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The Picture of Terrorism in Europe after the Norway Attacks: Terrorist Threat Remains High and Diverse

26 Jul 2011
Short Read by Edwin Bakker

In the last decade, especially after the Madrid and London bombings, the perception of terrorism in Europe has been dominated by plots, arrests and (failed) attacks by Islamist groups or individuals. The stereotype terrorist was a Muslim male, who was somehow linked to al Qaeda: the maxim of terrorist evil. Other forms of terrorism received relatively little attention and were generally regarded as less dangerous. Left-wing, right-wing, anarchist and single-issue groups were often labeled as "extremists" or "violent radicals", not "terrorists". Groups like the IRA and ETA were increasingly regarded by the media and the general public as relics of the past. This incorrect, one-sided and partly over-optimistic picture has been smashed to pieces by the deadly attacks in Norway. Terrorism in Europe is – and always has been – a very diverse phenomenon. Islamist or jihadi terrorists still pose the most serious threat, but are definitely not the only type to take seriously.

Surprisingly, this is not a conclusion that could only be derived after the horrible events in Norway, but also one supported by subsequent annual reports by Europol. In its Terrorism Situation and Trend Reports (TE-SAT), Europol gives an overview of all reported terrorist incidents, showing that most of them can be linked not to Islamists but to separatist groups. According to the 2011 TE-SAT report, 249 terrorist attacks were reported in nine Member States, while 611 individuals were arrested for terrorism-related offences. The majority of these attacks were carried out by separatist groups (160), most of them in Spain and France. Islamist terrorists carried out three attacks on EU territory, while left-wing and anarchist groups were responsible for 45 attacks. Of the 611 individuals that were arrested in 2010 for terrorism-related offences; 349 were arrested for separatist terrorist related offences, and 179 for Islamist terrorist offences. No individuals were arrested for right-wing terrorism, but the report does state that "[t]he professionalism of right-wing propaganda shows that right-wing extremist groups have the will to enlarge and spread their ideology, and still pose a threat in EU Member States." The same holds for left wing and anarchist terrorism, which caused six fatalities in 2010, including a Greek officer. Obviously, terrorism is not solely based in Islamism or Jihadism, and each EU Member State faces a different mix of terrorist threats.

The recent attack in Norway not only illustrates the diversity in political background of terrorism, but also debunks the myth that only Jihadists terrorists aim to cause mass casualties. Sadly, it also puts an end to the false idea that some smaller countries are exempted from this menace. In a very brutal way, the events in Oslo and on the isle of Utøya have provided us with a less pleasant, but also more balanced view on terrorism in Europe. Now it is clear to all that terrorism in Europe is a very diverse phenomenon that includes a wide range of actors that aim to create havoc. This is not to say that Islamist terrorism does not stick out as the potentially most dangerous one. Whatever the scale of the tragedy in Norway, given the number of arrests, the (foiled and failed) attacks in the past, and the frequency of the threat statements to EU Member States, Islamist terrorism should still be regarded as the most lethal and threatening type of terrorism. Moreover, its political and social impact can be enormous, as exemplified by the Islamophobic ideas that fueled Anders Breivik’s process of radicalisation and his belief that Islamist groups are on the verge of taking over Europe.

Hence, one can only agree with one of the conclusions of the 2011 TE-SAT report according to which "the threat of attacks by Islamist terrorists in the EU remains high and diverse". However, the same holds for other types of terrorism in Europe. Unfortunately, the overall threat continues to be high and diverse and no EU member state is exempted from it.