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Terror risk in Europe: How big is it and from whom?

Ella Joyner in Brussels
December 21, 2023

A polarized Europe is on high alert for further terror attacks. The risks posed are real, but authorities have learned lessons from previous attacks.

French soldiers patrolling in Paris during the Rugby World Cup in October 2023
France is among the EU countries that have increased their terror threat assessmentImage: Delphine Goldsztejn/dpa/MAXPPP/picture alliance

Anger is in the air in Europe. Across the political spectrum, observers see burgeoning vitriol and prejudice. In the past two months, lone perpetrators have committed a trio of fatal terror attacks, claiming four lives in total.

In Belgium, two Swedish football fans were shot dead in October in an apparent retribution for Quran burnings in their home country. In France, a teacher and a tourist were stabbed in two separate incidents, the second perpetrator having reportedly pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State (IS).

Europe braces for rise in terrorist attacks, violence

Earlier this month, European Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson, herself from Sweden, said: "With the war between Israel and Hamas and the polarization it causes in our society, with the upcoming holiday season, there is a huge risk of terrorist attacks in the European Union."

'Danger is real'

Johansson's assessment is alarming, but in the EU, the individual member states, not the European Commission, control risk assessment. In the past few months, authorities in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden have all increased their alert levels, citing the risk of Islamist terror — generally concentrated in Western Europe — but also from the far right.

"The danger is real and greater than it has been for a long time," Thomas Haldenwang, the head of Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the BfV, wrote earlier this month.

In December, authorities in Germany and the Netherlands detained four individuals allegedly linked to Hamas, the Palestinian militant group responsible for the October 7 terror attacks on Israel, over suspicion of plotting to obtain weapons for at least nine months. German prosecutors said these could have been used to target Jewish institutions.

Forensic police work at the scene of a stabbing in Paris on December 2, 2023
Paris, the site of several terror attacks since 2015, saw yet another two weeks agoImage: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images

Thomas Renard, the director of the International Center for Counterterrorism in the Netherlands, said the heightened alert was about more than the conflict in Gaza. It is linked to a partial resurgence of radical Islamist groups like IS and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Syria.

"The terrorist threat is much higher now than it was two or three years ago," Renard said.

The attacks carried out within the European Union since early October were on a much smaller scale and less coordinated than those executed in Paris and Brussels by actors claiming allegiance to IS in 2015 and 2016.

"In the peak of the [IS-declared] caliphate, we were facing a highly organized structured group, extremely powerful, extremely attractive, so to speak, that really could attract tens of thousands of individuals from around the world," Renard said.

That is not the case for the time being, he said. Though the present situation is concerning, authorities also learned from the wave of attacks inspired or directed by IS in Europe, he added.

These days, relevant agencies in the European Union are much better at sharing information between national law enforcement and intelligence agencies, as well as with other member states. "It does not always work perfectly, obviously," he said. "It works much better than it used to. There's much more information flowing."

Online incitement to terror 'is key'

Renard said member states, at least those most affected in Western Europe, were also spending much more money on counterterrorism. Whereas intelligence services used to focus heavily on the detection of advanced plots, authorities now tend to think more broadly, Renard said.

"Nowadays, there is a much more comprehensive response that has been put in place, starting with early prevention," Renard said. Efforts start locally, involving prevention officers, civil society organizations and educational institutions.

On the other hand, radicalization can be harder to detect. "It's much more sort of underground nowadays. So it's much harder to know who is going to take action or not," he said.

Renard said the heightened alert was also coming from the far right, a threat that had tended to be overlooked until recent years. "If a terrorist attack were to occur tomorrow, it's more likely to be a jihadi attack than a far-right attack. But basically, it's almost a very similar risk," Renard said.

In 2022, 16 terror attacks took place in the EU and a further 12 failed or were foiled, according to Europol. Four people died, two in jihadi attacks and two from right-wing terror. In the IS peak years of 2015 and 2016, 151 and 142 people, respectively, were killed.

Increasing antisemitism, Islamophobia

Reports of antisemitism and Islamophobia were increasing before the October 7 Hamas-led terror attacks in southern Israel that killed nearly 1,200 people and the Israeli military response that has killed more than 20,000 over the past two months, Human Rights Watch wrote on Monday. There have been several concerning incidents in recent weeks throughout Europe.

Protesters hold placards, flags and banners, including the flags of Israel and Britain
In recent weeks, thousands have taken to the streets to protest antisemitismImage: Alberto Pezzali/AP Photo/picture alliance

"A German lawmaker of Kurdish-Syrian background received threatening notes with glass and feces. A Polish lawmaker brandishing a fire extinguisher put out Hanukkah candles in the Parliament building. A pig's head was left near the site for a proposed mosque in England. A wave of antisemitic graffiti appeared in Paris and its suburbs," the group listed.

As part of the HRW report, researcher Almaz Teffera said the European Union's problems went much deeper than the recent flurry of violent attacks. "We have now seen international attention and condemnation around the latest rise of this hate, and rightly so, but what doesn't make headlines are the decades of lived experiences of communities facing racism and intolerance, particularly anti-Muslim hate and antisemitism, every day," she wrote in an interview published Monday by HRW.

A woman holds a cardboard sign reading "France: It's you and me"
'France: It's you and me,' reads a sign by an anti-Islamophobia campaignerImage: Alain Pitton/NurPhoto/picture alliance

In Europe, politicians and the media tend to focus on full-blown terror attacks, Renard said. While low in number, they are high in impact, he explained, often creating a "collective trauma" for the wider population.

Online hatred and desecrating Jewish schools or mosques may not qualify as acts of terrorism, but such violent extremism is of grave concern for authorities, he said.

"When we talk [about] terrorism, we're talking about the tip of the iceberg," he said. "It's important to realize that the risk to citizens and the risk to a democracy might be impacted even by more violent extremism than terrorism."

Edited by: M. Gagnon