Several years ago a French expert on radical Islam, Gilles Kepel, argued that European Muslims would provide the bridge between the mediaeval tribalism of the West Asian Arab and Western modernity. He could not have been more wrong. As the recent Christmas terror attack in Germany reminds, the European Muslim has instead become a bridge to transport West Asia’s ills into the European heartland.
Unfortunately, the evidence is that the high watermark for European jihad is still some years away. A majority of terror analysts believe Europe should brace for an ever expanding footprint of violent Islamicist attacks for three reasons.
One, the social base of “lone wolf” attacks — alienated, working class European Muslims — will only increase in the coming decades. Europe’s economic future is one of either stagnation or negative growth. In terms of job creation, the story is even worse. A Muslim in Europe faces increasing discrimination and suspicion. Each terror incident triggers a nativist backlash and even greater minority alienation. Notably, the German terror attack was contemporaneous with an attack on a mosque in Switzerland. The rise of anti-immigrant parties across Europe only feeds this negative cycle.
Two, the Norwegian terrorism expert Thomas Hegghammer has shown that waves of Islamicist terror attacks in Europe closely tally the activity of what he calls “terror entrepreneurs”. These are Islamic State veterans or radical ideologues who do not directly involve themselves in violence but recruit and encourage youngsters to follow the path of jihadi violence. Because of the light prison sentences given to such persons in Europe, four to six years on average, thousands of these arrested in the mid-2000s have started to re-enter society. And they are unrepentant. German intelligence studies show only one in 10 has renounced his ways. The numbers of such people, writes Hegghammer, “may be larger in the coming 10 years than it was in the previous decade.” These will be the seeds of a Euro-terror wave that could run into the 2020s.
Three, the ability of Europe’s intelligence and police networks to tackle this internal threat has been declining. While budgets and manpower have increased, improvements in social media technology and the recruitment of off-the-grid jihads has meant a declining ability to pre-empt attacks. Even excluding the recent attack in Germany, Islamcist terror claimed more lives in Europe between 2014 and 2016 than in all previous years combined. The worst statistic: Half of serious Islamicist terror plots in Europe today reach fruition. Fifteen years ago the pre-emption rate was closer to 70%.
Simple things like end-to-end encryption in messaging apps like WhatsApp have made real-time intelligence gathering much harder for law-enforcement agencies. Europe’s patchwork of jurisdictions continues to be exactly that, a patchwork. German’s provincial governments and Belgium’s district police systems, for example, are notorious poor at sharing information with their central government counterparts — and each other.
Finally, and there is a glimmer of hope here, there is the issue of overseas crucibles of violent Islamicism both territorial and ideological. For Europe this has largely been about the State collapse between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf.
In theory, the slow but steady military rollback of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria should mean good news for Europe. But the key words here are slow and steady. The Iraqi army could take as much as another half-year to capture the city of Mosul, according to US military sources. Syria is such a labyrinth of blood and tears that no one is clear whether the country will ever find an exit. The real question is whether the defeat of the Islamic State will only provide a permanent reprieve from Euro-terror.
Most of the leading experts on the Islamic State, such as Princeton University’s Bernard Haykel or the Brooking Institute’s William McCant, argue that the Islamic State, like its forerunner Al Qaeda in Iraq, arose because of the chaos that beset the region. Military defeat alone will not resolve that underlying problem and would probably pave the way for another terroristic body to arise some years later. Islamic State officials already speak of plans to disappear into the rural areas of West Asia and hide among their Sunni Arab tribals allies until the international community is distracted.
In any case, the jihad narrative also rallies its fighters on a sense of Islam under threat. There is no shortage of tales to maintain that mythology. The Turk who assassinated a Russian ambassador raised the most recent source of Sunni anger: Siege of Aleppo.
What is certain is that there is no global leader with the bandwidth to provide long-term therapy to West Asia’s trauma. US president-elect Donald Trump only speaks of more military, if more surgical, action. The most powerful European leader, Germany’s Angela Merkel, has suffered her sharpest drops in popular support when she encounters the Arab world — whether through refugees or through terrorists. The Arab world will be left to its own devices. Unfortunately those devices are increasingly ones designed to kill, maim and spread fear.