Counterterrorism yearbook 2019: Western Europe
14 Mar 2019|

In 2018, jihadism remained the major security concern across Western Europe. At least 10,800 people in Germany and around 20,000 in each of France and the UK were considered radical or potentially dangerous. According to Europol, there was ‘an increase in the frequency of jihadist attacks, but a decrease in the sophistication of their preparation and execution’. ‘Home-grown fighters’ who don’t necessarily have direct links to the so-called Islamic State or other jihadist groups remain a major security concern.

Of the more than 5,900 Europeans who joined IS as foreign terrorist fighters, around one-third have returned to Europe. Still, several hundred men and women are detained in Iraq and in northern Syria. Despite the announced withdrawal of US troops from Syria, European countries are still reluctant to repatriate their citizens. Challenges include gathering enough evidence to charge foreign fighters, monitoring those who can’t be charged and determining whether their citizenship can be revoked (see the case of Briton Shamima Begum).

In general, there’s a lack of coherent strategies and common approaches, especially when it comes to female members of IS affiliates. In the Netherlands, female returnees automatically face a prison sentence upon return. In Germany, few women have been convicted for involvement with IS so far. However, most experts agree that ‘it would be a better strategy to deal with foreign fighters at home’. For example, a project in Germany aims to install ‘returnee coordinators’ in the relevant department in each state to facilitate a coordinated response.

Another major dilemma is how to deal with minors, including those born to members of European IS affiliates inside the ‘caliphate’. European states should balance concerns about child welfare, such as those involving traumas, with security concerns, such as possible indoctrination with jihadist ideology.

Some countries take a tough stance, warning of ‘ticking time bombs’: in Belgium, children can be classified as foreign terrorist fighters from the age of 12 years, and in the Netherlands from 9 years. The Netherlands and France don’t actively support the return of women and children, while Germany has been repatriating infants for humanitarian reasons from Iraqi prisons. These children should first and foremost be considered victims and repatriated from a highly insecure environment that might lead to their radicalisation.

Across Europe, it’s acknowledged that prisons can be breeding grounds for radicalisation. Some countries favour the dispersal model (Germany) or mixed models (Belgium), in which detainees are separated from the general prison population. France and the UK are expanding the so-called ‘containment-oriented model’—keeping high-risk terrorism-related offenders separate. But a large number of individuals convicted for terrorism-related offences or considered radicalised are due to be released within the next two years. Western European countries are aware of the lack of financial resources and personnel to supervise them and are currently strengthening monitoring and ‘deradicalisation’ measures.

Several countries updated their counterterrorism policies in 2018. The UK launched a revised version of CONTEST, piloting a more multiagency, bottom-up approach and providing CT policing with a £50 million (A$94 million) increase in funding. One of the new elements specifically includes disengagement and reintegration measures. France presented new action plans for the prevention of radicalisation and against terrorism. Measures include expanding the role of the French domestic intelligence service, setting up a national public prosecutor’s office for counterterrorism, and creating a new profiling unit to analyse information about attackers. In Germany, the national program for the prevention of Islamist extremism aims to strengthen cooperation among stakeholders, install local prevention councils, increase consultation offers, and support integration and measures to prevent radicalisation online. To strengthen the effectiveness of these efforts, the program also includes scientific evaluation.

At the European level, thanks to effective legislation and the tireless work of security services, several attacks have been foiled. The EU aims to further improve CT cooperation, including on border control and fighting terrorist financing and cybercrime. However, the legislative fixes are sometimes problematic. In September 2018, for example, the European Commission proposed new legislation forcing social media networks and websites to remove terrorist content. The proposal has drawn criticism about its effectiveness and possible risks to freedom of expression and privacy.

European initiatives such as the Radicalisation Awareness Network have shown that a multiagency approach is the key to making efforts to counter terrorism and prevent violent extremism as effective as possible. Further measures to improve cooperation will be implemented in 2019. Establishing a structured transfer of knowledge and a solid trust base between practitioners, the research community and policymakers is crucial.

Despite territorial losses, IS and other jihadist organisations like al-Qaeda remain active in both Iraq and Syria, as well as in Africa and Southeast Asia. In addition, violent right-wing extremism has been on the rise in Western Europe. An important task in the coming years will be to understand similarities and differences in the radicalisation process as well as address a worrying development in which extremist narratives fuel each other.

A key question is thus how to monitor and assess the threat level and how to ‘deradicalise’ and reintegrate radicalised individuals. The tendency is for a more comprehensive approach that includes not only intelligence and security services, police and the judiciary, but also social and healthcare professionals, teachers and community leaders. To address the challenges that arise with this approach, it’s crucial to organise information-sharing as well as define legal standards and discuss the responsibilities and interests of all stakeholders involved.