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Homegrown terrorism

July 7, 2010

Five years after the London bombings, in which 52 people died, homegrown terror remains a concern across Europe. More dialogue and a coordinated strategy is how EU countries hope to tackle the problem.

Terrorism illustration
Better integration and dialogue is key, experts sayImage: DW

Homegrown terrorism is a relatively new term - and a new phenomenon. But Europe has learned through experience that it is a danger from within that cannot be ignored.

Five years ago, on July 7, 2005, four bomb attacks on the London transport system left 56 dead and countless wounded. One year earlier, the Madrid attacks claimed the lives of 191 people.

In Germany, the so-called Sauerland terror cell had devised attacks on airports that were only prevented because the group's plans were uncovered shortly before they intended to carry them out.

CCTV cameras showing the four London bombers
CCTV cameras caught the four London bombers on their way to the suicide attacksImage: dpa - Report

Homegrown terrorism is different from attacks like those in the United States on September 11, 2001. The perpetrators come from the very countries they attack, where they grew up and went to school. Most come from secular immigrant families and are brought up without religious zeal.

They seem well integrated into society - until they come into contact with Islamist extremists. Some of these homegrown terrorists do not even have a Muslim background and only convert to Islam when they become adults.

Avoiding polarization

Some argue that the crucial lesson learned in the wake of the London and Madrid attacks was that efforts to foster closer cooperation with Muslims in European countries need to be stepped up.

"It's essential that we work with those parts of society where trends toward radicalization can occur," says Ole Schroeder, a parliamentary state secretary in the German Interior Ministry. "For instance we have to directly work with mosques or with groups close to radical Islamists."

The best protection, Schroeder says, is to ensure that Muslim communities in European countries are not susceptible to extremist tendencies. The German government has tried to take a step in this direction by founding a forum on Islam aimed at creating a dialogue with Germany's Muslim population on shared societal values.

Daniel Schneider in court
Daniel Schneider of the Sauerland terror cell is a German who converted to IslamImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"This is about getting the Muslim community involved," Schroeder said. "Only if Germany's Muslims realize that this is also their problem, can they see the need to take action to keep radical tendencies within their communities in check. In the end, they should of course cooperate with the authorities to help us deal with this new form of terrorism."

The key to this strategy is reaching young Muslims before they come under the influence of extremists. One step the German government is working on is getting imams trained in Germany to ensure that there won't be "imams who preach hatred instead of peace," Schroeder said.

A coordinated EU effort

After the London attacks, European Union member states decided to join forces on the issue; Spain with its large Moroccan population is, for example, to devise a model on how such training can best be done.

"The Spaniards have the responsibility for expertise on the training of imams and passing it along to the other countries," said Magnus Ranstorp of the Swedish Defense College in Stockholm.

In Britain, the authorities are also working together with mosques and Muslim communities to prevent the radicalization of young men. The British government has initiated a program with more than 260 publicly funded projects aimed at reaching out to the Muslim population. Mentoring schemes are one aspect.

"In one scheme, the police in numerous Muslim communities across the country lead role-playing, in which community leaders can get a sense of the responsibilities of police and government, to illustrate how difficult it is," Ranstorp says.

"Other projects use social media to disarm the 'coolness' of the message that al Qaeda is providing for young people."

The danger of stigmatizing Islam

Some argue that if a person is not susceptible to extremist ideologies, he or she won't turn to terrorism. Among those who subscribe to this line of thought is Judith Sunderland of Human Rights Watch.

Swiss campaign poster
Campaigns against minarets and burqas only serve to radicalize, critics warnImage: AP

Her group says that banning minarets or the burqa only leads to further radicalization. Terror suspects, they say, must never be treated with disrespect to the rule of law - as has been the case in several western counties.

"They have carved out exceptions that essentially limit the rights of those accused of terrorism, compared to other kinds of criminal suspects," Sunderland says.

"In countries like Spain and France [we see] very lengthy police custody, with very limited access to a lawyer or interrogations without a lawyer. In the UK, we see very lengthy pre-charge detention - up to 28 days," she explains.

But such measures, Sunderland warns, don't work.

"Measures that are taken to counter terrorism that ultimately violate human rights, in the long run, feed the grievances and the sense of injustice that can fuel radicalization."

Author: Fabian Schmidt/ai/ng
Editor: Chuck Penfold