OSLO — A recent lull in the number and severity of jihadist attacks in Europe might lead one to conclude the worst is over. But its far too early to declare victory in the fight against terror.
The shock of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris jolted Europe into a new reality. Paris was hit again later that year, in attacks that killed more than 130. High-profile assaults in Brussels, Berlin and Barcelona soon followed, while a series of smaller-scale incidents in London and France killed dozens and created an atmosphere of fear that kept threat levels high.
But more recently — with no major attack causing more than 10 deaths since the summer of 2017 — terror has slipped from the headlines and the minds of most ordinary European citizens. Indeed, jihadist attacks in Europe are down just over 60 percent since their peak last year, suggesting Europe has fought back against the onslaught of attacks inspired by Islamic State.
Unfortunately, that is not the case. Its a common mistake to measure the terrorist threat by the number of attacks carried out. To understand the scale and nature of the threat we must not only study successful attacks — but also look at the plots foiled by counterterrorism efforts.
So far in 2018, Europe has seen at least 12 well-documented jihadist terrorist plots. Six of them resulted in attacks. There were also 11 vague plots that are still too poorly documented to analyze. This is an overall decrease of about 50 percent in the total number of plots compared to last year. But this drop doesnt mean the threat is low.
While toughened European counterterrorism efforts may have weakened the capabilities of these radicalized networks, we are not yet in the clear.
Indeed, the decrease follows a dramatic peak in 2017, with the highest number of plots since jihadists began attacking in Europe some 25 years ago. Compared to any given year before 2015, the number of plots in Europe is still high — in spite of massive spending by European governments to reduce terrorist activity.
The activities of radicalized attackers and would-be attackers in 2018 show that the terror group Islamic State remains bent on assaulting their enemies in Europe in any way possible. Most perpetrators are linked to the group, or active supporters of it. Most also have ties to domestic extremists and foreign fighters, and typically chat with members of the Islamic State on social media apps.
Their methods are in line with the trends weve seen since the rise of the terror group in 2014. There have been attacks led by single gunmen, knife stabbings — some targeting policemen, such as the Belgian convert who killed two police officers and a passerby while on parole from jail — and even two plots involving the poison ricin.
Weve also seen plots involving vehicles, including a U.K. convert who was arrested for planning to ram a car into shoppers on Oxford Street and a man arrested by German police for plotting to drive into crowds near an ice rink in Karlsruhe.
The arrest of seven Islamic State supporters in the Netherlands who were plotting to attack a public event with assault rifles and hand grenades is also a reminder that complex armed assaults on the scale of the Paris November 2015 attacks are also something to be reckoned with. The would-be attackers had also planned to set off a car bomb at another location.
So while toughened European counterterrorism efforts may have weakened the capabilities of these radicalized networks, we are not yet in the clear.
A main trigger for jihadist attacks in Europe are military interventions, especially the invasion of Iraq in 2003. As such, the demise of the Islamic State at the hands of the anti-ISIS coalition will surely motivate further retaliation.
And if the most active parts of Europes jihadist networks have taken a hit, at least temporarily, as a result of stepped-up anti-terror efforts, its possible well see new and even stronger networks emerge.
The exodus of some 5,000 European foreign fighters to Syria is likely to lay the groundwork for such future mobilization. European extremists are better connected to foreign groups such as the Islamic State than ever before, and foreign fighting has also strengthened links between extremists from different European countries.
The history of jihadism in Europe is one of ebbs and flows.
Perhaps most importantly, foreign fighting has produced a cadre of people who may become entrepreneurs of future networks and cells. Studies of European jihadism have shown that veteran jihadist entrepreneurs have played crucial roles in instigating violence. They have operated through gateway groups such as the Sharia4 movement, set up underground jihadist support networks and worked from prison cells by radicalizing inmates.
European prisons are filling up with jihadists. Of the 1,500 foreign fighters who have returned, several hundreds have been imprisoned. Some have taken part in terrorist plotting while others have supported groups such as the Islamic State in other ways. They receive relatively short sentences and, while some will leave extremism behind, others will rejoin an extremist scene that has not lost its appeal, and in fact appears to be growing.
A recent report sets the number of Islamist extremists in Germany at 25,000, with 2,240 of them thought to be jihadists. According to the EU, the U.K. is home to 25,000 Islamist extremists, of whom 3,000 are seen as a threat and 500 are under constant surveillance. In France, where around 1,400 have left to become jihadist fighters in Syria and Iraq, the situation is at least equally worrisome. More than 20,000 people — including non-Islamists — are on a watch list of potentially violent radicals, and 4,000 of them are considered dangerous and monitored closely.
The history of jihadism in Europe is one of ebbs and flows. Waves of attacks are followed by decreases as states respond with tougher measures, only to pick up again a few years later at a higher level.
Overall, the jihadi movement in Europe has proven remarkably resilient. Although the new and tougher anti-terror measures appear to have weakened the Islamic States capability at the moment, it would be wishful thinking to declare Europes war on terror over.
Petter Nesser is a senior researcher at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishments Terrorism Research Group. He is the author of “Islamist Terrorism in Europe: A History” (C. Hurst & Co, 2015).