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Is 'Jihadi terror' in Europe coming back with a vengeance?

Despite initial fears, terror attacks have been limited in scope since the beginning of the decade, when compared to IS days.
Mounted Police patrol in front of Sacré Cœur Basilica in Montmartre, Paris.

Six people, including passengers and security agents, were stabbed this month in the Parisian Gare du Nord, the most populous train station in Europe, by someone who was heard shouting “Allah Akbar,” according to early press reports. The suspect, immediately arrested by the police, was identified first as an Algerian and then as a Libyan illegal immigrant who overstayed a police order to leave French territory. Though the episode was dismissed quickly as mental illness and promptly disappeared from the news cycle, it immediately brought back the “years of lead” when jihadi terrorism, in its Islamic State (IS) form, sowed fear in European societies from 2012 onward, causing hundreds of deaths. France was the main target then with 271 casualties in the decade up to 2022.  

But the number of deadly attacks significantly dropped to a couple of occurrences last year and only one in 2021. Does that mean that Islamist terror is now extinct for good in the Old Continent, or has the phenomenon temporarily morphed before it returns with a vengeance? That is the question that keeps security agencies busy across Europe, as many were caught unaware in the 2010s for lack of sound analysis and capacity to anticipate and prevent the threat to social peace and cohesion that IS had projected from the Levant battlefield toward the northwestern shores of the Mediterranean.  

Assessing the present situation necessitates gauging the causes and modes of action of the terror tidal wave of the past decade. It was but the last moment of a dialectical cycle of jihad that knew three different phases. The first, from 1979 to 1997, was the Afghan jihad and its copycat aftermath. The ousting from Kabul in February 1989 of the invading Red Army, thanks to Sunni mujahideen (jihad fighters) subsidized by Arabian Peninsula monarchies and trained and equipped by the CIA, led to the demise of the Soviet system, with the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9 of that same year. But it also became a signature for “jihad” — a term that was largely unknown in the West before — as a legitimate use of violence in the name of Islam against any social or political evil. Hence after 1989, so-called Afghan-Arab veterans fought their jihad anew against the “nearby enemy” at home, such as Egypt, Algeria, Chechnya and Bosnia, but by 1997 they had all been defeated for lack of international support.

The lessons learned from that failure gave rise to the second phase (1998 to 2005), that of al-Qaeda, with Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden targeting their “faraway nemesis,” the United States. It culminated in the “blessed double raids” on New York City and the Pentagon of 9/11, which shocked the world, and aimed to convince Muslim masses that the West was weak and to gather them “under the Prophet’s banner” (to quote Zawahiri’s manifesto). But al-Qaeda failed in Iraq after the US invasion of 2003, beaten by an ad hoc coalition of local Shiite and Western forces.  

Hence the third phase, which gave birth to IS (2006 to 2019). As opposed to the top-down al-Qaeda organization, it was a bottom-up network that — after Iraq, where it fought Shiites and the foreign coalition — focused on two fronts: weakened regimes after the Arab Spring upheavals (Syria in particular) and Europe, with a to-and-fro of jihad fighters made up of Muslim immigrants and European converts that crisscrossed the Mediterranean, sowing death from Mosul to Brussels and London, and from Raqqa to Berlin, Paris or Nice. That network-based "nizam" (system) shunned the centralized bin Laden organization and moved under the radars of Western and Arab intelligence agencies. It combined in piecemeal fashion the views of two ideologues bearing the same nom de guerre: Jordanian Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi and Syrian Abu Mussab al-Suri. While the first was obsessed with sectarian warfare against the ruling Shiites of Iraq and Alawis of Syria, the second envisioned the breakdown of Europe along denominational fault lines, pitting the young Muslim underclass and mostly immigrant enclaves against their aging social environment of European stock. The combination of those two aims led to the terror pitch that culminated in the proclamation of the caliphate in Raqqa in June 2014, with its online graphic videos of beheadings and torture of prisoners and hostages, and the terror wave in Europe. Its main episodes would run from the Charlie Hebdo editorial board slaughter on Jan. 7, 2015, to the Paris Bataclan concert hall massacre on Nov. 13, 2015, to the Brussels airport and metro killings of March 2016, to the 2016 Nice Bastille Day and the Dec. 19, 2016, Berlin truck attacks — and those are to name only the bloodiest.   

But IS tactics of cumulative terror started to backfire in late 2016. On the one hand, the Western massive bombings of its caliphate strongholds led to the fall of Mosul and Raqqa in 2017 with the help of Kurdish ground forces. On the other hand, the extreme violence in Europe (with huge Muslim casualties, such as in Nice) alienated the very underclass youth IS wanted to mobilize. That trend deepened during the maxi trials held since 2020 to sentence the killers and their accomplices, with the moving testimonies of the victims, the efficiency of the prosecution teams, and the poor performances of the accused and their lawyers.  

Nevertheless, since 2020, a post-IS generation has tried to emerge in Europe. As opposed to the three previous phases, it does not rely on any structure, be it top-down, bottom-up or network-based. It combines two dimensions: terrorist attacks by individuals influenced by online “entrepreneurs of hatred” who vilify specific targets, and the flourishing of a separatism culture on social networks that aims at a clear break with "kuffar" (infidels) in the name of Salafism, and prepares the ground to seed further violence. Its first wave started in the fall of 2020 in France when Charlie Hebdo republished some of the Prophet Muhammad cartoons that ignited the Jan. 15 slaughter on its premises. It was met by strong mobs demonstrating against France, from Pakistan to Egypt and Turkey, and led a Pakistani immigrant who had watched their videos on his phone to buy a meat cleaver and try to murder people he thought were working for the magazine. Then a Chechen refugee watched online a tweet vilifying a secondary school teacher who had debated the cartoons with his pupils and beheaded the teacher outside his school. Finally, a Tunisian illegal immigrant who had just arrived in France stabbed to death three worshippers in a church on the Prophet Muhammad’s "maulid" (birthday). None of them could be linked by investigators to an organization. They belonged to a new type of “atmosphere jihadism” where individuals previously brainwashed by online entrepreneurs of hatred take action accordingly.  

But in spite of initial fears, and due to lessons learned by security agencies policing the web, such actions have been limited in scope since the beginning of the decade, when compared to IS days. In Syria and Iraq, the caliphate's attempts to re-emerge were nipped in the bud with US special forces killing all new self-proclaimed caliphs in the Idlib Salafist enclave of northwest Syria. European states, meanwhile, are repatriating and jailing their IS citizens detained in northeast Syria Kurdish camps for fear of a Turkish military offensive that would allow them to flee and rebuild an international terror network. Also, financing from individuals and entities in the Arabian Peninsula was significantly reduced, in particular after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took over in Saudi Arabia and dismantled many such networks. The main worry ahead now lies in the protracted consequences of the Ukraine war, which was dubbed a holy jihad by some Chechens fighting alongside Moscow. It might develop into violence against Kyiv's Western allies would the Turkish-Syrian border be further destabilized in the run-up to the Turkish presidential elections due on May 14.

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