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The Future of Jihadism in Europe: A Pessimistic View (Part I)

Translation- Islamic state in Europe
Spanish police arrest a man (L) accused of collaborating with the Islamic State, after searching a cybercafe in Mataro near to Barcelona, on December 8, 2015. Photo AFP ©AFP ⁃ JOSEP LAGO

By: Thomas Hegghammer


This article presents a ten-year forecast for jihadism in Europe. Despite reaching historically high levels in recent years, violent Islamist activity in Europe may increase further over the long term due to four macro-trends:  expected growth in the number of economically underperforming Muslim youth,  expected growth in the number of available jihadi entrepreneurs,  persistent conflict in the Muslim world, and  continued operational freedom for clandestine actors on the Internet. Over the next decade, the jihadi attack plot frequency in Europe may follow a fluctuating curve with progressively higher peaks. Many things can undercut the trends and lead to a less ominous outcome, but the scenario is sufficiently likely to merit attention from policymakers.


Europe has recently experienced something of a jihadi terrorism crisis, marked by several mass-casualty attacks and a veritable exodus of foreign fighters to Syria. Now that foreign fighter flows are subsiding and Islamic State is weakening, many are hoping that the worst is over. In this speculative article I argue that it is probably not. Things may calm down in the short term, but four macro-trends point to a future with even larger radicalization and terrorism challenges than today. While this pessimistic scenario need not materialize, policymakers would be well advised to brace themselves for it.

The article starts with a description of recent developments and a reflection on the short-term prospects. After presenting the framework for the long-term assessment, I describe the four macro-trends that underpin the assessment. Then I ask how exactly the long-term increase may play out, before discussing reasons why the prediction may be wrong. The conclusion reflects on the value of the prediction and its policy implications.

The Jihadism Crisis

Translation- Francois Hollande
French President Francois Hollande during a ceremony marking the first anniversary of the Paris terror attacks. Photo AFP ©AFP ⁃ H Christophe Petit Tesson

The last few years have seen historically high levels of jihadi activity in Europe. There has been a negative development on a range of indicators, including:

Deaths: Between 2014 and 2016, jihadi attacks killed 273 people, more than in all previous years combined (267).

Attacks: In 2015 and 2016, there were 14 jihadi attacks, about 3.5 times more than the biannual average  for the preceding fifteen years.

Plots: In 2015 and thus far in 2016, there were 29 well-documented attack plots, about 2.5 times more than the biannual average .

Execution rate: In 2015 and 2016 about half of the serious plots reached execution, compared with less than a third in the preceding fifteen years.

Foreign fighters: Between 2011 and 2016 over 5,000 European Muslims went to fight in Syria; about five times more than the number that went to all previous destinations combined.

Arrests: Between 2011 and 2015, almost 1,600 people were arrested in jihadism-related investigations in the EU (excluding the UK); an increase of 70% compared with the previous five-year period.

There have also been ominous qualitative changes to jihadi operations. The November 2015 Paris attack, which involved nine operators, all equipped with functioning suicide vests, who struck near-simultaneously in three separate locations, was one of the most complex terrorist operations ever carried out in Europe. Some plots were even more ambitious, and one network may even have taken active steps toward acquiring radioactive materials. Moreover, the Paris and Brussels attacks in November 2015 and March 2016 were probably the first case since 1995 of the same jihadi cell being able to strike hard twice (most previous cells were dismantled after their first major attack). All this happened while European security services were larger and more experienced with counterterrorism than perhaps at any time in their history.

Nobody before 2011 predicted this jihadi resurgence, and its precise causes remain unclear. In retrospect, three factors seem to have played a particularly important role. The first and most obvious was the eruption of the Syria war in 2011, which provided European Islamists with an unusually visible and accessible foreign fighter destination. The second was the social media revolution of around 2010, which facilitated recruiting by allowing for more propaganda distribution and safer communication between activists. The third was the rise of Islamic State in 2013-2014, which provided an appealing new brand of jihadism and a territory from which to plot attacks in Europe.

Short-term Decline?

Translation- Brussels terror attacks
People gather on Place de la Bourse square in Brussels to pay tribute to the victims of the Brussels terror attacks, on March 25, 2016. Photo AFP ©AFP ⁃ Aurore Belot

The jihadism crisis has been met with a range of countermeasures. Governments have adopted tougher legislation and more aggressive prosecution practices against foreign fighters. Security services have been given larger budgets, and some, especially the French ones, have been granted more intrusive powers. The same services have worked actively to root out recruitment networks and dismantle so-called “gateway groups” such as Islam4UK and its many spin-offs across Europe. Many countries have developed countering violent extremism (CVE) strategies involving prevention and rehabilitation programs. Several European states are also involved in the military effort against Islamic State and probably run intelligence operations in and around IS’s territory. Meanwhile, intelligence services have no doubt learned much about the networks that emerged in the first half of the 2010s. All these efforts have presumably made it harder for European jihadis to recruit, to travel, and to plot.

The combined effect of these measures may well be a decline in jihadi activity in the short run, i.e., in the next two to five years. There are already signs that this is happening; foreign fighter departures have been down for at least a year, and the past few months have seen slightly fewer and less potent attack plots than late 2015 and early 2016. Some fear that the Islamic State may lash out as Mosul and Raqqa come under attack, but it is not clear whether the group has spare capacity to further escalate in Europe under the current constraints. This is certainly not to say that jihadi attacks will cease in the near future, only that it would be reasonable to expect a moderate decline compared with the plot frequency of 2015 and early 2016. After all, strong states such as those of Europe virtually always “win” against known terrorist adversaries, because the resource asymmetry is so large. The reason terrorism persists and often comes in waves is that states have an information problem in the early phase of terrorism campaigns. When new groups and networks emerge, states do not know exactly who and where the rebels are, and this gives the latter an advantage until the states have mapped the networks.

The Risks and Limits of Long-term Prediction

The main question, as far as the long-term future is concerned, is to what extent we will see new jihadi networks emerge in Europe. The problem, however, is that speculating about such long-term futures involves great uncertainty. There is also an ethical dimension to such speculation, because it can veer into alarmism, something for which terrorism analysts have a well-earned reputation.Alarmism in counterterrorism is costly; it can lead to over-expenditure, human rights abuses, undermining of the rule of law, and polarization between groups in society. In this particular case, however, the trends pointing in a negative direction are unusually strong, and it is arguably better to discuss them than to ignore them.

The following sections will describe four macro-trends which, if they continue, may in combination facilitate the emergence of more jihadi activism in Europe some five to fifteen years from now. I identified the trends one by one over the past two years as I conducted my own research and read that of others. It was when I realized there were several of them, and that they combined to a worrying whole that I decided to write this article. The four trends are: 1) a growth in the number of economically underperforming Muslim youth, 2) a growth in the number of veteran activists, 3) persistent armed conflict in the Muslim world, and 4) persistent operational freedom on the Internet.

While the list of trends is inductively generated, its relevance is to some extent theoretically underpinned. The four trends all touch on elements prominent in “resource mobilization” approaches to political activism. Resource mobilization is a perspective from the social movements literature that views surges of activism less as a response to broader socio-political strains and more as a function of the ability of entrepreneurs to craft activist networks and exploit protest technologies. The first of the four trends concerns the availability of recruits; the second affects the number of entrepreneurs available to build networks; the third relates to the availability of political grievances and safe havens outside the West, while the fourth affects operational capacity. In an ideal-type jihadi network-building effort, each of these variables is presumably important: activism requires entrepreneurs; entrepreneurs need manpower; manpower comes more easily with political grievances; and both recruitment and operations are improved by online freedom.

Are there other salient variables? Perhaps, but many of the factors usually invoked to explain jihadism are in fact constants. Jihadi ideology, for example, is practically always available. There will “always” be a variety of jihadi ideologies around, with bodies of literature to back them up and firebrands to promote them. The degree to which larger numbers of people embrace a given jihadi ideology at a given time is arguably a function less of the doctrine’s finer points than of the resources available to spread it and the political developments that give it empirical credibility. Similarly with the various motivations or processes by which individuals are recruited to jihadi groups; for example, we know that many are attracted to the adventure or camaraderie of clandestine activism, but these rewards are found in all radical groups, and they presuppose the existence of a group in the first place. By contrast, the four factors highlighted here are variables, and they affect central aspects of the network-building enterprise.

The prediction exercise is complicated by the fact that jihadi activism can take at least three different forms – attack plots in Europe, foreign fighting, and non-violent agitation – and that each ideal type of activism involves different types of constraints. Non-violent agitation is relatively constraint-free, so the level of agitation depends primarily on the supply of motivated activists, and is therefore more predictable. The level of foreign fighter flows, however, depends on the availability of foreign fighter destinations and the ease with which these can be reached. This is unpredictable, as the Syrian war demonstrated. The level of plot activity, meanwhile, depends on the countermeasures that governments are willing and able to muster. The relationship between plotting and countermeasures is strategic, which means that what government do depends on what the terrorists do. For example, a surge in plotting is typically followed by police repression, which brings the plotting frequency down, at least temporarily. The point is that while macro-trends probably can indicate the expected general level of activism, it is very hard to say exactly which specific types of activism will be prevalent at any one place and time.

Remark: This article was originally published by in November 6, 2016.

Note: This study will be published successively in four parts in the coming days.

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