July 6, 2011
Although most European terrorism plots of jihadist inspiration over the last five years appear to have been conducted independently, the most serious ones have tended to involve operational connections to groups operating outside of Europe, according to a new RAND Corporation study.
European militants typically come to radicalize independently—often in small groups—and then seek out training from al Qaeda or an affiliated group, rather than being seeded by the larger terrorist groups at the start, according to the study.
"The fact that an increasing number of European-based individuals and clusters are managing to link up with groups operating in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and North Africa is a troubling phenomenon," said Lorenzo Vidino, author of the study and a visiting fellow with RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "In many cases, that connectivity allows European militants to acquire valuable operational skills and, consequently, pose a higher threat."
Europe has not suffered a successful terrorism attack with mass casualties since the July 7, 2005, bombings in London, but there have been a number of attacks, attempted attacks and attack conspiracies in a number of countries. The common perception in Europe is that it is under constant threat from jihadist-inspired terrorism. Every year European authorities arrest some 200 individuals and prevent a handful of plots, and many in Europe believe that trend will continue in the foreseeable future.
Using legal documents, intelligence reports, academic literature, media sources and interviews with government officials and other experts, the RAND study provides an overview of current trends in jihadist-inspired terrorism in Europe from an operational perspective.
Websites and other forms of jihadist propaganda abound, but Vidino said the study found little evidence indicating that al Qaeda and affiliated organizations operating outside of Europe conduct direct efforts to recruit European Muslims. Rather, connections between individuals or clusters in Europe and al Qaeda are forged through a process of linkage, often facilitated through personal connections and "jihad entrepreneurs." Typically, that occurs only after European militants have become radicalized and reach out to contact outside groups.
The study examines 30 plots hatched in Europe from 2006 to 2010. Of those, 21 can be classified as independent, or that the individual or group behind it acted with no apparent operational support from al Qaeda or an affiliated group. One case, a plan hatched by U.S.-based militant David Coleman Headley and senior al Qaeda planner Ilyas Kashmiri to carry out attacks in Denmark, can be classified as external because it was planned by al Qaeda without any relevant support or participation from individuals in Europe.
The remaining eight cases are classified as hybrid cases, in which homegrown groups that formed independently in Europe established ties to al Qaeda or a related group and obtained operational support from it. The level of sophistication of most hybrid plots was significantly higher than that of the independent plots.
Vidino, who is currently a fellow at the Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich, recommends that European governments increase efforts to prevent the radicalization of new militants and encourage them to disengage from militant networks. Community policing, close monitoring of Internet chat rooms and focusing on so-called "radicalization hot-spots" such as prisons and gateway organizations are tactics that can improve the chances of detecting terrorism plots in the mobilization phase.
He also suggests closer monitoring of travel to countries where al Qaeda and related groups are known to operate, and looking for ways to prosecute "jihad entrepreneurs."
The study, "Radicalization, Linkage and Diversity: Current Trends in Terrorism in Europe" can be found at www.rand.org.
Research for this study was jointly sponsored by the Modeling and Simulation Coordination Office of the Office of the Secretary of Defense/Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, Interagency Task Force of the Special Operations Command and the Joint Staff/J-8 and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies and the defense intelligence community.