Monitor, Jamestown Foundation, vol.4, issue 3

9. 'France Arrests 12 in Anti-Terror Raids', BBC Online, 5 October 2010

10. Nic Robertson and Paul Cruickshank 'Hamburg Cell at the Heart of Terrorist Plot Against Europe', CNN, 4 October 2010

11. See for example, 'Preventing Violent Extremism', 6th Report of Session 2009-2010, Communities and Local Government Committee, House of Commons, 30 March 2010)

12. Rachel Briggs, 'Community Engagement for Counter-Terrorism; Lessons from the UK'. International Affairs, 86:4, 2010

13. (See for example, the Schengen Agreement, 14 June 1985; the Schengen Acquis, 22 September 2000; the Schengen Border Code, Regulation EC 562/2006)  


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