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After the fall of Kabul: what’s next? The threat evolves into “New Insurrectional Terrorism” (NIT)

by Claudio Bertolotti

The ideological and territorial spread of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has triggered a latent global jihadist violence. The Taliban triumph in Afghanistan has given new vital impetus to international jihadism and it is now presented by jihadist propaganda as the victory of Islam over the West and its corrupt values. This happens in contrast with the Taliban approach to jihad, which is limited to bless their national success: a national liberation war, in opposition to the IS-K and other groups who are looking for a global triumph.

But regardless of this, the victory of the Taliban and the opposition to the post-Islamic state terrorist galaxy it’s already having direct effects on the will and on the operational capacity of jihadist terrorist groups and individuals at a global level: from the communicative-propaganda aspect to the tactical and operational one.

Over the past 20 years terror groups, cells and individual jihadi fighters alike have begun to increasingly display new tactics, which they exported to, and adapted for, the contemporary and the future jihadi war. A first, bitter taste of things to come were the Mumbai attacks of 2008, when a group of ten terrorists divided into smaller groups mounted a siege which lasted for almost three days. Western cities have since occasionally become the set of complex suicide attacks and team-raids, and more often of individual assaults where the perpetrator efficiently exploits techniques learned in Middle Eastern war theaters. “Islamic State” or al-Qaeda militants and sympathizers have proven widely capable of carrying out deadly attacks and to pose a direct threat to the security of citizens and national institutions. As such, contemporary terrorism can be described and must be recognized as a phenomenon with military characteristics or inspiration, particularly since IS with its external operations came onto the stage.

“New Insurrectional Terrorism” (NIT): is revolutionary, subversive and utopian[1]

Today, after the fall of Kabul and the success gained by the Taliban, the specter of terrorism hangs over the space of the Afghan, or Syrian, or Libyan, or Sahel battlefields. Can we claim that the significant increase in jihadi-terror-linked violence recorded in the world and in Europe in the last 20 years is consistent with the classical concept of terrorism?

Terrorist attacks occurring between 2015 and 2018 in Europe, United States, as well as in North African or Middle Eastern countries do confirm the effective operational capability of the terror groups, in particular the Islamic state, whose nature shifted over time from a proto-state reality with territorial control, to what we can deem a de-nationalized, borderless phenomenon. “Leaderless jihad”, which anticipates IS, was perfected by the latter, as “aspiring” fighters were prevented from travelling and therefore chose to strike their home countries. What we are facing today has already been dubbed “New Insurrectional Terrorism” (NIT),[2] a concept which essentially includes all attempts at disrupting the national and/or international political order through violence. NIT is revolutionary and utopian, and whereas terrorism is functional, insurrectional terrorism continuously evolves. The aim of this new “breed” does not consist in instigating the masses with a view to overthrowing governments, rather in persuading a large number of Muslims all over the world to join the fight against the “infidels” insisting on a narrative supported by the victory of [their interpretation of] Islam in Afghanistan and at the same time presenting that victory as a reason to avoid any compromise with western countries.

This emerging “New Insurrectional Terrorism” has therefore nothing to do with the political terrorism of the ‘70s and ‘80s. It surfaced in the Middle East following the US invasion of Iraq (2003) and developed in the mid-2000s. It attracted world attention in 2014, due to its battlefield victories in Iraq and Syria (and then in Afghanistan). Today, however, IS – which main affiliate group is still fighting in (and possibly from) Afghanistan – has lost most of what it conquered over the past ten years: territories, energy resources, access to trade and finance channels. Its media appeal, though, is still strong and will utilize the Afghan success and the ongoing campaign as a “clear example”, also directed against the Taliban described as corrupted.

The loss of “territory” forced IS to concentrate, on the one hand, on its franchise activities abroad, especially in areas of crisis, with a new social approach which includes outsourcing of violence based on the reciprocal recognition between the IS central organization and local groups and opposition movements. Its message tries to turn thousands of radicalized individuals and dozens of young people and armed opposition groups into smart and ready “proximity weapons” prepared to “kill and die” in the name of the Caliphate.

In brief, “New Insurrectional Terrorism” consists in the use of violence, or threatened use of intentional, calculated, rational, self-justified violence in order to achieve political, religious and ideological goals. NIT is defined by characterizing elements. The nature of the terrorist activity consists in using (or threatening to use) violence in order to reach a political objective. It is complex and, above all, unpredictable, revolutionary, subversive and with a view to establish a proto-state aiming to obtain the “monopoly of force” within a geographical area. Furthermore, it contains political, socio-economic and religious aspects (justified on religious and apocalyptic grounds) and can be described as “stra-ctical” because of its strategic nature is being conveyed through tactics which must not necessarily be interconnected. Its nature is “glo-cal”, transnational, borderless and based on “flexibility and adaptability”. Its targets are represented by political, civilian, military, religious and symbolic combatants, as well as non-combatants. It is symbiotic: it “outsources” violence supported by emulative effects, and as a response to the “call to jihad”.

We can find all these elements in the (re)emerging phenomenon of the Islamic state which is findings new energies in the defeat of the United States in Afghanistan. What emerges from this description, is a threat to security represented by a contemporary, new form of terrorism: a phenomenon which adapts and evolves without a temporal or geographically-defined goal. NIT simply wants to impose a new societal model (the Caliphate) by tearing down alternatives and will use the symbolism associated with the Afghan war to exalt the “victory of Islam” obtained thanks to the sacrifice of “martyrs” and the “divine blessing”.


[1] Bertolotti C., Sulmoni C. (2021), How the Twenty-Year Afghanistan War Paved the Way for New Insurrectional Terrorism, in Carenzi S., Bertolotti C. (2021) “Charting Jihadism Twenty Years After 9/11”, Dossier ISPI, 11 settembre 2021

[2] Bertolotti C. (2015), NIT: Il ‘Nuovo Terrorismo Insurrezionale’. Dalla ‘5+5 Defense Initiative 2015’ il cambio di approccio alla minaccia dello Stato islamico, Analysis ISPI n. 292. In https://www.ispionline.it/sites/default/files/pubblicazioni/analisi292_bertolotti_16.12.2015.pdf.


News analysis: G20 aid to Afghanistan first step on a long journey (Xinhua)

Claudio Bertolotti comments on the results of the G20 on Afghanistan: Xinhua

Original article by Eric J. Lyman, “The Saxon” 14 October 2021

Rome (Italy), October 14: The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in the wake of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country in mid-August has sparked a series of problems in the country of nearly 40 million people and beyond, but for the Group of 20 (G20) countries the top priority now is to manage the brewing humanitarian crisis there.

Concerns abound over abuses of human rights (especially for women and girls); the spread of coronavirus; the migration of fleeing Afghans to other countries; the danger of Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for transnational terrorists again; and the recognition of the Taliban as the country’s legitimate authority.

Speaking after the conclusion of an extraordinary one-day meeting of the G20 leaders on Tuesday, Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi said the G20 had an “enormous responsibility” to foster stability in the country.

“What we have is a growing humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan and that is something we must tackle immediately,” he told reporters.

The G20’s focus on humanitarian challenges is a significant first step toward dealing with the challenges in Afghanistan

According to Claudio Bertolotti, a researcher with the Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), a think tank, and co-founder of the Observatory of Radicalization and Counter-Terrorism, the G20’s focus on humanitarian challenges is a significant first step toward dealing with the challenges in Afghanistan.

“If the G20’s first step had been to reach a consensus on whether or not to recognize the Taliban or to insist on human rights, that would have been too divisive and the talks could have fallen apart,” Bertolotti told Xinhua. “But focusing on what Draghi called the ‘growing humanitarian catastrophe’ was something everyone could agree on.”

That is a point Draghi stressed even while stating that other topics remained important. “There has basically been a convergence of views on the need to address the humanitarian emergency,” Draghi said. “This is how we can hope to overcome inevitable differences when it comes to foreign policy.”

The task at hand requires a series of concrete actions from the G20 member states. On Tuesday, for example, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that the European Union (EU) would spend one billion euros (1.15 billion U.S. dollars) on humanitarian assistance in the country.

Draghi said that the priorities include propping up Afghanistan’s fragile banking system and keeping the airport in the capital of Kabul operational as these were essential for delivering humanitarian aid. He said it was equally important to continue the fight against the spread of coronavirus in the country.

focusing on humanitarian issues now does not prevent the G20 and other multilateral groups from addressing the other prickly issues in the coming months or years.

Much of the aid to Afghanistan will be funneled through the United Nations (UN), but multiple news reports said some countries would still provide direct country-to-country aid, even though most states have not recognized the Taliban government. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will also play key roles, Draghi said.

According to Bertolotti, focusing on humanitarian issues now does not prevent the G20 and other multilateral groups from addressing the other prickly issues in the coming months or years.

“Finding agreement on humanitarian issues was important but not terribly surprising,” Bertolotti said. “Those issues will be addressed later, either in the G20 or in other contexts or even by individual countries.”

Source: Xinhua


Afghanistan: the G20 wants shared and comprehensive action (EuroNews)

Claudio Bertolotti, START InSight Director and ISPI Associate Researcher, comments on the outcomes and perspectives of the G20 on Afghanistan.

The G20’s focus on humanitarian challenges is a significant first step toward dealing with the challenges in Afghanistan. If the G20’s first step had been to reach a consensus on whether or not to recognize the Taliban or to insist on human rights, that would have been too divisive and the talks could have fallen apart. But focusing on what Draghi called the ‘growing humanitarian catastrophe’ was something everyone could agree on.

C. Bertolotti, START InSight Director

Focusing on humanitarian issues now does not prevent the G20 and other multilateral groups from addressing the other prickly issues in the coming months or years.
“Finding agreement on humanitarian issues was important but not terribly surprising. Those issues will be addressed later, either in the G20 or in other contexts or even by individual countries.

C. Bertolotti, START InSight Director

Report #ReaCT2021 – Director’s note: terrorism in the time of Covid-19

In my role as Executive Director of the ReaCT Observatory, I am honoured to introduce #ReaCT2021, the 2nd Report on Radicalisation and Counter-Terrorism in Europe.

This report offers a concise analysis on the evolution of radical ideologies and terrorist threats in accordance with the European Union directive 2017/541 on the fight against terrorism and is meant as a useful contribution, within the wider public debate, to the harmonisation of member States’ discrepancies around what should be defined and treated as terrorism.

The Observatory mainly focuses on jihadism; however, we make sure to afford enough room and support for studies on other forms of terrorism, ideological radicalisation and social deviance, as well as “conspiracy theories” leading to violent outcomes.

In their assessments, the authors who submitted their work for this issue of #ReaCT2021 took into account the repercussions of new social and conflict dynamics brought about by COVID-19.

Due to other priorities, the pandemic seemed to have sidelined terrorism when, all of a sudden, October 2020 revived the threat which had apparently been overcome. From early September to early November, a successive chain of events clearly highlighted a dramatic and articulated scenario. Those sixty days of fear tell us that terrorism is now a “normal” rather than an ‘exceptional’ phenomenon, as an instrument of the ongoing conflict.

2019-2020: the evolution of European jihadist terrorism

In 2019 according to Europol there were 119 successful, failed or thwarted attacks: 56 of these were carried out by ethno-nationalist and separatist groups; 26 by extreme left radical and anarchist groups; 6 by far right groups; 24 were jihadist, of which 3 were successful and 4 unsuccessful. In the same year, START InSight’s database listed 19 jihadist actions / events (as compared to the 7 reported by Europol); in 2020, the number goes up to 25.

In 2019, jihadists were responsible for all deaths from terrorism in Europe: according to Europol, 10 people lost their lives and 26 were injured (1 person was injured in a far-right attack). START InSight recorded a higher number of people with injuries (48), who were mostly victims of marginal and emulative attacks. In 2020 there was a significant increase in deaths: 16 people were killed and 55 were injured.

The long wave of terrorism which hit Europe following the emergence of the “Islamic State” phenomenon recorded 146 jihadist attacks from 2014 to 2020: 188 terrorists took part in these attacks (59 among them died in action); 406 people lost their lives; 2,421 were injured (START InSight’s database).

Cases of recidivism are on the rise: 3 out of 10 in 2020. START InSight also spotted an increase in actions carried out by terrorists already known to European police forces or intelligence services: 54% of the total in 2020.

An increase in the number of irregular migrants heightens the potential risk of terrorism: 20% of terrorists are irregular immigrants. In France, the number of irregular immigrants involved in terrorist attacks is growing. Until 2017, no attack had seen the participation of irregular immigrants; in 2018, 15% of terrorists were irregular immigrants: in 2020, they reached 40%.

Islamic State and al-Qaeda online terrorist propaganda during the Covid-19 emergency

Propaganda activities carried out during the Covid-19 pandemic and the attacks which took place in Paris, Nice and Vienna, recall how dynamic terrorism associated with the Islamic State and al-Qaeda remains, especially through the Internet. In particular, the Islamic State confirmed its aggressive narrative, identifying the Coronavirus as a “soldier of Allah”. An ally, set out to punish the “infidels”, above all the military and police forces.

The concepts and importance of preventing and countering violent extremism (PVE/CVE)

PVE and CVE gradually became an integral part of the global counter-terrorism architecture. In order to be long-term and effective, these policies and projects require a constant dialogue among researchers, practitioners, law enforcement agencies and legislators which also sets out priorities and expectations. Measuring the results of these activities remains a difficult task but several European think tanks are already bent on the issue.

Countering radicalisation and terrorism via criminal law: problems and perspectives

By its very nature, counterterrorism criminal law does not affect the causes of radicalisation and terrorism. An overarching and disproportionate resort to criminal law may even produce crime-inducing side effects: radicalisation shall be addressed as a reversible process. Counterterrorism criminal law in Europe is generally prison-based, even with regard to facts that arguably do not harm legal goods or interests.

The terror threat in the UK. The challenge: identify, define, arrest and convict

The complexity of the terror threat picture faced by the UK was recently highlighted through court cases which have frustrated the efforts of the security and intelligence forces. The cases that are now emerging are so disconnected from terrorist networks, are planning such random acts and the tools of terrorism are becoming so banal that it has become almost impossible to entirely shield yourself from the threat. But it has also become almost impossible to prove who might be going in this direction. This is creating a new generation of radicals that authorities struggle to identify, define, arrest and convict.

A look at the Balkan gate to Europe

The attack which took place in Vienna in November 2020 drew attention to the issue of terrorism in Europe, especially in the Balkan Area. It also focused such attention on jihadist presence in the Balkan countries, which could become a potential logistical hub for jihadism towards Europe.

Lessons learned from Kosovo’s experience in repatriating former foreign fighters: the small Western Balkan nation of Kosovo repatriated 110 citizens, including men, women, and children, in April 2019, making it one of a very small number of countries that has actively repatriated citizens involved with the Islamic State. The paper also includes what lessons can be learned by EU countries in handling the complex issue of how to manage the return of foreign fighters and their families.

The other terrorisms: far-right, extreme left and the new QAnon phenomenon in pandemic times

The pandemic caused by the Covid-19 virus has also had significant effects on the relational and communicative strategies and methodologies typical of both far-right and extreme left-wing environments. Right-wing violent extremism, a phenomenon in expansion in the West, appears to be acquiring a transnational character and has an emerging symbiotic, mutually-reinforcing interdependent relationship with Islamist extremism. This interdependence poses additional threats to European security.

A threat to democracy is QAnon, a conspiracy theory movement active in more than 70 countries and that presents a high risk of radicalization in Europe. It should be closely monitored because of its potential for violent actions.

Thanks to all of the authors who contributed to this Report. My gratitude also goes to the two co-editors who have given their fundamental input: Chiara Sulmoni, President of START InSight, and Flavia Giacobbe, Director of Airpress and Formiche.

Claudio Bertolotti – Executive Director

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#ReaCT2021 – The Islamic State and Al-Qaeda online terrorist propaganda during the Covid-19 emergency. Comparing strategies

by Stefano Mele, President of the Cybernetics Security Commission of the Italian Atlantic Committee [1]

Al Baghdadi’s death in October 2019 has determined the definitive collapse of the Caliphate and the defeat of the so-called Islamic State, at least concerning the territories. However, the multiple and continuous propaganda activities carried out during the health emergency linked to Covid-19 and, particularly, the recent terrorist attacks of Paris, Nice and Wien served as a memento that this terrorist organization is far from being considered as a threat to be filed in history books, but is, in fact, in a mere phase of descent and reorganization. This is proved by the largely stable number of attacks in the last twelve months, as well as the high number of arrests made by the Police.

At the same time, Al-Qaeda is also experiencing a period of strong disorientation linked, among other things, to the death of three of its leaders during 2020: Hamza Bin Laden, heir of Osama Bin Laden, killed in July during a Navy Seal’s raid between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Abu Muhamamd Al-Masri, killed in August by the Mossad, in the streets of Teheran, and  Ayman Al-Zawahiri, died in Afghanistan in November, for natural causes.

Nevertheless, both the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda have continued to assert their identities in order to maintain strong ties with the militants, focusing first and foremost on propaganda and proselytism through Internet and new technologies. If, on the one hand, the overall analysis of their online activities during the pandemic shows a considerable intensification of these activities, on the other hand it confirms the pre-existing narratives and their broader communication strategy, mainly dictated by the different positions of strength currently exercised by these two terrorist organizations.

In this sense, the Islamic State has continued along its well-known path, linked to a narrative that is always particularly aggressive and confrontational, identifying the Coronavirus as a real “Allah’s soldier”.  An ally, able to offer to their network –as reported in some press releases – a unique opportunity to strike infidels without mercy and when they least expect it. Their attention was particularly focused on the Military and the Police who, according to the Islamic State’s proclamations, would have been an even easier target, given their deployment in the streets and alleys due to the health emergency.

On the other hand, Al-Qaeda’s propaganda during the pandemic stood in stark contrast with the messages of the Islamic State. It relied on much more “persuasive” and unusually conciliatory narratives towards non-Muslims, aimed first and foremost at continuing to pursue the policy of “heart and mind”, which is long aimed to appeal ordinary Muslims and casual Westerners alike. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that almost all their statements during this period have focused on a general invitation to Western nations to join Islam, after that – as they say – Coronavirus has rendered strong economies, armies and governments impotent. A clear example of what is being said here is the six-page document of March 2020, entitled “The Way Forward: A Word of Advice on the Coronavirus Pandemic”. Clearly addressed to a Western audience, the Al-Qaeda message focuses on highlighting the role of the Coronavirus as a divine punishment for the alleged moral and intellectual decadence of the West. “We invite you to reflect on the phenomenon that is Covid-19 and carefully consider its deeper causes” Al-Qaeda’s senior executives write – “The truth remains, whether we like it or not, that this pandemic is a punishment from the Lord of the Worlds for the injustice and oppression committed against Muslims specifically and mankind generally by governments you elect”. After that an “invisible soldier” [COVID-19, NdA] revealed the intrinsic weakness of West’s materialistic ways, the press release continues with a “General appeal for the masses in the western world to embrace Islam”. “We would like to share with you our desire that you should be our partners in the Heavens the expanse of which is far greater than the earth and the sky” – as said in this Al-Qaeda’s statement – “It is in this spirit that we would like to introduce you to Islam and invite you to enter into peace, for this is the only path that leads to prosperity in this world and deliverance in the Hereafter”.

A point of contact in the propaganda activities of these two terrorist organizations can be found, however, in relation to their communications concerning precautions to be taken in order to avoid infections. Al-Qaeda, for example, has widely promoted Islam as a hygiene-oriented religion that encourages cleanliness and personal hygiene, also through the regular ablutions to perform prayers, thus making an implicit reference to hygiene as a way to avoid being affected by the Coronavirus.

On the other hand, the Islamic State has propagated in general terms the of health and safety measures derived from religious literature and health advice dictated by Islam, especially through the al-Naba’ newsletter. However, this “sensitivity” towards their own network has not prevented them from strongly criticizing the policies of closing mosques or limiting communal prayers. In particular, the Islamic State released a large number of images in May, showing its militants enjoying Ramadan meals and community prayer without any trace of social distancing.

The short-term effects of this strategy can be seen in the recent attacks in Paris, Nice and Wien, where – at least according to the information currently available – the attacks seem to have been carried out by cells who were inspired by the messages of the Islamic State, even if not actually coordinated by them. Foreseeing medium to long-term effects is more complex and less predictable. As a matter of facts, if it is true that the persistence of the health crisis, increasingly combined with the economic one, the continuous fueling and channeling of social anger towards hostile actions and the persistent “call to action” of the Islamic State, may represent the perfect mix for be forced to look at the near future with concern, the final result can’t be so obvious and clearly delineated for all States. In fact, the same pandemic that has so far represented the key element for the strengthening of online propaganda activities, could also constitute – at least in Europe – a brake to violent radicalization, especially as long as the so-called “lockdown” measures continue. However, as the health crisis recedes the situation will have to be analyzed on a case-by-case and country-by-country basis, in order to highlight those online and offline indicators that may presage an imminent and violent drift.

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[1] Stefano Mele is Partner of Carnelutti Law Firm, where he is the Head of the Technology, Privacy and Cybersecurity Law Department. He deals at national and international level with the political, strategic and legal aspects of the impact of technologies on citizens’ lives, businesses and national security. He is also the President of the Authority for Information and Communication Technologies of the Republic of San Marino. Among the many positions held, he is also the President of the Cybernetics Security Commission of the Italian Atlantic Committee and the President of the “Working Group on Cybersecurity” of the American Chamber of Commerce in Italy (AMCHAM). In 2020 he participated in the prestigious International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP) of the US State Department.


#ReaCT2021 – Sixty days of fear: the lesson learned

by Marco Lombardi, ITSTIME, Catholic University.

The pandemic seemed to have sidelined terrorism when, suddenly, October 2020 revived the threat that seemed to be overcome. In fact, between the first days of September and the beginning of November there is a chain of events that, listed in its succession, clearly highlights a dramatic and articulated scenario.

1 , Charlie Hebdo magazine republishes the caricatures of Muhammad that made it the target of jihadist terrorism in 2015.

2 , the trial of 14 supporters of the perpetrators of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher supermarket opens in Paris.

25 , Zaheer Hassan Mahmoud attacks two Employees of Premières Lignes TV with a knife in front of the former Charlie Hebdo headquarters.

27 Sept., the “Second Nagorn-Karabakh War” begins, with the Turks supporting Azerbaijan. The war ends on November 9 with the Azerbaijani victory.

2nd Oct., French President Emmanuel Macron strongly attacks “Islamist separatism”.

5 Oct., Nikol Pashinyan, Prime Minister of Armenia, declares that Europe will soon see Turkey on the outskirts of Vienna.

16 Oct., teacher Samuel Paty is beheaded by Abdoullakh Abuyezidvich Anzorov because he discussed Muhammad caricatures with his students. Paty is the victim of an intense social media campaign and three students have given information to his killer.

22 Oct., a woman with a burqa threatens to blow herself up at Lyon station, stopped she had no explosives: the event is one of the imitative behaviors that highlight the sedimentation of the jihadist threat in the western society.

24 Oct., Turkish President Erdogan responded to the question of separatism by stating that Macron, would need “psychiatric care“, then called for a boycott of French products and presents himself as the champion of offended Islam.

29 Oct., in the cathedral of Nice, three people were killed by a Tunisian terrorist, Brahim Aouissaoui, who landed in Lampedusa on 20 Sept., quarantined on the ship ‘Rhapsody’, identified and informed of his expulsion on 9 Oct. Aouissaoui loses his tracks and on the 26th goes from Palermo to Rome by bus, on the 27th from Rome to Genoa by train: the 28th is in Nice.

On 29 Oct., Vienna, fifty young people of Turkish origin broke into St Anthony’s Church to the cry of “Allah Akbar”. The episode is part of the climate of Erdogan’s statements.

2nd Nov., just few hours before the lockdown began, 4 people were killed in Vienna and 23 were injured by Kujtim Fejzulai in the city centre, in about nine minutes of six-point fire along a mile-long route. Kujtim, who was jailed for trying to reach Syria and join islamists, was released after 22 months for not being dangerous. Slovak intelligence informed Austrian colleagues of his attempt to purchase ammunition for AK-47 in July 2020.

2 Nov., France banned the Grey Wolves, a Turkish ultranationalist group after clashes with the Armenian community. Earlier, in June, Austrian Chancellor Kurz had ordered the closure of 7 mosques linked to Turkish associations following demonstrations for the re-enactment of the Ottoman victory at Gallipoli. Turkey accuses Austria of anti-Islamism and racism.

Listing the events that have punctuated these weeks is a fundamental lesson learned to draw some conclusions to place terrorism in the right perspective: a threat destined to persist in different and new organizational forms that will be able to adapt to the different scenarios.

The general climate of widespread violence found an ally in the virus

It was feared that Covid-19 was an opportunity that could be exploited by terrorism which, in its immediate propaganda, called for action its symphatizers because a possible relaxation in the police guard. This was not the case, proving that home-grown terrorists share as much fear for their health as the “kuffars” they want to strike. However, the virus, like every critical event, has been a booster of processes already underway and, above all, the leaven of a culture and a climate of widespread and pervasive violence that characterizes our society in recent years (from the Gilets Jaunes in France to Hong Kong, from Santiago to Lebanon): recent history shows how society has lost over time the intermediate bodies capable of mediating tensions and that the pandemic is an effective incubator of violent behavior. This context has given a good game to the sowers of violence to do their job more effectively and quickly: the processes of radicalization have become much faster, the transition to select, indoctrinate, convince people to turn to violence has now been reduced over time and the profound reasons for the choice have been lost confusing themselves with the immediate violent manifestation of their personal anger, which has far outweighed the ideological and religious motivations of terrorism.

In this cultural context, Islamist terrorism is now rooted and infiltrated in everyday life: in France one can lose its head for a cartoon and the “Caliphate” survives in families, in circles of friends, in its “clans”, where radicalization is no longer an ongoing process but a result achieved and stabilizing identities. And terrorism itself finds unexpected and unconscious allies in the denigrating of the victims, which feed the distinctions not comprehensible in the radical vision of “everything is or right or wrong“, as in the incitement interventions against the teacher who appeared on Social Media.

The political and cultural delay in responding to the threat of terrorism

The “lone wolf” narrative, used in recent weeks, is an example of the inability to overcome comfortable and dangerous stereotypes. The attacks in Paris, Nice and Vienna found support by  friendly circuits who are not necessarily ideologized but certainly unable to express their anger outside the extreme violence that characterizes the widespread culture we have described. This means that the “lone wolf” narrative is extremely dangerous if, as it often emerges, it explains a threat for this less relevant. On the contrary, the loneliness of the “wolf” is such only compared to an absent formal organization, but not compared to an informal supporting circuit, first emotional and then logistical: the result is that terrorist action becomes unpredictable. Even when the signs are manifested in the biography of terrorists and actions, the lack of procedures that allow information to be “exchanged” at least for the mutual benefit of the agencies, rather than “shared” for free on the basis of a common project, generates vulnerabilities that are no longer tolerable. But even operational delays in Vienna allow for the mobility of a man who is on fire in six different places are not tolerable either. Nor does it underestimate the infiltration of “radicalized” individuals through the paths of illegal immigration, which feeds on bureaucratic procedures that generate vulnerabilities. None of this is compatible with the desire to counter the threat of terrorism.

Terrorism is a weapon of hybrid warfare.

As with the virus, for which there is no evidence that it was voluntarily launched into the world as a weapon, but which was exploited by everyone as a weapon once it was spread, so for the terrorist attacks, of which there is no evidence that they were directly activated by national agencies, it can be said that they were exploited as a weapon in the ongoing hybrid conflict. On the other hand, the organizational collapse of Daesh provided the militancy of terrorists deployed from the Syrian front to the North African front, to the Azerbaijani front as a weapon of rapid use, and the “Charlie Hebdo” trial provided the communicative context to drive dormant terrorism, giving new horizons for the defense of the Umma offended. If there is no evidence of tactical activation, however, it is clear the inspiration for the series of attacks, useful to national interests in the wider context of the conflict. In this sense, we have to consider the legacy of Daesh, which has promoted, legitimized and trained too many wanna be terrorists to behave easily, and the use of this labour force in an increasingly structured way also by state entities.

In conclusion, these sixty days of fear tell us that terrorism is now a ‘normal’ rather than an ‘exceptional’ phenomenon, as an instrument of the ongoing and continuing conflict. It is important to associate this vision with the awareness of a world in which threats intersect, overlap and feed but certainly never evade each other, so as not to fall into the error of considering a sequential time, as in September when the pandemic seemed to coagulate all concerns, making us forget the circular plurality of threats: terrorism among them.

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#ReaCT2021 – Numbers and profiles of jihadist terrorists in Europe

by Claudio Bertolotti

The new terrorism in Europe, in numbers

436 terrorist attacks, including failed and foiled ones, were recorded on European soil from 2017 to 2019 (895 in the 2014-2017 period): 63% were attributed to separatist and ethno-nationalist groups: 16% to radical leftist and anarchist groups (on the increase); 2.8% to far-right groups (decreasing); while 18% were jihadist. Although jihadist attacks are a marginal number, they were responsible for all deaths from terrorism in 2019 and for 16 killed in 2020.

The long wave of terrorism which hit Europe following the emergence of the “Islamic State” phenomenon recorded 146 jihadist attacks from 2014 to 2020: 188 terrorists took part in these attacks (59 among them died in action); 406 people lost their lives; 2,421 were injured (START InSight’s database).

Twice as much emulative actions

In 2020, a total of 25 events took place in Europe compared to 19 in the previous year, with a substantial rise in the “emulative effect”. “Emulative” and autonomous actions by self-starters, which are inspired or triggered by a main event and which occur within the following 8 days, represent 48% of the total attacks in 2020 (up from 21% in 2019). 2020 was characterized by a progressive decrease in structured and coordinated actions; the now preveailing individual, unorganized, often improvised and unsuccessful actions have taken over the European urban “battlefield”.

Personal data of “European” terrorists

Terrorism and gender: terrorist attacks are a male prerogative as indicated by the 97% of male attackers (182 terrorists), although in 2020 there were 3 events conducted by women (12% of the total in 2020). Furthermore, the number of terrorist attacks increases as the stock of male immigrants increases too.

The median age of the 188 terrorists who carried out attacks is 26: this figure varies over time (24 in 2016, 26 in 2017, 25.5 in 2018, 30 in 2019 and 25 in 2020). The personal data of the 138 terrorists who were identified, allow us to draw a very interesting picture, showing that 10% of the subjects are under the age of 19, 36% are aged between 19 and 26, 39 % between 27 and 35 and, finally, 15% are over the age of 35.

Increase in recidivism and individuals known to intelligence

Cases of recidivism are on the rise – individuals already convicted for terrorism who carry out attacks at the end of their prison term and, in some cases, within prison walls: from 3% in 2018 (1 case), to 7% (2) in 2019, to 27% (6) in 2020. This data highlights the social danger of convicted individuals who do not abandon their violent intent; this evidence suggests a potential increase in terrorist actions over the coming years, cuncurrently with the release of currently detained terrorists.

START InSight also spotted an increase in actions carried out by terrorists already known to European police forces or intelligence services: 54% of the total in 2020, compared to 10% in 2019 and 17% in 2018.

Also on the increase is the percentage of individuals already convicted and detained (for crimes not necessarily associated with terrorism): 33% in 2020 – they were 23% in 2019, 28% in 2018 and 12% in 2017. This evidence confirms the hypothesis that prisons can be conducive to radicalization.

Increase in the “functional blockade”: an indirect success of terrorism

The “functional blockade” represents the most significant outcome for terrorism on European soil; one which is obtained regardless of tactical success (death or destruction of a target): security forces’ operational activities, transport, urban mobility, emergency health services, everyday life were all impacted.

Compared to a 34% of “success” obtained by terrorists from 2004 onwards, terrorism has proven its “effectiveness” by causing a “functional blockade” in 82% of the cases (2004-2020); in 2020, 92% of attacks led to a “functional blockade”: an impressive result, despite the attackers’ access to limited resources.

 


Chaos at Capitol Hill: what went wrong?

by Luca Tenzi, Security and Resilience Strategist and Andrea Molle, START InSight

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History teaches us that the assault on the Capitol building, which took place on Wednesday, January 6th, 2021, was anything but unpredictable. Although unfamiliar to most people, Congress has been the target of several attacks in the past. In 1954, for instance, a group of separatists from the US Territory of Puerto Rico opened fire inside the building, wounding five Congress members. In 1998, an armed individual managed to get through the security checkpoint, ultimately killing two police officers before being stopped. Lastly, the building was likely a target of the 9/11 attacks. Ever since, the possibility of a terrorist attack at Capitol Hill has been taken very seriously, or at least it should have been.

We can say that the threat of a mob-style assault was underestimated. One of the reasons is that, in recent American history, there had never been such a display of collective violence directed towards a government site. Not even the Vietnam war demonstrators stormed iconic seats of power like the Capitol building. Nor had the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement ever crossed the line between civil disobedience and an act of insurrection towards a legitimate and democratically elected government.

However, in this case, everything suggested that January 6th would not be just a simple protest. In the days leading up to it, many signs should have alarmed the American intelligence community. Open-source intelligence had signaled that Donald Trump’s supporters were making plans for the day and were sharing information in plain sight on social media. Among some of the monitored conversations, there were suspicious threads, including, for example, an extensive discussion concerning the best ways to smuggle weapons into DC. In cases like this, when there is a clear potential for violence to erupt, the twelve local and federal law enforcement agencies that operate in DC engage in planning coordinate operations. Intel gathering and planning for preventive security measures is usually undertaken with the FBI or the NSA (National Security Agency) taking a leading role. However, it is not clear if that was the case on January 6th.

It should be noted that a plethora of local, state, and federal security and law enforcement agencies operate simultaneously in Washington DC. All of them are tasked with protecting representatives and iconic sites of the federal government. Following protocol, security planning was handled by the United States Capitol Police (USCP), a law enforcement agency of about 2,000 members under the direct control of Congress and uniquely tasked with protecting the Capitol building. The Head of Capitol Police, who recently resigned due to the political backlash, stated that he had requested reinforcements two days ahead. He had received credible and actionable intel that suggested the protests would be much more extensive and potentially more violent than anticipated. For reasons still unclear, the other actors of the US federal government’s vast security apparatus ignored the request and did not grant support.

The transition between the outgoing and the incoming administrations certainly explains some confusion in the decision-making process. Some key positions were occupied ad interim by outgoing officials and have certainly weakened operational and tactical decisions. The analysis of the decision-making timeline comforts this view. The events’ timeline is becoming more evident, suggesting that there have been many mistakes along the line. For example, a Department of Defense official stated that, at around 2:00 pm, the Mayor of Washington DC, Muriel Bowser, requested the National Guard to be dispatched on-site. That was about 45 minutes after the protestors had broken the barricade on the building’s external security perimeter.

Moreover, it is not clear why would the Mayor oversee such request rather than the Chief of Capitol Police, who serves on-site and certainly had a better understanding of the situation. The Capitol’s blurred chain of command aggravated the confusion. The interim Secretary of Defense, Chris Miller, deployed the National Guard only about 30 minutes after receiving the Mayor’s request. The National Guard was then joined by few neighboring states police departments tactical teams (SWAT). At that point, however, Capitol Hill was already lost as the mob had already entered the building. Despite a thin external security perimeter, no security perimeter was set inside the building, except for some agents tasked with defending the most sensible rooms. Since no physical barriers were used to block corridors and force an internal route, once inside, the assailants were able to roam freely while being chased by a now disoriented Police.

In the Rotunda, the iconic circular hall located under the Capitol building’s dome, gas masks were rapidly distributed. The outnumbered Capitol Police were by then using pepper spray and tear gas to slow down the mob. Simultaneously, the Secret Service proceeded to extract Vice-president Mike Pence, while Police officers extracted several other key members of Congress, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Security forces then used improvised barricades to block the doors accessing the Chamber of the House of Representatives. For example, a cabinet was pushed in front of the Chamber’s doors while senators and representatives were hiding under the desks waiting to be extracted.

Twenty years after 9/11, the Capitol Security Department’s annual budget is now set to around $450 million. If it is not for lack of resources, what did go wrong in defending the Capitol building? Among the many factors which played a role, two can be deemed essential to mention: First, the Capitol Police lack of preparation to manage a situation amenable to guerrilla warfare. Second, the structural weakness of the building itself. Capitol police officers are mainly tasked with and trained to keep protestors away from the Capitol building and the outside monumental staircase, thus securing the structure like a citadel. The reason for that is that the nineteenth century Capitol building has many doors and windows. Therefore, it is quite challenging for a security force, although large, to simultaneously defend all these access points. Once the steps were lost, the mob could -quite predictably- quickly find a way into the building. The second operational weakness is that the Capitol Police has contingency plans only for cases of what is legally defined as “planned activities of the First Amendment.” This means against moderately violent demonstrations that are not considered either a terrorist attack or guerrilla warfare.

While the risk of active protests and civil disobedience on the part of Trump supporters were certainly considered plausible, and in some way even expected, giving the tones of the outgoing President, the violent outburst came as a surprise to national and foreign experts. This physical violence was shocking because a place that was always regarded as one amongst the safest on earth was easily violated, revealing an unforgivable level of operational weakness by the US security and intelligence community.

Despite the alleged existence of several contingency plans, security was poorly designed, insufficient, and entrusted to an inadequate police force. The response looked wholly improvised to the point that the heads of the Departments of Justice, Defense, and Homeland Security have launched a rigorous investigation into their agencies’ shortcoming at the time of the assault.

All that happened points out that what took place in front of our eyes on January 6th was never really considered a possibility. Setting aside an analysis of the crowd dynamics, what was extremely surprising is the building’s physical fragility and the lack of planning. Simple physical countermeasures, including architectural elements designed to prevent an assault, limit or delay access to the building by the most violent protesters, were missing. Physical measures in the world of security experts are summarized in the 5D paradigm (deter, detect, deny, delay, defend). This model is now considered a best practice by all public and private security agencies. Their lack thereof is troubling. Even more so, because the United States is considered top of the game concerning security measures designed to protect government’s sites. Those have increased considerably after the events of 9/11. In the aftermath of 9/11, all sensitive targets, both on American soil and abroad, such as diplomatic offices, went through a complete security overhaul, and dedicated budgets grew exponentially. Today, all the American embassies are considered the golden standards of security measures, which are draconian in some cases. Architectural measures, urban restyling, new technical solutions, and armed personnel’s constant presence have now become the norm thanks to the US. The use of the concepts of crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) is among the critical elements of this paradigm change in security planning and sees its best application so far with the new American Embassy design in London. The multi-disciplinary approach to deterring criminal behavior has reached its apex, turning the Embassy into an almost impenetrable fortress.

Unfortunately, we cannot say the same for many critical sites of American politics in Washington DC. Like many other government sites on American soil, the Capitol building remains easily accessible to the public, which turns it into a soft target. Visitors can collect intel during either guided tours or meetings with their government representatives while roaming almost freely inside the building. Moreover, the internet provides further chances to collect information about the building as several websites offer incredibly detailed maps of the Capitol building available to the public. These maps are even updated whenever changes or renovations are made. Following the events of January 6th, the security measures and the Vice President’s movements have been studied, analyzed, and reported by the mass media, exposing a lack of discretion in handling confidential information.

Another element of weakness is that of a lack of threat perception due to cultural biases. Despite having provided a complete first line of defense, including anti-climb fences, during the Black Lives Matter movement’s protests, the same preventive measures were not deployed against Trump supporters. The physical barriers used on January 6th were the same as those customarily used to direct crowds, for example, during a concert. Certainly not the same type of fences which were seen deployed, along with the National Guard, in defense of the Capitol building and the White House on the occasion of the George Floyd protests. The reaction of the security apparatus was at that time probably exaggerated. It should also be mentioned that President Trump had demanded a very tall fence to be built around the White House. Paradoxically, this request was considered despicable by many observers precisely because the outside of the White House is seen as a place where the people can exercise their constitutional right to protest.

A final surprising element was the presence of poorly protected and easily accessible entry points. For example, the windows on the lower floors were neither manned nor equipped with shatterproof glass. In much of the footage, we can see that only the main entry doors were armored. By contrast, others were quickly forced by means of elementary objects found on-site (e.g., metal chairs or bars), allowing the mob’s avant-garde to access the building and open other doors from the inside. The inside doors, for example, were not reinforced, nor were the windows bulletproof. The images of armed agents defending the chambers behind what appears to be a wardrobe placed against the main access door, and the death of a protester hit by a bullet fired through a French window by a police officer, confirm our suspicion. Moreover, the Capitol building was partially covered in scaffoldings due to some of its facades’ renovation. Those unprotected scaffolding served as a made-up assault tower, allowing access to the upper floors and the roof and providing melee weapons to the attackers.

In conclusion, if democracy has shown remarkable resilience, security has failed spectacularly. The lack of operational and physical planning and systemic issues in the Capitol Hill security apparatus chain suggest that the United States is utterly unprepared to face a domestic threat perpetrated by lower-middle-class Caucasian citizens.

The prejudice is not only due to the intelligence community’s unwillingness to adapt its threat perception to a target other than the stereotypical jihadist from overseas, but also and perhaps above all, to its very own Constitution. The first and second amendments do guarantee the right to express opinions even in an aggressive fashion, and to own and carry weapons or organize militias to respond to external and internal threats, including those that -in the collective imagination- might originate from the government. This flammable mixture helped create the conditions conducive to January 6th and today contributes to making high profile sites, such as the Capitol Hill and the White House itself, soft targets.

As there has been a before and an after to 9/11, there will be a before and an after to 1/06. Whereas the rights enshrined in the US Constitution will not be changed, we can foreshadow and hope that domestic terrorism will be monitored closely. We will also have discussions, difficult ones, on security measures in government buildings open to the public, first and foremost the Capitol. Discussions that already began in the days following the assault, when Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi ordered that Capitol Police introduce airport level checkpoints to access Congress. A measure that did not go uncontested.

Photo by LOGAN WEAVER on Unsplash

 


Security Union: A Counter-Terrorism Agenda and stronger Europol to boost the EU’s resilience

(European Commission Press Release)

Brussels, 9 December 2020

Today, the Commission is presenting a new Counter-Terrorism Agenda for the EU to step up the fight against terrorism and violent extremism and boost the EU’s resilience to terrorist threats. Building on the work done in recent years, the Agenda seeks to support Member States in better anticipating, preventing, protecting and responding to the terrorist threat. Europol, the EU Agency for law enforcement cooperation, will deliver better operational support to Member States’ investigations under the revised mandate proposed today.

Vice-President for Promoting our European Way of Life, Margaritis Schinas, said: “The inclusive and rights-based foundations of our Union are our strongest protection against the threat of terrorism. By building inclusive societies where everyone can find their place, we reduce the appeal of extremist narratives. At the same time, the European way of life is not optional and we must do all in our
power to prevent those that seek to undo it. With today’s Counter-Terrorism Agenda we are putting the focus on investing in the resilience of our societies with measures to better counter radicalisation and to protect our public spaces from attacks through targeted measures.

Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, said: “With today’s Counter-Terrorism Agenda, we are boosting experts’ ability to anticipate new threats, we are helping local communities to prevent radicalisation, we are giving cities the means to protect open public spaces through good design and we are ensuring that we can respond quickly and more efficiently to attacks and attempted attacks. We are also proposing to give Europol the modern means to support EU countries in their investigations.

Measures to anticipate, prevent, protect and respond
The recent spate of attacks on European soil have served as a sharp reminder that terrorism remains a real and present danger. As this threat evolves, so too must our cooperation to counter it.

The Counter-Terrorism Agenda aims at:

  • Identifying vulnerabilities and building capacity to anticipate threats

To better anticipate threats as well as potential blind spots, Member States should make sure that the Intelligence and Situation Centre (EU INTCEN) can rely on high quality input to increase our situational awareness. As part of its upcoming proposal on the resilience of critical infrastructure, the Commission will set up advisory missions to support Member States in carrying out risk assessments, building on the experience of a pool of EU Protective Security Advisors. Security research will help enhance early detection of new threats, whilst investing in new technologies will help Europe’s counter terrorism response stay ahead of the curve.

  • Preventing attacks by addressing radicalisation

To counter the spread of extremist ideologies online, it is important that the European Parliament and the Council adopt the rules on removing terrorist content online as a matter of urgency. The Commission will then support their application. The EU Internet Forum will develop guidance on moderation for publicly available content for extremist material online.

Promoting inclusion and providing opportunities through education, culture, youth and sports can contribute to making societies more cohesive and preventing radicalisation. The Action Plan on integration and inclusion will help build community resilience.

The Agenda also focuses on strengthening preventive action in prisons, paying specific attention to the rehabilitation and reintegration of radical inmates, including after their release. To disseminate knowledge and expertise on the prevention of radicalisation, the Commission will propose setting up an EU Knowledge Hub gathering policy makers, practitioners and researchers.

Recognising the specific challenges raised by foreign terrorist fighters and their family members, the Commission will support training and knowledge sharing to help Member States manage their return.

  • Promoting security by design and reducing vulnerabilities to protect cities and people

Many of the recent attacks that took place in the EU targeted densely crowded or highly symbolic spaces. The EU will step up efforts to ensure physical protection of public spaces including places of worship through security by design. The Commission will propose to gather cities around an EU Pledge on Urban Security and Resilience and will make funding available to support them in reducing the vulnerabilities of public spaces. The Commission will also propose measures to make critical infrastructure – such as transport hubs, power stations or hospitals – more resilient. To step up aviation security, the Commission will explore options for a European legal framework to deploy security officers on flights.

All those entering the EU, citizens or not, must be checked against the relevant databases. The Commission will support Member States in ensuring such systematic checks at borders. The Commission will also propose a system ensuring that a person who has been denied a firearm on security grounds in one Member State cannot lodge a similar request in another Member State, closing an existing loophole.

  • Stepping up operational support, prosecution and victims’ rights to better respond to attacks

Police cooperation and information exchange across the EU are key to respond effectively in case of attacks and bring perpetrators to justice. The Commission will propose an EU police cooperation code in 2021 to enhance cooperation between law enforcement authorities, including in the fight against terrorism.

A substantial part of investigations against crime and terrorism involve encrypted information. The Commission will work with Member States to identify possible legal, operational, and technical solutions for lawful access and promote an approach which both maintains the effectiveness of encryption in protecting privacy and security of communications, while providing an effective response to crime and terrorism. To better support investigations and prosecution, the Commission will propose to create a network of counter-terrorism financial investigators involving Europol, to help follow the money trail and identify those involved. The Commission will also further support Member States to use battlefield information to identify, detect and prosecute returning Foreign Terrorists Fighters.

The Commission will work to enhance the protection of victims of terrorist acts, including to improve access to compensation. The work on anticipating, preventing, protecting and responding to terrorism will involve partner countries, in the EU’s neighbourhood and beyond; and rely on stepped up engagement with international organisations. The Commission and the High Representative/Vice-President, as appropriate, will step up cooperation with Western Balkan partners in the area of firearms, negotiate international agreements with Southern Neighbourhood countries to exchange personal data with Europol, and enhance strategic and operational cooperation with other regions such as the Sahel region, the Horn of Africa, other African countries and key regions in Asia.

The Commission will appoint a Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, in charge of coordinating EU policy and funding in the area of counter-terrorism within the Commission, and in close cooperation with the Member States and the European Parliament.

Stronger mandate for Europol

The Commission is proposing today to strengthen the mandate of Europol, the EU Agency for law enforcement cooperation. Given that terrorists often abuse services offered by private companies to recruit followers, plan attacks, and disseminate propaganda inciting further attacks, the revised mandate will help Europol cooperate effectively with private parties, and transmit relevant evidence to Member States. For example, Europol will be able to act as a focal point in case it is not clear which Member State has jurisdiction.

The new mandate will also allow Europol to process large and complex datasets; to improve cooperation with the European Public Prosecutor’s Office as well as with non-EU partner countries; and to help develop new technologies that match law enforcement needs. It will strengthen Europol’s data protection framework and parliamentary oversight.

Background

Today’s Agenda follows from the EU Security Union Strategy for 2020 to 2025, in which the Commission committed to focus on priority areas where the EU can bring value to support Member States in fostering security for those living in Europe.

The Counter-Terrorism Agenda builds on the measures already adopted to deny terrorists the means to carry out attacks and to strengthen resilience against the terrorist threat. That includes EU rules on combating terrorism, on addressing terrorist financing and access to firearms.

For More Information

Communication on a Counter-Terrorism Agenda for the EU: Anticipate, Prevent, Protect, Respond

Proposal for a Regulation strengthening Europol’s mandate

Strengthening Europol’s mandate – Impact assessment Part 1

and Part 2

Strengthening Europol’s mandate – Executive summary of the impact assessment

A Counter-Terrorism Agenda for the EU and a stronger mandate for Europol: Questions and Answers

Press release: EU Security Union Strategy: connecting the dots in a new security ecosystem, 24 July 2020

Security Union – Commission website

Illustration 2020/2
© Copyright European Commission 2020

EU-certified Imams: limits and risks of a rushed proposal

by Andrea Molle

Following the recent attacks in Nice and Vienna, Macron meets with Austria, Holland, Germany, and the EU leaders to promote a series of joint initiatives to prevent terrorist threats, reform the Schengen agreements, and strengthen the European Union’s external borders. At the meeting, an old French obsession stands out: implementing a state-run system to train and certify Imams, perhaps even at a European level, as re-launched a few days ago by the President of the European Council Charles Michel. According to the French proposal, which is gaining momentum throughout the European institutions thanks to Macron’s undeniable charisma, the risk of foreign interference and the infiltration of radicalized individuals in the continent would be reduced. It is a typically French approach to regulation, which is applied with success in various social domains in the Hexagon: ranging from professional to sports federations and training schools. Nevertheless, extending this principle to religion is a step into uncharted and dangerous territory. Internal training tied to state certification of religious leaders is a very thorny issue. While it may seem a good idea at first glance, there are several reasons to believe this solution to be far more dangerous than the problem it sets out to solve. On the one hand, it is undoubtedly true that religious communities want to develop bottom-up curricula and training options independent from foreign countries’ hierarchies and economic supports or institutions. However, on the other hand, it is highly likely that a dominant role of the secular state, which will also become the only source of legitimacy, will be perceived as another attempt to interfere in the life of those same communities thereby increasing the vulnerability of the Muslim communities. In fact, scientific evidence suggests that radicalization is a byproduct of marginalization and increased state control. That would be especially true if, as expected, the system is not to be extended to all religions, including Christianity. Moreover, this move is somewhat hypocritical because it will come from the same governments that condemn state interference in religion when enacted by Russia or China, making it likely to ripple foreign policy effects. Bottom line: such interference would likely end up increasing the risk of radicalization.

while it may seem a good idea, there are reasons to believe this solution to be far more dangerous than the problem it sets out to solve

A state-run system would also clash with two other major dynamics known by researchers who study religious radicalization. First, assuming that centralization automatically decreases the risk of radicalization is pure wishful thinking. Like many French Muslim community leaders suggest, a system for “State Imams” would not benefit from the Muslim world’s theological legitimation. Secondly, such a system would not lead to the demise of groups not recognized by the government and perhaps sponsored by hostile foreign countries. Instead, it is quite possible that they would end up restructuring as underground groups, therefore more susceptible to infiltration and challenging to monitor. It is likely that their religious leaders, considered more legitimate than the state one, will gain even more power to persuade followers to embrace radicalization.

a system for “State Imams” would not benefit from the Muslim world’s theological legitimation

To double down on the limitations and risks mentioned above, it should be added that the prejudicial assumption that unchecked Mosques are inherently settings of radicalization is just a myth. It is a stereotype that rests on a French conception of religion as an irrational experience by design intrinsically prone to violence. It is a politically prevalent idea that is by no means supported by scientific evidence. Instead, relevant scientific literature suggests that worship places are a healthy response to the crisis experienced by the second and third generations of non-European immigrants. The literature also shows how these places have become liable over time to radicalization. It is suggested that it has happened because they have been repeatedly ignored, if not openly antagonized, by Western governments. In short, it would seem that the French laïcité, a form of orthodox quasi-religious (sic!) separation between State and Church, is a contributing factor to radicalization rather than a solution to it. This point is spearheaded by Chems-Eddine Hafiz, Rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, who insists on how the fundamental issue at play is the lack of support for the Imams. Their lack of professionalization and access to financial resources produces the need to access foreign financial support and training that is likely to come with several strings attached.

it’d seem that the French laïcité, a form of orthodox separation between State and Church, is a contributing factor rather than a solution to radicalisation

A recent bill, sponsored by the French President, seemed to relax the orthodox approach to secularism and go in the right direction of integrating Islam and other minority religions within a new framework of acceptance of religion’s public and educational dimension. Today’s proposal of a state monopoly is a radical U-turn that would take us back of at least a decade of research and policy aimed to fight radicalization. In our opinion, a better science-based solution should be the one of deregulating religion and, therefore, increase the chances for independent moderate groups to access the French “religious market.” A healthy competition, lightly regulated by the state, would almost certainly favor the less extremist and violent experiences. Unfortunately, it seems that Macron and his fellow Heads of State have fallen for an old trick of terrorism: to provoke an excessive and untidy reaction guided by the logic of internal politics and to put one EU member state against the others. While France is prepared to nationalize religion, Austria goes even deeper into the rabbit hole by outlawing political Islam at once. Germany seems to go in a different direction altogether, and the southern states, the border states, are ignored or threatened to be excluded from Schengen. On top of that, the European Union’s Interior Ministers’ recent meeting speaks of different issues and heralds a new squeeze on online controls and propaganda. They all seem to ignore how challenging it is to define and operationalize such concepts as much as they ignore that they are doing precisely what terrorists expect them to do. That is why we believe the real winner at Macron’s meeting is Islamic radicalism, and we fear that the new course Europe has set itself on will end up breaking it up and benefiting only radicalism by increasing its recruitment pool.