The Future of Jihadism in Europe: A Pessimistic View (Part III)
By: Thomas Hegghammer
Macro-trend 3: Persistent Conflict in the Muslim World
The third major trend is the apparent persistence of armed conflict in parts of the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. Existing conflicts show few signs of ending, and new ones may erupt. The region therefore looks set to supply European jihadis with both rallying causes and training opportunities for the foreseeable future, as it has in the past.
The evolution of jihadism in Europe has always been closely connected with political developments in the Muslim world. For a start, jihadism arguably first came to Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s with Islamist insurgents who found in Europe a fundraising ground and a refuge. After Europe developed an indigenous jihadi community from the mid-1990s onward, conflicts in the Muslim world continued to affect this community in two important ways. The first was by providing grievances that interested Muslim immigrants in Europe and gave resonance to jihadi narratives about an Islam under attack from infidels and apostates. European jihadis have arguably always been more preoccupied with wars and insurgencies in the Muslim world than with “domestic” European issues such as headscarf bans. Conflicts such as the Algeria war in the 1990s, the second Palestinian intifada from 2000, and the war in Syria after 2011 all featured very prominently in internal discussions among European jihadis and in radicalization accounts by militants.
Conflicts that involve Western military intervention, such as Afghanistan after 2001 or Iraq after 2003, have tended to have a particularly strong mobilizing effect on European jihadism. In fact, when European jihadis justify attacks in Europe, it is most often with reference to European countries’ military actions in the Muslim world. The post-9/11 era has seen a vicious cycle whereby terrorist attacks in the West directed by jihadi groups in the Muslim world prompt Western military action against those groups, which in turn fuels radicalization in the West. The ongoing war against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria suggests that this vicious cycle is far from broken. However, even if we assume zero Western military action in the Muslim world in the coming decade, history suggests European jihadism could still thrive on external conflicts. The post 2011 Syria war, for example, drew record numbers of European foreign fighters before European militaries started bombing IS targets in Syria in late 2014.
The second mechanism by which conflicts in the Muslim world affect European jihadism is by facilitating the rise of jihadi organizations that can host European foreign fighters. Many conflicts that erupted in the Muslim world after 1990 saw the involvement of one or more jihadi groups. Not infrequently, those groups proved willing to host foreign fighters from Europe. As a result, European foreign fighters have trained and fought in a variety of conflict zones over the past 25 years, including in Tajikistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Somalia, Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Mali, Libya, and Syria. Foreign fighting fuels European jihadism by transferring military skills to the foreign fighters, by radicalizing some of them, and by giving them a social status they can exploit for recruitment purposes when they return. We know that returning foreign fighters are overrepresented among plotters of jihadi attacks in Europe, that their attacks are deadlier on average than other attacks, and that some of them have become important recruiters and authority figures. Some jihadi groups outside Europe, such as al-Qaida and Islamic State, have also sought to systematically attack the West and have trained European foreign fighters for sophisticated attack missions in Europe. Conflict zones outside the Muslim world thus function as safe havens and capacity-boosters for European jihadis. This strategic depth is particularly valuable in an era when Western societies are highly regulated and well-policed, and it goes a long way toward explaining the resilience of European jihadism. Other radical movements in Europe, such as the extreme right, have not enjoyed the same strategic depth and thus found themselves “caught” in Europe, where their organizational structures were at the mercy of security services. (That, incidentally, may be part of the reason why some Western European neo-Nazis recently jumped to the chance of foreign fighting in the Ukraine, but the numbers, in the high tens, are still too small to make a difference.)
The past five years has seen the eruption of several new conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, especially in Syria, but also in Yemen, the Sinai Peninsula, Libya, Mali, and Northern Nigeria. Meanwhile, few if any of the existing conflicts – be it in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Palestine, or Somalia – have been resolved. The result is a belt of wars and insurgencies from Mali to Afghanistan, all of which feature one or more militant Islamist groups. There has been a measurable increase in the number, size, and activity of jihadi groups in the region. The most egregious example is Islamic State, which in the course of a few years grew from a small Iraq-based militia to a proto-state with tens of thousands of soldiers. But jihadi activity increased in many other locations. According to the Global Terrorism Database, terrorist incidents in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia skyrocketed from about 3,500 incidents in 2010 to 12,000 in 2014. Other conflict datasets show similar trends.
At the current time of writing, few of these conflicts seem likely to end any time soon. The Syria war, for example, has many of the features associated in the civil war literature with conflict longevity, such as rebel fragmentation and external interference. In Afghanistan, the Taliban has made major advances in recent years, presumably setting the country on track for more war. The Iraqi government looks set to recapture most of the territories lost to Islamic State in 2014 within a year or two, but uncertainties remain about the country’s long-term stability. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is militarily cold, but politically as bitter as ever. Yemen is in total disarray. In Somalia, al-Shabaab has recently achieved a comeback. Libya has no central government and is torn by two even-sized warring parties–another recipe for lengthy conflict.
Meanwhile, several of the countries in the region that have avoided major conflict face problems of various kinds that suggest we should not take their stability for granted. Several of them, especially Egypt, have moved in a more authoritarian direction since the so-called Arab spring in 2011. Many countries face severe economic problems, either because of lower oil prices, declines in tourism, or the refugee burden. Regional instability after 2011 has reduced foreign direct investment in many countries. Several countries face large youth waves and suffer endemic youth unemployment. In short, many of the strains that were invoked to explain the Arab uprisings in 2011 are present today, in many cases to an even greater degree than before.
None of this is to say that the situation in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia will necessarily deteriorate. It could improve, for the world is unpredictable and this part of the world arguably even more so. However, it is very unlikely that the entire region stabilizes and all jihadi groups are decimated in the course of the next decade. In ten years’ time there will presumably be at least a few conflicts in which jihadi groups can thrive. That may be sufficient to provide European jihadism with the political inspiration and training opportunities it needs to keep going.
Macro-trend 4: Continued Operational Freedom on the Internet
The fourth macro-trend is greater freedoms for clandestine actors on the Internet, which, if these persist, will continue to allow European jihadis to spread propaganda, recruit, and plan operations online.
The internet comes with a wide range of potential benefits for terrorist groups. It is a faster, cheaper, longer-range, and more scalable communication technology than most analogue alternatives. It can dramatically reduce the transaction costs of key rebel tasks such as propaganda distribution, recruitment, fundraising, reconnaissance, and operational coordination. In practice, however, terrorist groups have never been able to tap the Internet’s full potential, because of government countermeasures such as denial, surveillance, infiltration and counter-messaging. In the face of online repression, rebels face several problems, including an access problem (making sure they are not blocked from online services), a security problem (making sure police is not listening in on communications), a trust problem (making sure their interlocutors are not infiltrators), and a saturation problem (making sure their propaganda is not drowned out by competing messages). The degree to which terrorist groups are able to overcome these problems at any given time depends on the level of online repression and on the quality of the available technologies. Because repression is shaped by politics and because technological developments come in bursts, terrorists’ ability to exploit the Internet has varied over time. At times, they have enjoyed more freedoms, at other times less. In the early 2000s, when the Internet was fairly new, jihadi groups were leading the cat-and-mouse game between states and rebels. In the second half of the 2000s the tables turned, and jihadis were far more constrained in their Internet use. Stable websites were blocked, discussion forums were infiltrated, communications were often intercepted, and many people were arrested as a result, including for “minor” crimes such as propaganda distribution.
Around 2010, however, the situation changed again in what I have previously labeled “the jihadi digital empowerment revolution.” It happened gradually as a result of several changes. One was the advent of social media, which gave jihadis a wider range of user-friendly communications platforms. Paradoxically, social media also offered more security, at least for small-fish radicals, because governments could not hack or monitor Twitter and Facebook as easily as they had jihadi discussion forums in the 2000s. Another change was the increased availability of encryption, for example in the form of end-to-end encrypted messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram. This increased the online stealth capability of actors seeking to avoid surveillance. A third change was the sheer increase in the number of jihadi activists after 2011, both inside and outside Europe. The combination of more surveillance targets and a larger variety of communication platforms left security services overwhelmed and forced them to reduce digital policing of all but the most serious suspects.
The result was a general easing of the constraints which had hampered jihadis in the late 2000s; they simply got away with much more than they had just a few years earlier. From 2010 onward, jihadi groups were able to distribute propaganda on much larger scale than they had before, and they could post sensitive tactical information on blogs and websites without it being taken down. And because they could communicate more securely one-on-one, they could recruit, fundraise, and even coordinate operations over the Internet to a larger extent than in the 2000s. For example, in 2013 and 2014 foreign fighters in Syria could communicate with friends back home with an ease that would have been unthinkable for foreign fighters in Waziristan or Yemen in the 2000s. This particular capability probably helped increase the number of foreign fighters, because it allowed for a “bridgehead effect” whereby recruits back home could be inspired, persuaded, or reassured to go to Syria by personal conversations with friends who had gone before them.
An ominous recent development has been the increasing boldness with which jihadis in Europe use digital communications in operational settings. In the 2000s, attackers generally avoided discussing tactical matters over the phone or over the Internet in the last stages of a planning process for fear of being intercepted. Recently, however, we have seen jihadis coordinate things over the phone right before or even during an operation (for example during the Paris attacks in November 2015). Similarly, in the 2000s, when al-Qaida dispatched an attack team to Europe, they seemed to limit communication with the team to an absolute minimum after their departure. Recently, by contrast, IS appears to have communicated extensively with operatives in Europe. There have even been cases of IS cadres in Syria grooming IS sympathisers in Europe via the Internet for attacks, without them ever having met in real life. This type of behavior was rare in the 2000s and reflects a greater confidence in the security of digital communications. It is presumably for this and other reasons that several European security services have recently complained about occasionally “going dark” on surveillance targets.
If jihadi groups continue to enjoy a similar level of online freedom over the next ten years, it will be relatively easy for committed entrepreneurs to build networks and plan operations. Jihadi groups outside Europe will also be able to recruit foreign fighters and direct attacks in Europe. Of the four trends presented here, this is probably the most uncertain, because it can be partially reversed with technological innovations (which are hard to predict) or with a political decision to allow more digital surveillance. Still, at this point it is difficult to see how, given the proliferation of encryption, we would return to pre-2010 levels of online policing.
Note: This study will be published successively in four parts in the coming days.