The Future of Jihadism in Europe: A Pessimistic View (part II)
By: Thomas Hegghammer
Macro-trend 1: A Larger Recruitment Pool
The first macro-trend is that the main demographic pool from which European jihadis have historically been recruited, namely economically underperforming Muslim youth, seems to be growing. We know that the majority of European jihadis are young Muslim men of immigrant background from the lower half of the socioeconomic ladder. We do not yet know whether or not their economic underperformance has a causal effect on radicalization, but we know that a majority of them are drawn from this demographic. Tens of large-n studies have found European jihadis, as a group, to score worse than national averages on indicators such as education level, employment rate, and criminal conviction rate.
We also know that the size of the European Muslim population is increasing as a result of immigration and relatively high (but declining) fertility rates. According to Pew Research, the Muslim population in Northern, Western and Southern Europe is set to increase with around 50% from 2010 to 2030, from around 25 million to 37 million. The highest relative increase is expected in Northern and Western Europe, with a 98% and 45% increase respectively (3.8 to 7.5 million in Northern Europe, and 11.3 to 16.4 million in Western Europe). The share of the total population is expected to increase from 3.8% to 7% in Northern Europe, from 6% to 8.6% in Western Europe, and from 6.9% to 8.8% in Southern Europe.
Pew also projected the Muslim population in all European countries except the Balkans to have a male surplus in 2030, albeit a slightly smaller one than in 2010. Some countries such as the UK, Norway, Spain and Italy expect sex ratios of over 120 men per 100 women in 2030. The Muslim population is also generally younger than the non-Muslim population, and although the gap is expected to decrease slightly compared with today, the proportion of the European Muslim population under age 30 in 2030 is expected at around 42%, compared with 31% for non-Muslims. The Pew analysis was conducted before the refugee crisis in 2015, which brought around 1 million asylum seekers from Muslim-majority countries to the European Union, over 60% of whom were men under 35.
Most important, we have good reason to expect the European Muslim population to continue to be economically underperforming on average. In most European countries, Muslims are the most economically disadvantaged major religious group. This is likely the result of three factors: first, that many Muslim immigrants arrived with low education; second, that social mobility in the EU is generally mediocre (except in Scandinavia); and third, that there is documented anti-Muslim discrimination in the labour market. Put more simply, many early Muslim immigrants entered the labour market as working class, and their children were not able to climb the social ladder. This situation is likely to persist, because first-generation Muslim immigrants continue to arrive with relatively low education on average, and there is little to suggest social mobility will increase or anti-Muslim discrimination will decrease in the EU in the coming decade. We therefore have good reason to believe that the number of economically disaffected Muslim youth in Europe will be larger in 2030 than today.
None of this needs to matter. Only a tiny fraction of European Muslims become involved with militancy, and the proportion varies across host countries and between ethnic subsets of the Muslim community. There is also a substantial minority of converts in European jihadi networks. It is therefore not a given that the jihadi community will grow proportionally, or even at all, if the Muslim population increases. Socio-economic discontent on its own is more likely to lead to crime or the occasional riot than to terrorism. The size of the jihadi community is presumably affected much more by intervening variables such as the availability of radical organizations and recruitment networks. However, if we expect such networks to exist in 2030, then these demographic trends may make their recruiting task somewhat easier.
Macro-trend 2: More Entrepreneurs
A second and more important trend is that the number of people who can serve as entrepreneurs and local network-builders may be larger in the coming ten years than it was in the previous decade. This is because the recent jihadi crisis has produced an unprecedented number of foreign fighters and other activists who will command authority if and when they try to rebuild jihadi networks in the future.
We know recruitment usually happens through social networks and that former foreign fighters and other veteran activists often play important roles in the formation of new radical communities. This is presumably because their experience and reputation afford them authority vis-à-vis younger recruits. This mechanism has thus far ensured a remarkable historical continuity in the networks that have made up European jihadism. Activists from the 1980s radicalized a new generation of militants in the 1990s, who in turn built new networks in the 2000s, who in turn influenced new recruits in the 2010s. With several of the networks operative today we can trace a network genealogy going all the way back to the 1990s.
Historically, a proportion of European jihadis appear to have been “in it for life,” in the sense that they continued with their activism over many years, both during and after serving prison time. Such veterans often stayed clear of direct involvement in attack plots, because they knew they were on the radar of the authorities, but they continued to recruit and advise new networks. The proportion of new activists who went on to become entrepreneurs and network-builders appears to have been small. Some were killed in action, some got very long prison sentences, and many demobilized. However, the few who kept going were able to do considerable damage. There is arguably no reason why the most recent generation of European jihadis should not also include a certain percentage of people who are in it for the long haul.
There are presumably two main types of activists who can obtain veteran status and serve as future network-builders, namely, foreign fighters and people imprisoned on terrorism-related counts. The past five years have seen both of these groups grow very large. Between 2011 and 2016 around 5,000 European Muslims went to Syria, most of them to join radical groups such as Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra. By contrast, the total number of Islamist foreign fighters from Europe for the entire 1990-2010 period was probably less than 1,000. To be sure, the number of radical Syria veterans in Europe will be smaller than 5,000, because not everyone comes back, and not everyone comes back a committed jihadi. According to some reports, between 20% and 30% (i.e., between 1,000 and 1,500) of the Syria travellers have returned thus far. The number of returnees will presumably increase somewhat in the next few years, but it is difficult to estimate the final number. In any case, many will be potential future activists; a recent study by German authorities suggested only about 10% of foreign fighters returning from Syria were disillusioned with jihadi ideology.
As far as detainees are concerned, Europol reported that between 2011 and 2015, 1,579 individuals were arrested in connection with Islamist terrorism investigations. The figure for the previous five-year period (2006-2010) was 937. These figures exclude data from the UK, which does not report disaggregated arrest data to Europol. However, the UK has separately reported that it made 1,199 terrorism-related arrests between 2011/12 and 2015/16 (and 932 in the previous five-year period). Not all were Islamism-related, but we know that in the 2001-2012 period, 88% of the people arrested in the UK in terrorism-related cases and for whom the religion was known, were Muslims. Of course, not all arrests end with a conviction, and some individuals may have been detained more than once, so these figures must be treated with caution.
Another measure is the number of people currently serving time for jihadism-related terrorism crimes. In the UK, for example, there were 152 such convicts as of September 2016. An additional 1,000 people in UK prisons were considered “at risk of radicalization” to various ideologies, including both jihadism and neo-Nazism. In France, the number of inmates on terrorism crimes was 349 as of October 2016, with an additional 1,336 individuals detained on radicalization counts (“prévenus et condamnés radicalizes”), and another 359 “radicalized” individuals in open detention. In Belgium, the number of detainees on terrorism counts (including individuals awaiting trial) was 117 in June 2016.
A conservative back-of-the envelope calculation would suggest Europe has today at least a couple of thousand radical Islamists with either foreign fighter experience or prison experience, or both. Perhaps only a small proportion of them will be lifelong militants, but the absolute numbers are such that the number of surviving veterans who can potentially take on an entrepreneurial role will be substantial. We have to bear in mind that the operational networks we have seen in the past emerged on the back of much smaller numbers of veterans.
The challenge of veterans serving as entrepreneurs is compounded by two features of the European criminal justice system, namely prison radicalization and relatively short sentences (at least compared with the United States and the Middle East). There has long been widespread concern about Islamist radicalization in European prisons. Many who enter prison with jihadi convictions do not deradicalize, and some common criminals radicalize through interaction with ideologically committed inmates. Sky News recently reported that:
Around three-quarters of the 583 people imprisoned on terror charges in the years since the 9/11 attacks have now served their sentences and been released from UK prisons, many still holding the same extremist beliefs that got them jailed in the first place. […] around two-thirds of those released refused to engage with prison deradicalisation programmes aimed at addressing their extremist behaviour.
Moreover, many inmates with radical convictions serve sentences of a few years only. In 2012, according to Europol, the average sentence in terrorism cases in Britain, Germany, and France was six, six, and five years respectively, and in 2013 it was nine, four, and seven respectively. Moreover, few convicts serve their full sentence, and some serve as little as half. In the past, several individuals committed or plotted terrorist attacks after serving time in prison.
We do not have sentencing length data for the last few years, but there is every reason to think that they are relatively short on average, because they involve many cases of foreign fighting or attempted foreign fighting, which is usually considered a less serious crime than plotting attacks inside Europe. This gives reason to believe that the next 5-10 years will see the release of many individuals with jihadi credentials who are still in their late twenties or early thirties, i.e., with potentially many years left in their militant careers. If history is a guide, some of these individuals may well become the jihadi entrepreneurs of the 2020s.
Note: This study will be published successively in four parts in the coming days.