“…It’s still early, but the new approach appears to be working. There are fewer European jihadists fighting on foreign battlefields. Domestic attacks and casualties are substantially down in 2018—not because plotting has decreased, but because authorities are foiling more attempts. For the longer term, the main challenge will be preventing militants who come out of prison from regrouping.”
Jihadist terrorism until recently had Europe on the defensive. Now the continent is getting tough and fighting the threat with measures that would have been unthinkable six or seven years ago.
The old notion that Europe is weak on terrorism gained traction in the mid-2010s. Between 2015 and 2017, some 350 people were killed by jihadists across Europe. Terrorism rose to the top of polls of public concerns, and criticism of European counterterrorism capabilities grew explicit. A PBS “Frontline” investigation into the 2016 Brussels attacks revealed “a scale of dysfunction remarkable in the annals of modern counterterrorism.” Many wondered if Europe was up to the task of defending itself.
But the continent stepped up in a way that many observers, including me, didn’t foresee. European countries poured money into counterterrorism and improved intelligence sharing. They also initiated a qualitative overhaul involving radical new measures that had previously been considered politically off-limits.
Preventing citizens from going off to places like Syria to fight was once considered legally difficult. Many European law-enforcement agencies now prosecute anyone merely planning to go abroad to join a jihadist group. Jihadist recruitment organizations proliferated in Northern Europe until the early 2010s because authorities struggled to pin them to crimes. Around 2013, however, governments started cracking down. Firebrand clerics also found themselves treated more severely. Britain extradited the London-based sheikh Abu Qatada to Jordan in 2013 and shipped the hard-line Finsbury Park Mosque Imam Abu Hamza to the U.S., where he was sentenced to life in prison in 2015.
Censorship of extremist internet material, once seen as both unfeasible and authoritarian, is now common and has significantly reduced the availability of jihadist propaganda. A new European Union law imposes fines on internet companies that fail to remove extremist material within 60 minutes. The censorship may not be limited to digital materials. This year a European Parliament special committee recommended that member countries “ban and remove all religious literature within their territory that incites to violent and terrorist acts.”
France passed a law in 2017 making it easier to shut down radical mosques. Austria closed seven mosques and deported 60 imams this year. Italy has deported 313 extremists since 2015. Britain stripped more than 100 suspected Islamist militants of their citizenship in 2017. These measures come on top of a substantial increase in terrorism-related arrests and convictions across the continent.
Last but not least is the increased willingness to use military force against jihadist groups outside Europe. The anti-Islamic State coalition deployed to Iraq in 2014 had a large European component, and some countries have sent special forces to Iraq to detain or kill their own citizens fighting alongside Islamic State.
These new practices have been accompanied by more-aggressive rhetoric, reminiscent of the Bush administration after 9/11. In his speech after the Paris attacks in November 2015, then-President François Hollande declared that “France is at war,” and in 2017 Foreign Minister Florence Parly said: “If jihadists die in the fighting, then I’d say it’s for the best.”
This hardening of European attitudes toward terrorism didn’t happen overnight. It’s part of a longer trend that began after 9/11 and accelerated starting in 2012, when European foreign fighters started going to Syria in large numbers. We should not exaggerate its repressive character. Torture and other egregious practices aren’t on the table, and the hard measures have been accompanied by many soft programs to prevent and mitigate violent extremism. The hardening is also uneven, with France adopting a tougher approach than countries like Sweden. Still, the changes are substantial and amount to a paradigm shift in European counterterrorism.
It’s still early, but the new approach appears to be working. There are fewer European jihadists fighting on foreign battlefields. Domestic attacks and casualties are substantially down in 2018—not because plotting has decreased, but because authorities are foiling more attempts. For the longer term, the main challenge will be preventing militants who come out of prison from regrouping.
Europe’s struggle with jihadism is far from over. The new, more muscular approach poses serious questions about civil liberties, minority rights and radicalization in prisons. But Europe can no longer be described as soft on terrorism.