The Future of Jihadism in Europe: A Pessimistic View (Part IV)
By: Thomas Hegghammer
How European Jihadism Returns
If these four trends are accurate, and if they hold for the coming decade, we have reason to expect extensive jihadi activity in Europe also in the mid- and long-term future. We may even see higher activity levels, at least periodically, than we have seen thus far.
It is impossible to predict exactly how such a resurgence might occur, but my guess is that future jihadi entrepreneurs will follow a strategy similar to that of the so-called “gateway groups” of the late 2000s, that is, to establish organizations that operate just within the boundaries of the law, whatever national law is at that point. The gateway groups, such as Islam4UK and its spin-offs such as Sharia4Belgium, Fursan al-Izza, and the Prophet’s Umma, were probably an adaptation to the anti-al-Qaida repression in the early and mid-2000s. Radical Islamists appeared to have learned that organizational structures which dabbled with things like training, fundraising, or foreign fighter recruitment quickly got taken down, while groups that limited themselves to verbal support for jihadi causes were left alone. Gateway group leaders such as Anjem Choudary became masters at knowing exactly how far they could go without getting into trouble. As a result, these groups were able to grow quite large, and it was only when they “gave in to the temptation” of militancy and started sending people to Syria that governments could clamp down on them. Thus even Choudary was sentenced in September 2016 to over five years in prison. Future entrepreneurs may draw lessons from this and try the gateway group strategy again, but with more discipline.
Of course, European governments will also learn and will likely emerge from the jihadism crisis of 2011-2016 with somewhat sharper counterterrorism tools and new laws to constrain grey area activism such as gateway groups and foreign fighting. For example, they will probably try to lower the “incrimination bar” further in order to prevent the re-emergence of gateway groups. However, there are presumably limits to how low the bar can be set without infringing on freedom of speech and other human rights, so there will likely be room for new, more cautious gateway groups to arise. These groups will be careful not to engage in unlawful activity, but they will propagate jihadi ideology and quietly encourage the emergence of clandestine operative networks around them. It is probably from these clandestine networks that the militant activity will arise.
It is important to note that “increased activity” need not mean more successful terrorist attacks. European security services will adapt to the threat and ask for more resources to prevent violent activity. They will likely get it, because publics will not tolerate high terrorism levels over time. We may therefore see an increase in plots, but most of them will be foiled, as has long been the case in Europe. We may also see other types of activity such as foreign fighting or non-violent agitation. The bottom line is that we need not see substantially more violence, but we probably will see security services grow very large – and high-security prisons too.
Beyond the vague notion of “an increase on a five to fifteen-year timeline” it is difficult to say precisely how activity levels might evolve. If we envisage a diagram with years on the x-axis and the number of plots on the y-axis, it is unlikely to be a straight line or a clean exponential curve, because periods of high plotting activity will likely be met with government counteroffensives that bring the level down again. Most likely it will be a fluctuating curve with high years and low years, but with progressively higher peaks. Even in this pessimistic scenario, activity is unlikely to increase forever, but it is hard to say when it may start declining. One hypothesis is that it will continue to increase for as long as the activists that were recruited in the early 2010s are politically active, that is, for another fifteen to twenty years. This hypothesis is based on the assumption that the jihadism crisis of the early and mid-2010s produced an exceptional number of new activists due to legal loopholes on foreign fighting and the accessibility of the Syria war. But this is only a guess; the increase could last shorter or longer than fifteen-twenty years.
How this Prediction May Prove Wrong
It is not certain that this pessimistic scenario will materialize, because unexpected things can happen. For one, each of the four trends might be broken in various ways. For example, the economic integration of young Muslims in Europe may go better than expected and leave a smaller pool of people susceptible to jihadi recruitment. The number of future entrepreneurs may turn out to be smaller than anticipated, for example if the current numbers include more opportunists and fewer true believers than assumed, or if we develop more effective de-radicalization programs. Conflicts in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia may end sooner than expected, by negotiation, by one side winning, or by war fatigue. And governments can regain control over the digital sphere, either by a technological breakthrough or by a political decision.
For another, governments may prove better at policing future jihadi networks than expected. This could happen either through learning, i.e., by their knowledge of networks accumulating past a major effectiveness threshold, through some technological breakthrough, for example with new analytical tools, or by a political decision to allow more heavy-handed or intrusive policing methods that today are still considered beyond the pale. France’s implementation of a state of emergency in the wake of the Paris attacks is an indication of the lengths to which certain European governments are willing to go if the perceived threat is large enough. However, heavy-handed policing can also backfire and worsen the radicalization problem by creating grievances and undermining trust between police and the Muslim community.
A third possibility is that the Muslim world or European Islam is swept by a normative shift toward even more comprehensive rejection of radical Islamism. Today the vast majority of the world’s Muslims reject violence in the name of Islam, but a substantial minority does not, as is evidenced by the sheer size of jihadi groups and by Pew polls that find popular support for groups like al-Qaida in the several percent (and in some countries over 20%). In Europe, too, the reality is that thousands of individuals have been seduced by “jihadi cool” in recent decades. It is conceivable that the excesses of Islamic State or a series of particularly bloody terrorist attack in Europe will prompt a normative backlash that stigmatizes participation in jihadism to an even greater degree than it does today.
There are also unpredictable factors that could make things worse. The most obvious is a further rise in anti-Muslim xenophobia and more terrorism against Muslims in Europe by the extreme right. There has been much concern about a possible polarization between European jihadis and European far-right extremists. There has long been a steady stream of violent attacks by the far right against ethnic minorities in general and Muslims in particular, and some countries, especially Germany, have seen a dramatic rise in such attacks in the past year. So far, however, the far right and the jihadis have not entered into a conflict dynamic comparable to that between the European far right and the far left. We have not seen clear examples of jihadi cells being motivated primarily by the actions of the far right, and the far right has thus far responded to jihadi terrorist attacks with relatively low-level violence. The dynamic could change, however, in the event of mass-casualty attacks by the far right against Muslim targets.
I have discussed four macro-trends which, if extrapolated some ten years into the future, would appear to create favourable circumstances for somewhat increased levels of jihadi activism in Europe compared with current levels. Of course, nobody can know what the future will bring, and for this particular phenomenon, a large number of intervening factors can change the outcome. The prediction presented here should be considered a “likely worst-case scenario” for jihadism in Europe. There are worse scenarios that involve more violence, but they are unlikely because they presuppose that European security services do not adapt to the threat along the way.
Drawing up a likely worst-case scenario has several benefits. For one, it may preempt complacency among policymakers by showing that, even if the situation improves in the short run, there are good reasons why it might deteriorate in the longer term. We should not, in other words, take a decline of European jihadism for granted, however much we all wish for it. Furthermore, laying down some assumptions – in this case, the four macro-trends – gives us something specific to discuss. The ensuing debate will hopefully bring objections and new arguments to the table and produce a more refined understanding of European jihadism.
This exercise in forecasting has some social scientific value in that it implicitly challenges some common assumptions about rebel movement lifecycles. Several scholars have suggested that rebellions have expiry dates. For example, terrorism scholar David Rapoport’s famous article “The Four Waves of Modern Terrorism” suggests that successive ideological paradigms replaced one another as major inspirations for terrorism. Audrey Cronin’s book How Terrorism Ends departs from the premise that all terrorism campaigns do end, and Brian Price has measured the average terrorist group life at about 14 years. Sociologists such as Charles Tilly have suggested social movement go through successive stages from emergence to decline. While all these observations pertain to slightly different units of analysis than that represented by jihadism, they have arguably contributed to an expectation that jihadism will end in the not too distant future. This expectation was probably behind the view among some commentators in mid-2011 that the Arab spring and the killing of Osama bin Ladin would finally bring about the decline of jihadism. For the record, I too was influenced by the lifecycle hypothesis when I wrote, in a Congressional testimony in mid-2013, that “I see […] the macro-trend for the jihadi movement as downward-pointing. However, I also see the decline as a long and slow one with plenty of opportunities for temporary surges in activity.” I have since changed my views and become agnostic on the issue of jihadism’s decline. This article reflects my current position that the end of jihadism is by no means imminent, and that it may continue to exist for many decades. By staking out a prediction for the evolution of jihadism in Europe, I am putting forth a hypothesis that only time can test.
One should be careful about proposing specific policy recommendation based on speculation about the future. Still, the analytical framework used here can at least be used as a heuristic tool for thinking about countermeasures in the event that things move in the direction outlined in this article. More specifically, policymakers might then want to think creatively about ways in which each of the four macro-trends might be broken. Is there not more that the EU can do to promote social mobility among immigrants? Are there ways to prevent imprisoned jihadis from becoming network-builders upon their release? Could we find other approaches to conflict resolution in the Muslim world than we have pursued throughout the War on Terror? And how can governments regain some of the digital policing capability they had in the late 2000s?
If the jihadi radicalization problem in Europe does indeed get worse, it may be worth considering radical new approaches, both of the soft and the hard kind. Perhaps Europe needs to spend significantly more to improve education in immigrant-heavy areas. Perhaps we must consider longer prison sentences for terrorism offences. I do not purport to know exactly what might work. However, continuing as we do today, with small, incremental policy adjustments, arguably has a predictable outcome. It is a Europe with much larger intelligence services, an entrenched Muslim economic underclass, and more anti-Muslim sentiment.
Note: This study will be published successively in four parts in the coming days.