Annual Terrorism Report Warns Al-Qaeda and Far-Right on the Rise as IS Stumbles

In 2018, terrorism continued to constitute a major threat to security in European Union (EU) Member States. Jihadist attacks like those in Trèbes, Paris, Liège and Strasbourg killed a total of 13 people and injured many more. One terrorist attack by a right-wing extremist in Italy and numerous arrests of suspected right-wing terrorists for attack-planning across the EU indicate that extremists of diverging orientation increasingly consider violence as a justified means of confrontation.

Europol released the 2019 edition of its annual EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (TE-SAT) on June 27. TE-SAT has provided verified facts on terrorism in Europe since 2006. The report is accepted as a benchmark in discussions about EU counterterrorism policies and academic studies.

TE-SAT reports that in 2018, all fatalities from terrorism were the result of jihadist attacks: 13 people lost their lives and 46 people were injured. This is a considerable decrease compared to 2017, when ten attacks killed 62 people. In 2018, EU Member States reported 16 thwarted jihadist terrorist plots, a fact that indicates both continued high terrorist activity and illustrates the effectiveness of counter terrorism efforts.

All jihadist terrorist attacks were committed by individuals acting alone and targeted civilians and symbols of authority. Often the motivation of the perpetrator and the links to other radicalised individuals or terrorist groups remained unclear. Mental health issues contributed to the complexity of the phenomenon.

Completed jihadist attacks were carried out using firearms and unsophisticated, readily available weapons (e.g. knives). The diminished sophistication in the preparation and execution of jihadist terrorist attacks contributed to a lower number of casualties in completed attacks. Several disrupted terrorist plots included the attempted production and use of explosives and chemical/ biological materials. There was also an increase in the use of pyrotechnic mixtures to produce improvised explosive devices (IED) in jihadist plots. Three terrorist plots involving CBRN materials were disrupted in 2018 in the EU. A general increase of CBRN terrorist propaganda, tutorials and threats was observed.

The situation in Europe with regard to jihadist terrorism continued to be influenced by external developments. Ungoverned spaces in conflict areas, including Afghanistan, Libya, the Sahel region, Syria and Yemen provide opportunities for jihadist groups to establish control over territories that can later turn into safe havens. 2018 saw a decrease in the activities of the so-called Islamic State (IS) affiliates in a number of regions outside the EU. EU Member States assessed that IS’ diminishing territorial control is likely to be replaced by increased al-Qaeda efforts to reclaim power and influence in the area. Al-Qaeda’s strategy relied on building alliances with local tribes while exploiting political grievances at local and international level, including in Europe.

The military defeat of IS in Iraq and Syria had a significant impact on the group’s digital capabilities. In parallel, the coherence of IS narratives was compromised by the group’s inability to internally unify its ideological positions. Nevertheless, IS succeeded in maintaining an online presence largely thanks to unofficial supporter networks and pro-IS media outlets. Both IS and al-Qaeda continued to seek out new online vectors for their propaganda. In particular, they promoted the use of alternative platforms and open source technologies.

While IS online propaganda remained technologically advanced, and hackers appeared to be knowledgeable in encrypted communication tools, the group’s cyber-attack capabilities and techniques were rudimentary. No other terrorist group with a demonstrated capacity to carry out effective cyber-attacks emerged in 2018.

Despite the degradation of IS’ organisational structures, the group maintains the intent to conduct attacks outside conflict zones, potentially using former members and individuals inspired by propaganda. There is a continued risk that individuals with criminal background, including those currently imprisoned, are vulnerable to indoctrination and might engage in terrorism.

The number of European foreign terrorist fighters travelling, or attempting to travel to the Iraqi and Syrian conflict zone in 2018 was very low. Cases of traveling to alternative areas of conflict were reported, although current numbers also appear to be very low. Rather than attempting to travel to the conflict zone, the focus of jihadist networks in EU Member States has shifted towards carrying out activities in the EU – both online and offline. Jihadists continued to be inspired by IS propaganda but also consumed propaganda produced by other groups claiming to defend Islam against a global attack, including al-Qaeda.

The number of individuals returning to the EU remained very low, with hundreds of European citizens remaining in detention in Iraq and Syria. All men and some women are believed to have received weapons training, with men also acquiring combat experience. While minors are essentially victims, there are concerns among EU Member States that they have been exposed to indoctrination and training in former IS territories, and may pose a potential future threat. The abuse of migration flows by terrorists to enter the EU does not seem to be systematic.

As in previous years, ethnonationalist and separatist terrorist attacks in the EU greatly outnumbered other types of terrorist attacks in 2018. The number of left-wing and right-wing attacks and arrests remained relatively low and was limited to a small number of countries. However, the number of arrests linked to right-wing terrorism, while remaining relatively low, continued to increase strongly, effectively doubling for the second year in a row. Right-wing extremists exploit fears of perceived attempts to Islamicise society and grievances linked to an alleged loss of national identity. The violent right-wing extremist scene is very heterogeneous on the national level and among EU Member States.

Hawala banking continued to be an important instrument in terrorism financing. The misuse of credit systems, non-profit and charity organisations, and small-scale business ventures in fundraising for terrorism remain a matter of concern.

With regard to terrorism trials concluded in 2018, jihadist terrorism convictions remained the highest in number; nevertheless, there was also a noted increase in left-wing and right-wing terrorism convictions.

Julian King, EU Commissioner for the Security Union, said TE-SAT underlines that terrorism still poses a real and present danger to the EU. “While our joint work to disrupt and prevent attacks seems to be having a positive effect, the enduring threat posed by Islamist groups, along with the rise of far right-wing extremist violence, clearly shows that there is still much to be done – notably in tackling the scourge of terrorist content online.”

Download the full report at Europol

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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