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Thursday, December 8, 2022

EXCLUSIVE: Terrorism in Europe: Understanding the Pathways of Movement of Jihadists in the Contemporary World

EXCLUSIVE: Terrorism in Europe: Understanding the Pathways of Movement of Jihadists in the Contemporary World Homeland Security TodayEurope has been a hotbed of terrorist activity in the past decade. In an attempt to further understand the pathways of ideological and jihadi movement of terrorism from the Middle East to Europe, five terrorist attacks was analyzed, and biographical profiles of the perpetrators were created. Ultimately what was discovered was that second generation immigrants, with documented criminal records, have been the largest purveyor of modern terrorist attacks in Europe.

The five terrorist attacks spanned from 2005, to December of 2016. Only open source information was used.

The 2005 London attack was carried out by four individuals. Hasib Mir Hussain was born in the UK to immigrant parents. He had a minor criminal history. Mohammad Sidique Khan was born in the UK to immigrant parents.  He was known to have traveled to training camps in the Middle East and had known contact with other terrorists. Germaine Maurice Lindsay was born in Jamaica. He immigrated to the UK with his mother and they both converted to Islam. Shehzad Tanweer was born in the UK to immigrant parents. He attended the same mosque as Khan and also studied at a madrassa in Pakistan.

The 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, France, was carried out by three individuals. Saïd Kouachi was born in Paris to Algerian immigrants. He started travelling to Yemen in 2009 to study Islam, Arabic and train with Al Qaeda. Chérif Kouachi was born in Paris to Algerian immigrants (brother of Said). He was involved with an informal gang in Paris that trained in military concepts and sent jihadists to fight against US forces following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He had a documented criminal history. He was also well known within intelligence communities as a terrorist. Amedy Coulibaly was born in France to immigrants parents. He was friends of the Kouachi brothers. He also had a criminal history.

The 2016 suicide bombing in Brussels was carried out by five individuals. Ibrahim El Bakraoui was born in Brussels. His father emigrated from Morocco. He had a documented criminal history. He was deported from Turkey back to Europe for being a known terrorist. Najm Al ‘Ashrāwī was born in Morocco but raised in Brussels. He traveled to Syria in 2013 and started working with ISIS. He was also known to the Intelligence Community. Mohamed Abrini was born in Morocco but raised in Brussels and also had a criminal history. His brother fought and died for ISIS in Syria. Khālid Al Bakrāwī was born in Brussels. His father emigrated from Morocco. He also had a criminal history. Osama Krayem was born in Sweden to parents who emigrated from Syria. He became radicalized in his early 20s by watching radical clerics. He traveled to Syria to fight with ISIS.

The 2016 Nice truck attack in France was perpetrated by a single individual. Mohamed Salmene Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was born in Tunisia.  He had a residency permit for France. He also had a criminal record. Research revealed he had a recent and rapid radicalization, and may have been facilitated by the fact that many parts of his life appeared to be falling apart around him.

The 2016 Christmas market attack in Berlin, Germany was conducted by a single individual. Anis Amri was born in Tunisia. He was a refugee to Europe in 2011. During refugee processing, he lied about his age and was ultimately allowed to remain in Europe. He had an extensive criminal record. He was a known associate to ISIS recruiters. There is some evidence to suggest he may have become radicalized while serving time in prison.

Geographic factors

Europe’s geographic location was a large driver in the movement of ideological and jihadi terrorism. We can look to other locations around the world with similar socio-economic conditions as Europe, and note that the instances of terrorism are significantly lower than what Europe has experienced in the past decade.

Europe also provides freedom and liberty that does not exist in the Middle East or neighboring areas. Russia and China, large neighbors to the Middle East, lack the freedom of movement, speech and association that individuals within Europe are accustomed to. This provides further opportunities for terrorist organizations to move about, recruit, train and implement attacks.

Europe also is unique in that the formation of the European Union (EU) radically altered the sovereignty of European nation’s border controls. For all intents and purposes, once entry is made into any EU country, travel is largely uninhibited throughout the rest of the member nations. Under the Schengen Agreement, 22 of the 28 EU countries take part in the Schengen Area, meaning they have abolished passport or any other border controls at their mutual borders. This area encompasses over 400 million people.

Finally, there are other important aspects relating to the movement of terrorism from the Middle East to Europe, however, they are, on their own, not significant enough to provide the catalyst for increased terrorist activity. Social media and the Internet have allowed ideas and ideals to spread rapidly. It has also allowed terrorist organizations such as ISIS to actively recruit from their target audience. While this is an important factor to consider in the ongoing fight against terrorism, it is not the chief threat to continued terrorism in Europe.


Based on the profiles developed with regard to the five terrorist attacks discussed, we uncover a common theme. Almost all of the purveyors of recent terrorist attacks in Europe were second generation immigrants. At least 8 of the 14 (57 percent) had a documented criminal history. Many of them were not necessarily religiously devout, instead enjoying alcohol, drugs and sex outside the confines of marriage. Each of them also had the freedom of movement throughout all of Europe under the auspices of the Schengen Agreement. And perhaps the most striking component of their profiles is the sheer number of whom were known to intelligence agencies.

Understanding the profile of a typical jihadist is paramount to understanding the continued spread of terrorism, especially as it relates to Europe. A recent study by The International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence profiled 79 recent European jihadists. Among the findings was an average age of 25, with 68 percent of the jihadists having a criminal background and 57 percent having previously been incarcerated. By developing a profile of recent terrorists, we can begin to break down the process of how terrorism is spreading from the Middle East to Europe.

With an idea of what a typical terrorist operative looks like, we need to further examine why they have chosen to operate in Europe, and not in other regions. Europe has been the hotbed for terrorist activity in the Western world for the past decade. There are a number of issues that are unique to Europe and the spatial relationships to the Middle East.

The European Union has been an experiment in its own right. Developing a currency that transcends national boundaries, it has also experimented with removing national border controls through the Schengen Agreement. Started in 1985, this agreement abolished national border controls between five member states. Today, there are 26 countries participating in the Schengen Area.

For individual nations, this means they have abolished passport and visa requirements at their mutual borders with other Schengen states. For all intents and purposes, the entire Schengen Area can be considered a single state for international travel purposes. It also means these countries share the same visa policies.

This freedom of movement is particularly attractive to criminals, to include transnational terrorist organizations. Despite the fact that the Schengen Area is largely treated as a single state for travel purposes, there are significant difficulties in the acquisition and distribution of intelligence across the multiple member states.

The EU has not yet developed a way to effectively share intelligence and law enforcement data across the entire Schengen Area. Instead, there is a largely fragmented system of databases operated by individual nations. Sharing of this information has not become typical and there are a number of intelligence stovepipes that exist, much as was the problem between intelligence agencies and law enforcement in the US prior to 9/11.

For example, even if there is an agreement between two countries to share data, it generally cannotbe shared with a third party without the first party officially acknowledging and allowing the data exchange. In dynamic, rapidly evolving situations — which most terrorist attacks and criminal investigations are — it’s apparent that this current system does a disservice to the 400 million people within the Schengen Area.

Several Schengen Area countries recognized the threats this poses, and have since developed temporary border control measures along their mutual borders with other Schengen Area countries. For example, in 2015, following the Paris attack, France declared a State of Emergency and enacted border control measures.

Moving forward

All of this information is useless unless we look at it holistically. Understanding the profiles of current jihadists can help us identify the potential for future attacks. But maybe more so, it provides us an opportunity to further dive into why these individuals chose terrorism.

Second generation immigrants seem to be at the forefront of the attacks, but why is not fully known. Understanding the vulnerabilities that exist in the Intelligence Community, vis-à-vis geopolitics in the EU, can help us create leaner, more efficient systems.

And, finally, understanding how terrorism has spread to Europe can play a pivotal role in the prevention of that spread to other parts of the world.

Nicholas S. Wildey is a law enforcement professional with the Department of Homeland Security specializing in the spatial relationships of transnational criminal organizations and border nexus. He holds a B.S. from Clarkson University and an M.P.S. in Homeland Security and Geospatial Intelligence from Penn State.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the US government.

Homeland Security Todayhttp://www.hstoday.us
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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