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Sunday, December 3, 2023

Europol’s Annual Terrorism Trends Report Reveals Growing Interest in Explosives and Firearms

Terrorists’ ultimate goal is to undermine our societies and our democratic political systems. Europol’s latest annual EU Terrorism Situation and Trend report (TE-SAT), pulls together facts and figures on terrorist attacks and arrests in the European Union (EU) in 2019, including: 

  • A total of 119 foiled, failed and completed terrorist attacks were reported by a total of 13 EU Member States; 
  • 1,004 individuals were arrested on suspicion of terrorism-related offenses in 19 EU Member States, with Belgium, France, Italy, Spain and the U.K. reporting the highest numbers;
  • Ten people died because of terrorist attacks in the EU and 27 people were injured. 

Nearly all of the deaths and 26 injuries were the result of jihadist attacks. However, the number of jihadist attacks continued to see a decrease while right-wing attacks and, in particular, left-wing attacks saw an increase during 2019.

After a decline in reported attacks in 2018, in 2019 three EU Member States reported a total of six right-wing terrorist attacks (one completed, one failed, four foiled), compared to only one in 2018. Additionally, several attacks not classified as terrorism under national law committed by right-wing extremists were reported by Germany and claimed the lives of three people. Furthermore, last year right-wing attacks in Christchurch (New Zealand), Poway and El Paso (U.S.), Bærum (Norway) and Halle (Germany) were part of a wave of violent incidents worldwide, the perpetrators of which were part of similar transnational online communities and took inspiration from one another. Violent right-wing extremists maintain international links, for example through participation in concerts and rallies marking historical events in a variety of EU Member States. Right-wing extremist ideology is not uniform and is fed from different sub-currents, united in their rejection of diversity and minority rights. One element of violent right-wing ideology is the belief in the superiority of the ‘white race’, which will have to fight a ‘race war’. Right-wing extremists deem this confrontation unavoidable to stop the alleged conspiracy by the ‘system’ to replace white populations through mass immigration.

The so-called Islamic State (IS) lost its last territorial enclave in Syria, but transformed into an underground insurgency in Syria and Iraq and maintained its global network of affiliates. Hundreds of European citizens with links to IS remained in Iraq and Syria. Al-Qaeda again displayed its intent and ambition to strike Western targets, while its regional affiliates aim to integrate and coordinate populations and armed factions in conflict areas. Last year, eight EU Member States were hit by jihadist terrorist attacks.

The number of left-wing and anarchist terrorist attacks in 2019 (26) reached the level of 2016 and 2017 after a decrease in 2018. All attacks took place in Greece, Italy or Spain. The number of arrests on suspicion of left-wing or anarchist terrorism in 2019 more than tripled, compared to previous years: from 34 in 2018 to 111 in 2019, due to a sharp increase in Italy. Private enterprises along with critical infrastructure and public/governmental institutions were among the most frequent targets for left-wing and anarchist terrorists and extremists. Violent left-wing and anarchist extremists continued to pose a threat to public order in a number of EU Member States. Support for Kurdish populations in Syria remained a central topic, and left-wing extremists and anarchists are believed to have travelled to join Kurdish militias in north-eastern Syria.

In 2019, several cases of funding the return of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) were observed. FTFs in conflict zones continued to seek financial support from people in Europe for the purpose of covering their expenses or even arranging their return back to Europe. Funding for terrorist groups outside Europe decreased compared to previous years, likely as a result of reduced opportunities for transferring funds to IS. Funds are transferred outside Europe mainly through cash, money services businesses or underground banking, such as hawala, and through combinations of these methods. The abuse of virtual currencies, although promoted by some terrorist groups, has been observed mainly to cover expenses of individuals or small cells.

Restrictions in travel to and from the conflict zone from neighbouring countries have had a significant effect on the ability of FTFs to return without assistance from national authorities. In 2019, for example, six adults returned to the Netherlands, all of whom had reported themselves to the authorities in Turkey and to the Dutch diplomatic posts. All were subsequently escorted home and arrested at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. 

However, Belgium highlighted that the difficulty in collecting evidence of offenses committed in the conflict zone makes it difficult to establish the exact nature of an individual’s involvement in the conflict. While monitoring procedures and law enforcement measures for returnees exist in EU Member States, Belgium expressed concerns about the threat posed by undetected returnees. 

The trajectory for returnees from Syria can take unexpected routes relying on illegal immigration channels or facilitated by the use of false documents, thereby enabling clandestine entry into the Schengen area. However, as stated in previous years, there are no signs of systematic use of irregular migration by terrorist organizations and facilitators appear to be mainly motivated by financial gain. 

The use of false documentation by returnees, whether EU or non-EU citizens, would allow them entry and freedom of movement in the EU. Spain commented on the possibility of undetected returnees with combat experience, tactical knowledge and expertise in handling weapons and explosives, creating sleeper cells. However, no such cases were reported in 2019. 

It should be noted that FTFs joining IS were stripped of their original identity documents by the terrorist organization. All the documents collected were placed in a common fund which could potentially be used to send IS agents to Europe.

Extremist groups in Europe mainly receive funds from their base of supporters. Right-wing extremists, for example, continued to use a mix of traditional and innovative methods to finance their activities in 2019. Right-wing extremist groups collect fees from members and donations from supporters and sympathisers, via bank accounts, in cash during concerts or, rarely, through the production and distribution of propaganda material.

The use of firearms and explosives continued to prevail in ethno-nationalist and separatist terrorist attacks and violent attacks inspired by right-wing ideology. Right-wing extremists and terrorists appeared to be increasingly interested in acquiring knowledge regarding the use of explosives. The explosive devices used in left-wing and anarchist extremist attacks were made from an array of readily available materials. 

Jihadist terrorists were also observed to show a growing interest in the use of firearms and explosives in addition to bladed weapons. Homemade explosives (HME) continued to be used in most of the explosive-related cases suspected of being linked to jihadist terrorism. Knowledge on how to make HMEs was for the most part transferred or facilitated online, including via encrypted cloud-based instant messaging services and social networking sites. 

In the EU, there is little evidence to suggest that a nexus between organized crime and terrorism exists on a systematic and formalized basis. However, there are indications of a transaction-based convergence of low-level criminals and extremists, who frequently overlap socially in marginalized areas. 

Both jihadist and right-wing extremist propaganda incite individuals to perpetrate acts of violence autonomously and praise perpetrators as ‘martyrs’ or ‘saints’, respectively. The impact of official IS media decreased, in terms of volume, content, potency and immediacy, following the loss of most of its territory, media production facilities and personnel. Nevertheless, content supporting IS and containing threats continued to be produced by online supporters of the group under a variety of self-styled online propaganda outlets. Such supporter-generated content and recycled material was continuously disseminated in 2019, thereby partially supplementing the decreased production capacity of official IS media. The measures taken by social media platforms to counter the spread of terrorist propaganda led some groups to return to ‘traditional’ ways of online communication, including websites and news portals. Suspects arrested for terrorist propaganda in Europe sometimes had a long involvement in jihadist activities.

Ylva Johansson, EU Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, said: “We cannot afford to lower our guard in fighting terrorism threats, whether jihadists or right wing. Having law enforcement capabilities, tools and cross border cooperation that are fit for the digital age is key. That way, every person in the EU, irrespective of background, should feel safe against these threats”.

Europol has produced the TE-SAT, the EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, since 2007. 

Read the full TE-SAT 2020 at Europol

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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