Europe and the nature of the terrorist threat in 2007

por Julian Richards, 16 de julio de 2007

In April 2007, Europol issued the latest version of its “EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report”. Widely reported across the world, the report painted a picture of a range of currently active groups and threats across European countries. One area in which the report provoked particular debate was on the question of how significant the Islamist terrorist threat is compared to other forms of terrorism, such as nationalist or anarcho-communist violence.
The report concluded that, over 2006, EU countries experienced just under 500 terrorist “attacks”. Most of these were symbolic attacks causing small amounts of damage and no major casualties, although two foiled Islamist attacks in the UK and Germany appeared to have had the intention of causing mass casualties. The picture of arrests and convictions of terrorist suspects painted a picture of geographical clustering of much of the terrorist activity in UK, France and Spain. It also showed that these and other countries appeared to consider the Islamist threat the most dangerous and pressing one, despite the nature of most of the actual recorded attacks. Half of the 706 arrests in the EU during 2006 were of Islamist terrorist suspects, while Islamist-authored attacks accounted for less than 1 percent of the recorded incidents over the same period. France, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands recorded the highest numbers of Islamist-related terrorist arrests.
It is worth noting in considering these facts and figures that Europol is not privy to the full range of information available from member states on terrorist attacks and incidents, primarily because some states such as the UK are reluctant to share details of ongoing operations, including arrests of suspects. The recently departed Director-General of the UK’s Security Service has suggested there are approximately 200 active Islamist jihadist networks active in Britain, comprising 30 known plots, and involving 1600 identified individuals[1]. These statistics should be considered in conjunction with those made available to Europol.
Despite the low number of actual Islamist terrorist attacks in 2006, The Europol report did note that there was a marked increase in propaganda activities by Islamist groups, notably in the shape of video statements by the senior Al Qaeda leadership and affiliated groups. Such videos are becoming more professional, and could point to “..a coordinated global media offensive from Islamist terrorists”[2]. However, EU countries showed a small number of suspects arrested and charged with the spreading of propaganda, reflecting ongoing legal difficulties in defining this offence.
The Non-Islamist Threat
Europe is still suffering a high degree of activity by nationalist and separatist groups, and has seen a small resurgence in the activities of anarchist and extreme left-wing groups over the last year. The latter carried out 55 attacks in 2006, mostly in Greece, Italy, Spain and Germany. In May 2006, the Greek organization Epanastatikos Agonas (Revolutionary Struggle) narrowly failed to assassinate the Greek Minister of Culture. In Italy, the Red Brigades appear to be still active, and have successfully assassinated government officials twice since 1999. In February 2007, the Italian police arrested 19 members of a breakaway group called the Political-Military Communist Party, and uncovered a large cache of weapons[3].
Some observers have equated these organizations, and others across the world such as the Revolutionary Army (Kakumeigun) in Japan, to a rise in “retro-terrorism”, based on a resurgent anti-Americanism fuelled by interventionist conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by the entrenchment of globalization. When a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at the US Embassy in Athens in January 2007, Epanastatikos Agonas claimed responsibility, and said in a statement to a local newspaper that the strike was “..our answer to the criminal war against ‘terrorism’ that the US has unleashed over the entire planet”[4]. In this way, the anarcho-communist groups have an affinity with the Islamist jihadists, although in most other ways their missions are not aligned.
In France, Corsican separatists have proved very active in the past year, having formally announced the end of a ceasefire in March 2005[5]. The Corsican National Liberation Front (FLNC) was responsible for a large number of small scale bombings, mostly directed at symbols of French authority on the island. Most of these attacks were designed to be of nuisance value rather than to kill people, although in early May a large 10-litre improvised explosive device was deposited outside a bank in Porticcio, but failed to detonate. It seems only a matter of time before such reckless attacks claim casualties. In the meantime, feuds between factions of the FLNC are threatening to spill over into another bout of civil strife on the island, an earlier episode of which claimed 25 lives in the 1990s[6].
Spain is suffering a particularly complex blend of terrorist preoccupations at present. While many eyes have been on the trial of the Madrid train bombings of March 2004, the year 2006 saw a controversial period of attempted rapprochement between the Prime Minister Zapatero and the Basque separatist group ETA. This led to the announcement of a ceasefire by ETA in March 2006, which was dramatically broken by the group’s largest ever bomb on Spanish soil, at Madrid airport on 30 December 2006, which killed two people. On 5 June 2007, ETA formally announced the end of its ceasefire with the Spanish government, after the latter broke off negotiations in the wake of the Madrid airport attack.
The fortunes of ETA have not been good in recent years. It has suffered a number of arrests and disruptions by the authorities in both France and Spain, to such an extent that it was postulated that the number of active members of the organization could have been as low as 30 at the beginning of 2007[7]. Public opinion in the Basque region has also drifted away from the terrorist group’s demands for full independence achieved through violent means, with more of the local population now expressing satisfaction with the level of provincial autonomy currently enjoyed within the Spanish structure[8]. There is some thought that the Madrid airport attack could have reflected an internal split in the organization between those willing to consider political negotiation and those committed to an ongoing armed struggle. In this way the attack could have parallels with the IRA bomb attack in Omagh in August 1998, which was the single most lethal attack by the organization throughout the period of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, but came after serious and lasting negotiations with the British government had commenced. If so, the portents are promising in that Northern Ireland has seen steady if stilted progress towards lasting peace since that time.
For the time being, however, ETA remains stubbornly a feature of the Spanish political and terrorist landscape, and will probably continue to plan and execute attacks in the immediate future following its announcement of its resumption of the armed struggle in June 2007.
The Islamist picture
The picture in the UK currently looks very different, in that the Islamist terrorist threat is the largest and most significant, and is driving counter-terrorism policy and indeed politics generally to a certain extent. (Both the new incoming Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and the Leader of the Opposition, David Cameron, have recently made statements on their security and counter-terrorism policies ahead of many other policy concerns.) The Northern Ireland problem has continued to move slowly but surely towards a politically negotiated peace, with power-sharing between the two opposing sectarian communities in a devolved Northern Ireland Assembly restored once again in May 2007 after five years of direct rule from London. Around the same time, the loyalist paramilitary group the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), which has been responsible for more than 500 sectarian murders, formally lay down its arms and claimed to have disbanded[9].
In the meantime, the British Security Service claims to be investigating more than 1000 Islamist-related terrorist suspects. The headline case during 2006 was the disruption of an apparent multiple transatlantic airline bombing plot in August, which, had it been successful, could have caused casualties on the scale of the September 2001 attacks in the US. In Germany, an attempted bombing of two passenger trains near Cologne was foiled when the improvised devices failed to explode. Again, the casualty count could have been very considerable had the attack succeeded.
The 23 suspects arrested across Britain at the time of the airline plot were not included in the figure of 706 individuals arrested across the EU for terrorist offences over 2006, as Europol was not supplied with the relevant data by the UK. For the other EU members, Europol reported that approximately half of the 706 arrests were related to Islamist terrorist offences. In seven of the 13 EU countries supplying data on arrests, Islamists constituted the largest block of terrorist suspects, ranging from 3 arrests in each of Sweden and Slovakia to 51 in Spain. In France, there were 139 arrests of Islamist terrorist suspects over the year, representing just over 40 per cent of all terrorist arrests in the country for the year. One estimate of the number of Islamist terrorist arrests in the UK over the same year is 156[10], which, if added to the arrests across the rest of the EU would mean that almost two-thirds of all terrorist arrests were Islamist-related during 2006.
The mismatch between the number of arrests of Islamist-related terrorist suspects and the number of actual Islamist terrorist attacks recorded across the EU over the last year has caused some to question the West’s interpretation of the terrorist threat. Ziauddin Sardar, for example, noted in reviewing the Europol Terrorism Situation and Trend Report that:
The Europol report makes it clear that Muslims are responsible for very little terrorism in Europe, but they are the group most likely to be arrested on suspicion of terrorism. In Britain, a long beard or headscarf spells terrorism. In France and Spain, being Moroccan or Tunisian or Algerian is enough for you to be classified as a terrorist[11].
This leap in logic is not supported by an analysis of the facts. If the British Security Service’s estimates are correct about the number of serious extremists plotting terrorist attacks in the UK, then in this country at least, the Islamist threat not only greatly eclipses threats from other forms of terrorism, but is in many ways fundamentally different from nationalist or anarcho-communist threats.
2007 has seen the conviction of five members of the “Operation Crevice” gang after the longest criminal trial in British legal history. The gang, interdicted in 2004, possessed a large amount of fertilizer-based explosive and were planning to attack public places such as shopping centres, nightclubs, and sites critical to the national infrastructure[12]. As with other extremist Islamist terrorist groups, the gang’s attack plans were indiscriminate and designed to cause the maximum degree of casualties and disruption. The group were interdicted after a lengthy police and intelligence operation, details of which have since revealed that the group had semi-regular contact with two men (Muhammad Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer) who later went on to successfully execute the July 2005 bombings on the London transport system (with two accomplices) which killed 56 people.
Over the same period, a Hindu convert to Islam and resident of the UK (Dhiren Barot) was successfully convicted for 40 years for planning to kill “thousands” in terrorist attacks in the UK and US, using a range of conventional and radiological devices[13]. At the time of writing, two devices similar to some of those envisaged by Barot have been interdicted in London, one of which was primed to explode outside a nightclub but failed to do so[14].
The Cologne “trolley bomb case” of July 2006[15] was clearly modeled on the Madrid train attacks of 2004 and threatened to have caused a similar degree of casualties, had the devices not failed to detonate. In Spain, meanwhile, despite 2006 being a year for much analysis and debate about ETA, it was also a time that the trial of those accused of the Madrid train bombings of March 2004 which killed 191 commuters commenced, and reopened memories of the seriousness of the threat from Islamist terrorism. More recently, the shadowy group Abu Hafs al Masri Brigades, which has claimed responsibility for a range of attacks and incidents from the Madrid train bombs to attacks in Iraq, Kenya and Turkey (most of which probably spuriously), has threatened France with a “bloody jihadist campaign” on its election of Nicolas Sarkozy as President[16]. Whatever the nature and provenance of the group, and its connections with Al Qaeda, it is clear the sentiments are those of Al Qaeda and the message is that of serious extremist Islamist threat.
What these attacks demonstrate is that there are important differences between the threats posed by Islamist terrorism, and those posed by other forms of terrorism such as separatist or extreme left-wing violence. Certainly all forms of terrorism are murderous by definition, and, to some extent, it is not always useful or morally appropriate to differentiate between terrorisms on the basis of the numbers of lives they claim. Nor can it be said that there are not important parallels between many of these terrorist groups in modalities and attributes such as the age and gender profile of the protagonists (usually young males, often serving or recent university or college students) and connections, in some cases, to organized crime and factionalism. The March 2004 bombings in Madrid are a fascinating example of where Islamists may have come into contact with non-Islamist terrorists in the procurement of explosives, if only for pure business reasons.
However, there are important differences. Chief among these is the fact that the Islamist terrorists are bent on causing the maximum number of civilian casualties, as shown by their liking for soft targets such as public transport and other public places, and are prepared to consider unconventional attacks such as radiological, chemical or biological methods of killing  in so doing. Generally speaking, separatist and left-wing terrorism is far more “targeted” in its actions, in that it will aim for assassination of government or authority figures, or to damage official property or infrastructure. In most cases, the general public is not at serious risk of mass casualties (although ETA’s bombing of Madrid airport in December 2006 and numerous earlier attacks by this group and by the likes of the IRA have strayed into targeting civilians). Secondly, the non-Islamist terrorist groups tend to have specific, geographically defined and potentially negotiable objectives. In the case of ETA, the question is one of independence for Basque territories. For the Red Brigades in Italy, much of the preoccupation is with specific labour laws and with the government’s approach to them. The Islamists, however, have a much wider and more amorphous aim to bring down Western society in general. In so doing, they have little regard for specific geographical definitions (the modern nation-state being a Western Christian invention after all) or for specific targets among the population - the general public and figures of authority are treated with similar disdain.
In these terms, the Islamist threat can be seen - potentially - as a much more serious and wide-reaching one than posed by other terrorist groups and ideologies. Tony Blair observed at the time of the 2005 London bombings, drawing reference to the 2001 attacks in the US:
I don’t think you can compare the political demands of republicanism with the political demands of this  terrorist ideology we are facing now ... I don’t think the IRA would ever have set about trying to kill 3,000 people[17].
I would argue that these factors give rise to the picture described in the Europol Terrorism Situation and Trends Report. Thus, while the great majority of terrorist attacks and incidents in Europe relate to non-Islamist groups, at the risk of appearing complacent, most of these attacks lead to relatively low numbers of casualties and disruption, and the threat is relatively “contained”. It is also the case that governments have tangible enemies and demands with which to negotiate in the non-Islamist terrorist arena, and are prepared to do so in many cases such as those concerning the IRA and ETA, albeit indirectly. The perceived scale and seriousness of the Islamist threat, however, as evidenced by the very high number of casualties and disruption caused by the few attacks that have been successfully executed in Europe, and the lack of a political focus on which to direct governmental energies in resolving the crisis, have given rise to the Islamist constituency being very much the most significant for arrests and police action generally. The authorities in many EU countries are clearly devoting a lot of energy and resource into disrupting what they perceive to be the serious - and ongoing, as the events in London at the end of June 2007 demonstrate - threat of mass-casualty attacks emanating from extremist Islamist groups, in a way that does not apply to the likes of the Red Brigades or Corsican separatists. Ironically, never have the words of the IRA in the aftermath of the Brighton attack on the UK government in 1984 been more appropriate to the current Islamist threat:
Today we were unlucky, but remember, we only have to be lucky once; you will have to be lucky always[18].
From a pan-European perspective, legal responses and experiences to the terrorist threat  have been varied, and further work is needed to find the best legal approaches and to harmonise them as far as possible across the EU. This important to ensure that the terrorists cannot take advantage of differing legal jurisdictions between states.
On a positive note, the lengthy sentences for the “Crevice” terrorist group and Dhiren Barot and associates in the UK, have allowed the authorities to have confidence that such trials can be brought to successful conclusions, even where an actual attack has not yet occurred but was only in the planning stages. Similarly in  Germany, Mounir al-Motassadek received the maximum 15 year sentence in January 2007 for involvement in the September 2001 attacks in the US, overturning a previous successful appeal against his initial conviction[19].
However, against these successes, the authorities are also suffering setbacks. At the time of writing, four terrorist suspects on “control orders” under the UK Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005[20] have absconded in the space of a few weeks. Over a third of all terrorist control orders have now been breached in this way. A further six cases have been quashed by the courts on the grounds of being incompatible with the European Human Rights Convention.
In Spain, the leader of ETA’s political party Batasuna, Arnaldo Otegi, was acquitted of the charge of praising terrorism, during March 2007. The Europol Terrorism Situation and Trend report noted that “..the small number of suspects arrested for dissemination of propaganda may indicate the lack of legal basis and difficulty in investigating these types of crimes” across Europe[21]. The report also noted that in many EU countries, specific terrorist offences are not yet on the statute books, meaning that suspects often have to be charged with other criminal offences.
Counter-terrorism laws vary greatly across the EU. In France the legal period in which a suspect can be held before charge is four days, while in the UK the period has been increased to 28 days, itself considerably less than the 90 days requested in a new government bill which was defeated in Parliament in 2006. There is some evidence that terrorist groups are taking advantage of lax counter-terrorist regimes in countries such as Belgium, and choosing to locate there to organize attacks elsewhere in Europe, notably the Madrid attack of 2004. Belgium has been criticized by the UN Human Rights Committee for failing to implement clear anti-terrorism law[22].
While harmonizing legal and law enforcement instruments to use against the terrorists across Europe is imperative, as is ensuring that such measures are effective and sufficiently targeted, the UK’s experience in particular shows that the civil libertarian lobby is a powerful one ranged against the government’s efforts to enhance its counter-terrorism mechanisms. Both high court judges and civil liberties pressure groups such as “Liberty” have been vocal opponents of measures such as the Control Orders. Such bodies claim that these mechanisms are neither fair, just or effective, yet they are explicitly recognized as being an imperfect solution to the problem of detaining terrorist suspects on thin evidence.  Tony Blair has recently commented that he believes it “misguided and wrong” to tip the balance towards the rights of the individual suspected of being involved with terrorism , and away from the “safety of the public”[23]. The balancing act involves addressing these concerns, undoubtedly shared by many in the public, while not alienating the Muslim communities who feel threatened by perceived erosions of civil liverties. This is a task for all EU nations and one that must be approached in unison if it is to be truly effective.
The Europol Terrorism Situation and Trends Report for 2006 identified that the terrorist picture across EU countries is a multi-faceted and complex one. Foes that might have been considered to have been defeated, notably extreme left-wing groups originally formed in the 1960s and 1970s, are still in existence and showing signs of continued activity. Indeed, there is some evidence that these groups are enjoying a small resurgence in the wake of the US’s activities in its War on Terror, a picture mirrored elsewhere in the world.
Nationalist and separatist groups such as ETA and FLNC, far from giving up the armed struggle against their host nations, have vowed to return to it recently. Such groups have been responsible for the vast majority of the 498 terrorist incidents recorded across the EU in 2006.
Standing at apparent right-angles to this picture is the trend in arrests of terrorist suspects, the majority of which, according to Europol’s figures, have been of Islamist terrorist suspects. There is no doubt that in some parts of Europe, notably in Eastern European countries, the Islamist terrorist threat must seem very different and much smaller than would be the case in Spain or the UK, to name but two countries. Some observers have also argued that the disparity between actual incidents in the EU and the nature of most of the people being arrested points towards an institutional racism towards Muslim people and a belief that Islam equals terrorism.
It can be argued, however, that the Islamist terrorist threat is much greater and fundamentally different in nature and scope from that faced in European countries from other groups such as nationalists and anarcho-communist organizations. Where the Islamist terrorists have succeeded in Europe, they have put their ideological terrorist colleagues in the shade in terms of indiscriminate killing and destruction. The high level of arrests of Islamist terrorist suspects rightly reflects the level of the threat faced, and the fact that Islamist attacks are very much worth disrupting and halting.
An area where EU countries seem to be struggling is in the formation of legislative mechanisms to fight terrorism, their harmonization across EU countries, and their ability to deal with complex crimes such as the dissemination of propaganda and radicalization. Much more work must be pursued in these areas and could usefully be conducted at the pan-European level. Obstacles to progress in these areas will remain until we can make collective progress in Europe in our definition of freedom, human rights, and the fundamental principles of a liberal European democracy.

Dr Julian Richards is Research Fellow at the Brunel Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies (BCISS)

[1] The Times Online (2006, November 10). Blair backs MI5 chief over terror warning. From accessed 22 June 2007
[2] Europol (2007). EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2007. Europol, The Hague. p. 4
[3] The Economist (2007, February 15). Back to the Past: an apparent revival of 1970s-style terrorism in Italy. From, accessed 17 June 2007
[4] Quoted in Jane’s (2007, March 14). New wave of retro-terrorism. Jane’s Terrorism and Security Monitor, para 4.
[5] Jane’s Intelligence Review (2005, May 1). Corsican separatists break truce.
[6] Jane’s Intelligence Review, ibid
[7] S Kern (2007). ETA: the beginning of the end? Grupo de Estudios Estrategicos GEES, en letra impresa numero 684, p. 4.
[8] Kern, ibid, p.2
[9] BBC News Online (2007, May 3). UVF calls end to terror campaign. From accessed 18 June 2007
[10] Z Sardar (2007, May 21). Lies, damned lies and terrorists. New Statesman, from accessed 11 June 2007.
[11] Sardar, ibid, para 7
[12] P Naughton (2007, April 30). Five given life for fertiliser bomb terror plot. The Times Online, from accessed 16 June 2007
[13] BBC News online (2006, November 7). Al Qaeda plotter jailed for life. From accessed 21 June 2007
[14] S O’Neill (2007, June 30). How carnage in clubland was averted by a bump on the head. The Times Online, from , accessed 30 June 2007
[15] Europol, ibid, p.18
[16] Jane’s  Terrorism Watch Report (2007, May 16). Group threatens ‘bloody jihadist campaign’ in France.
[17] BBC News Online (2005, July 26). IRA are not Al Qaeda, says Blair. From:, accessed 14 March 2007
[18] BBC News Online (2007). On this day: 12 October 1984: Tory Cabinet in Brighton bomb blast. From accessed 22 June 2007
[19] Jane’s Terrorism Watch Report (2007, January 9). Germany jails Moroccan as accessory to 11 September attacks.
[20] The Control Orders were a compromise offered by the government when its proposals for longer periods of detention before charge were rejected in Parliament. The orders stipulate restrictions on a suspect’s movements and daily curfews.
[21] Europol, ibid, p.3
[22] United Nations, International Covenant on Human and Political Rights (2004). Concluding Observations of the Human Rights Committee: Belgium, 12/8/2004. CCPR/CO/81/BEL. Geneva, para.24
[23] Sunday Times (2007, May 27) Shackled in the War on Terror. p.19