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The more complex scenarios of terrorism, violent extremism and radicalisation

Chiara Sulmoni, President, START InSight

This article features in #ReaCT2023, the annual Report on Terrorism and Radicalisation in Europe

Definitions, categories and the very idea of terrorism and violent extremism which informed strategies aimed and preventing and countering radicalisation over the past few years, and which focused mainly on the fight against jihadist mobilization and the Islamic State group, no longer mirror reality; or, at best, they fail to grasp it in its entirety. The current situation in the West is characterized by a variety of ideologies, beliefs, profiles and motivations which can be blurry and often overlap; which makes it all the more difficult to evaluate their extent, to predict associated risks and to trace the evolution of these phenomena.

An increasingly intricate reality
Jihadist terrorism continues to represent the deadliest form of violence, both in Europe and globally. However, not only the analysts, but a 2022 Report by the UN Secretary-General too draws attention to an increase in attacks based on xenophobia, racism and other forms of intolerance, or against minorities, in the name of religion or belief, as well as a growth in misogyny, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia (1). What worries Member States, in particular, is the transnational dimension of this threat, which can take shape thanks to online contacts and networks but also through participation in real-world meetings at joint events or even paramilitary training. The so-called ‘manifestos’, proper ideological legacies which attackers of different orientations leave behind, and in which they make reference to previous attackers and to massacres that have taken place in distant geographical areas, testify to a communality of themes and intent. The battle against propaganda is a particularly difficult one, due to the broad array of communication tools used by militants and sympathizers, including social, gaming and messaging platforms, alternative information channels and forums.

Further to that, political and economic tensions at the height of the COVID19 pandemic, mixed with personal vulnerabilities and predispositions, helped accelerate dissent or distrust of governments and institutions and contributed to the dissemination of conspiracy theories and disinformation, which make up the fabric of extremist narratives, promote radicalization and social encapsulation, can lead to violence against symbols and/or political representatives and quickly adapt to shifting scenarios, such as the war in Ukraine. Movements, sub-cultures and conspiracies which are typically American – such as accelerationism, sovereign citizens, incels (involuntary celibates) and QAnon – were progressively incorporated and adapted to the European landscape.

Data from the Global Terrorism Index (GTI) 2022 and 2023 indicate that over the past ten years, in the West, ideological terrorism (that is, by the extreme right and left) exceeded religious terrorism by over three times.

Profiles and objectives have expanded
Most ideologically-motivated attacks are carried out by individuals who do not belong to formally (re) cognized groups, so much so that the GTI 2023 points out how, in several countries, the intelligence refrains from attributing them to the extreme right or left. Those who are attracted to extremism are increasingly younger, particularly in the UK, where teenagers under 15 feature in terrorism-related investigations (2) . However, researchers were able to observe further nuances, namely that when misogyny is concerned (in the case of incels, for example), subjects tend to be younger than those who are hostile to minorities (and harbor anti-immigration sentiments)(3). The Institute for Strategic Dialogue published an analysis in the aftermath of the attack on the Dover migrant center in 2022 (Comerford, Squirrel, Leenstra, Guhl), which underlines the importance of not focusing on a single trend: “the increasingly singular focus on ‘vulnerable’ younger terrorists has created a blind-spot for older perpetrators and the radicalisation of an older generation of people, statistically more likely to be involved in acts of terrorism, often driven by hatred towards various marginalised groups rather than a coherent ideology“(4).

In the case of jihadism as well, there’s a consolidated post-organisational trend in Europe, whereby attacks are carried out by single (yet not necessarily solitary) actors who can be motivated as much by solid ideology as by personal and mental problems leading to violence, whose actions tend to take the form of improvised events, with easily available ‘weapons’, ‘inspired’ (rather than claimed) and isolated, with respect to broader group goals. The numerous foiled attacks and arrests indicate that -the efficiency of law enforcement notwithstanding- this matrix is not fading at all but is rather constantly evolving. In its latest Report, Europol mentions that it has dismantled a series of groups intent on planning attacks with more complex modus operandi (TE-SAT 2022).

Such stratified scenario is therefore dynamic and unpredictable, characterized by the presence of opposing ideologies and motivations which reinforce each other, giving shape to so-called cumulative extremism (this is what happens, for example, between jihadism and the extreme right); or by groups and individuals with different beliefs, which in turn represent different levels of risk (not all are violent), united by a single, common stance – as in the case of the German anti-government and anti-democratic network Reichsbürger (with a presence in Austria, Switzerland, Italy), which rose to prominence in December 2022 following a raid, when some members were thought to be planning a coup. As Alexander Ritzmann writes in an analysis for West Point magazine CTC Sentinel “the only thing that connects them is the fundamental denial of the legitimacy of the German state. This is one of the main reasons why German authorities have a somewhat difficult time assessing their (changing) potential for violence and terrorist acts in comparison to more ideologically coherent, unified, and structured extremist movements” (5).

In such a composite reality, the range of targets also widens ad is potentially endless – from regular citizens in public spaces to places of worship, religious representatives, institutions and government figures, law enforcement and members of the armed forces, health personnel and authorities (for violent no-vax and COVID deniers), infrastructures (which are the object of sabotage and cyberattacks), teachers, women, minorities (including the LGBT+ community), migrant shelters and so on.

The challenges of prevention. Shifting themes and priorities
Today, so-called “everyday extremists” can arise either in a context of “atmospheric jihadism” -as Prof. Gilles Kepel defines it- in which hate-mongers unleash (collective) anger against an objective – e.g. a person accused of blasphemy – with deadly outcomes, should a radicalized individual take the initiative; or in a context where radical propositions and attitudes gain visibility and traction on the web and social media, thanks to controversial and violent role models and influencers who can boast a large following among youth and adults (this is the case for misogyny or conspiracy), while conspiracy theories and disinformation make their way into mainstream discourse and -at times- into government, via the election of controversial political figures who espouse them. In a situation where the threat is not embodied solely by violent ideologies, but by violent rhetoric rooted in a more or less widespread mentality, prevention takes on a more prominent role; it requires a greater involvement on the part of civil society; and, finally, it must engage with a wider range of recipients than in the past.

Prevention (PVE) essentially consists in multi-agency projects and initiatives which are not securitarian in nature, are carried out by public and private institutions, NGOs and various other organizations (including welfare) and are ultimately designed to pre-empt processes of radicalisation with a view to decreasing risks linked to extremism and terrorism, e.g. by promoting social cohesion and supporting vulnerable people. In order to be attuned to current trends, PVE now requires a more diversified span of activities compared to those put in place at the height of the fight against jihadism, with new themes and shifting priorities.

Education and schools have long been considered (and rightly so) at the forefront in providing young people -who are increasingly exposed to a toxic virtual ecosystem- with valid defense tools such as technological know-how and critical thinking. However, this is only one side of the coin: despite the fact that, since the beginning of the pandemic, the Internet has been instrumental in facilitating radicalisation, research carried out on a sample of jihadists who sprang into action between 2014 and 2021 in 8 Western countries highlighted how those who radicalise offline still represent the majority and above all, a higher degree of danger -“those radicalised offline are greater in number, more successful in completing attacks and more deadly than those radicalised online”(6) . Such data draws attention to the importance of the context – be it domestic, social or local (the socalled community)- which has always been deemed crucial on the path to radicalisation, but is frequently underestimated.

Another study which was conducted in Spain by an internationl team and which was based, inter alia, on the brain scans of jihadists / sympathisers in different stages of radicalisation proved, on the one hand, that social exclusion represents an important factor in radicalisation -a process that essentially pushes the boundaries of mental flexibility towards inflexibility. Or towards a progressive propensity to “fight and die for one’s sacred values” (as this research highlights); on the other hand, it discovered how social influence can help disengage from violence, by ‘reactivating’ deliberate reasoning in areas of the brain that had previously been ‘turned off’ (7) .

Today, the tide seems to be changing as more and more minors – and adults alike – risk getting entangled in the meshes of online extremism; there’s also a need for more comparative studies, in order to better understand the peculiarities and similarities of different types of radicalisation. Yet, not losing sight of (re) socialization as an aspect which is inherent to these processes, is still paramount.

Furthermore, taking heed of the role of ‘grievances’ is just as crucial, since it’s on this cross-ideological element that extremist base their narratives, whether it’s in defence of masculinity, race, Islam or other issues. Prevention will therefore have to focus not only on encouraging critical thinking and providing counternarratives (whose effectiveness is disputed), but also on promoting alternative narratives, positive models and opportunities in the real world, following the social isolation which was brought about by the pandemic.

1. Terrorist attacks on the basis of xenophobia, racism and other forms of intolerance, or in the name of religion or belief, Report of the Secretary-General, August 3, 2022.

2. The number of young people arrested on suspicion of terrorism related offences in the UK continues to rise, statistics reveal, News, Counter-Terrorism Policing, 9 March 2023

3. See: Roose, J., Interview on “Masculinity and Violent Extremism”, #ReaCT2023, pp. 128-129.

4. Comerford, M., Squirrell, T., Leenstra, D., and Guhl, J., What the UK Migrant Centre Attack Tells Us About Contemporary Extremism Trends, ISD, 14th November 2022

5. Ritzmann, A., “The December 2022 German Reichsbürger Plot to Overthrow the German Government”, CTC Sentinel, March 2023, Vol. 16, Issue 3

6. Hamid, N. and Ariza, C., Offline Versus Online Radicalisation: Which is the Bigger Threat?, Global Network on Extremism and Technology, February 2022)

7. Nafees Hamid discusses his research at lenght in: De-radicalizzazione. Dentro la mente jihadista, a documentary by Chiara Sulmoni for RSI (Radiotelevisione Svizzera di lingua italiana), aired on 22 September 2020


The 4th annual Report on Terrorism and Radicalisation in Europe by ReaCT – The Observatory is available in Pdf format and on Amazon as of 23 May

SIMTERRORISM – Modeling Religious Terrorism in Populations impacted by Climate Change

A book by Andrea Molle

available in our catalogue on Amazon (click for sample)

This volume examines the combined effects of risk propensity, relative deprivation, and social learning of deviance on the collective grievance within a religious population under the assumption of civil unrest caused by extreme climatic events. We designed an agent-based model to demonstrate how greater or lesser amounts of grievance towards political authority are likely to create an ideal en-vironment for organized violence to emerge when resources are threatened by climate change.

Scholars have tried to formulate a generally accepted definition of religious terrorism for almost four decades, but its investigation is still controversial, especially in the context of the emerging study of the political and social consequences of climatic events. This particular form of terrorism is nevertheless highly diffuse and observed to be coming from smaller clubs of radicalized individuals instead of main-stream religious groups. However, we find that doctrinal explanations appear irrelevant in explaining how terrorist cells emerge and organize themselves.

Switzerland: Two decades of terrorism trials.

by Ahmed Ajil, University of Lausanne (Switzerland) – Researcher, Criminologist

An overview of the cases tried by the Swiss Federal Criminal Court since 9/11

Although Switzerland has not experienced a large-scale attack of the kind experienced in other European countries in the last decade, the phenomenon of politico-ideological violence in the jihadist spectrum is nevertheless present. In December 2021, the Federal Intelligence Service counted 41 so-called “persons at risk” considered to be posing “a priority threat to Switzerland’s internal and external security”. In the context of its “jihad monitoring”, it also identified 714 people who were active online (since 2012), showing sympathy for jihadist terrorist organisations by disseminating propaganda or by talking to people who defend the ideology of these groups. Since 9/11, 91 individuals have left Switzerland to join a terrorist organisation in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria or Iraq. Some people have returned, while others, now held by Kurdish forces in Syria, are seeking to be actively repatriated, something the Federal Council refuses to do.

While there are different ways to confront the terrorist phenomenon, the use of criminal law constitutes the most obvious one. In its 2020 annual report, the Federal Prosecutor’s Office (FPO) reported 35 pending criminal investigations for terrorism in 2016, 34 in 2017, 30 in 2018, 31 in 2019 and 26 in 2020. In this short contribution, I would like to present a few findings from a research project on the repression of terrorism by the Federal Criminal Court (FCC), conducted together with my colleague Kastriot Lubishtani, of which some results have recently been published in Jusletter (31 May 2021).

The FCC, operative since 2004, is the judicial authority that is charged with the sentencing of terrorism-related offences. The few criminal proceedings opened by the cantonal prosecution authorities are taken over by the FPO and then judged by the TPF, except for those relating to minors. Analysing the sentencing pattern of the FCC in this domain enables us to gain quite a comprehensive view of the most severe cases which “make” it through all stages of the so-called “crime funnel” (entonnoir pénal). At this point, it is important to note that the Federal Prosecutor’s Office (FPO) can also single-handedly sentence individuals as long as the punishment does not exceed six months of liberty-deprivation. The FPO frequently resorts to this option, but given that these verdicts are, in principle, not accessible to the public, they are not accounted for here.

From a legal perspective, there are mainly two provisions that are applied to terrorism-related offences. One of them is article 260ter of the Swiss Criminal Code which criminalises the support of and participation in criminal organisations (a term that includes terrorist groups). The other one is the Federal Law prohibiting the organisations Islamic State and Al-Qaida and related groups (in short: IS/AQ-Law), which entered into force on 1 January 2015.

We collected all sentences related to these two provisions and then selected only those related to terrorism. The only form of terrorism handled by the FCC since its inception in 2004 is jihadism-inspired terrorism. Since the publication of our article in May 2021, two hearings took place and led to convicting three (3) individuals in total, which I am including in this contribution.

The numbers

Since 2004 and until November 2021, the TPF has tried a total of 17 criminal proceedings related to jihadist terrorism cases. Most of these proceedings took place after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war and the subsequent territorial expansion of the group IS in June 2014. In fact, three (3) proceedings were conducted between 2004 and 2014 with eleven (11) persons formally indicted during this period, while there were fourteen (14) proceedings and twenty-one (21) persons tried by the TPF between 2014 and 2020. The language of proceedings was German in twelve (12) of the proceedings conducted in Bellinzona, while French was used three (3) times and Italian twice (2).

These proceedings are relatively complex, which is reflected in the length of the pre-trial proceedings, as well as in their costs. On average, 882 days, or almost 2.5 years, elapsed between the initiation of criminal proceedings against an accused person and his or her indictment. The direct costs related to the investigation, the defence and the court hearing reached up to 800’000 Swiss Francs for a single case.

Across the 17 procedures, a total of 32 individuals appeared before the Federal Criminal Court. This means that in several proceedings – more precisely, seven (7) – several persons were tried. Specifically, four (4) proceedings involved two (2) persons, while the remaining three (3) proceedings involved three (3) persons, four (4) persons and the last one involved seven (7) persons. In each of the remaining ten (10) proceedings, only one (1) person was indicted.

The overwhelming majority of the terrorism cases brought before the FCC led to convictions. In total, 30 individuals were convicted by the FCC and two (2) persons were acquitted of all charges. As of 20 November 2021, there are twenty-one (21) final and enforceable convictions. Of these, six (6) persons were eventually not convicted in relation to terrorism-related offences. Hence, to date, there have been 24 convictions for terrorism-related offences, of which fifteen (15) are final and nine (9) are pending.

Who are the Swiss terrorists?

Thirty (30) accused were men, while one (1) woman was charged as a co-defendant and one (1) as main defendant. Twelve (12) of the accused were Swiss nationals, seven (7) of whom had dual citizenship. Of these, one (1) Turkish-Swiss dual national was subjected to a citizenship stripping, confirmed by the Federal Administrative Court in 2021. Nine (9) defendants had a residence permit. Ten (10) defendants were asylum seekers. Seven (7) of them had their asylum applications pending and three (3) had been provisionally admitted. One (1) defendant had never resided in Switzerland but was staying there at the time of her arrest.

The overwhelming majority, i.e., twenty-six (26) persons had no previous criminal record. This fact raises doubts regarding the pertinence of the crime-terror nexus hypothesis for the Swiss context. The other six (6) persons had been convicted of various offences under the Road Traffic Act in the case of three (3) of them, under the Weapons Act in the case of one (1) defendant, and for breach of a maintenance obligation in the case of another (1) defendant. Finally, one (1) of the defendants had been convicted on several occasions for illegal entry, threats, and coercion.

Nineteen (19) of the defendants were unemployed and dependent on social assistance at the time of the judgment. Five (5) defendants had no taxable income and were in debt. In addition, three (3) defendants were employed and had a regular monthly income at the time of the sentence. Finally, the economic situation of the remaining five (5) defendants is unknown. These observations provide some evidence for the pertinence of the biographical availability hypothesis, which suggests that a lack of structure and occupation may facilitate engagement for high-risk activism or illegal causes.

Of the thirty (30) convicted persons (twenty-one (21) final convictions and nine (9) pending convictions), custodial sentences were handed down in twenty-five (25) cases, with an additional financial penalty in four (4) of these cases. Nine (9) of the custodial sentences were conditional and six (6) were partially conditional, which means that ten (10) entirely unconditional custodial sentences were pronounced. In five (5) cases, the FCC imposed only pecuniary sentences, of which two (2) were conditional.

The most lenient punishment was a conditional 25-day fine at CHF 100 per day. The most severe punishment was a custodial sentence of 70 months, coupled with a 15-year ban on entering the country.

What are “terrorist activities” in the Swiss context?

In terms of the nature of the criminal acts committed, one notes that since 2001, no acts of terrorist violence have been committed on Swiss soil and brought before the Federal Criminal Court (the attacks of Morges and Lugano in 2020 still being under investigation).

When focusing on the 24 convictions for terrorism-related offences (6 convictions did not end up concerning terrorism-related offences), one notices that the acts that were prosecuted in relation to jihadist terrorism were mainly related to activities on Internet platforms. Two (2) proceedings involving a total of four (4) persons concerned the operation of Internet sites containing propaganda material, such as photos and videos, as well as comments glorifying the leaders of major jihadist terrorist organisations such as Osama Bin Laden. Three (3) people were recently convicted in connection with the production of a filmed interview with a jihadist rebel in the Syrian conflict, Abdullah Al-Muhaysini. For seven (7) of the convicted persons, the charges were limited exclusively to activities on social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and messaging applications such as WhatsApp and Telegram, consisting of sending and/or sharing videos, images and comments, and in one case translating media communications of jihadist groups.

In some cases, the activity was mainly taking place in the digital realm, but individuals were convicted of being part of a network. In one conviction of (3) men, the case was opened on suspicion of a potential attack, but in the end, they were only convicted for their activities on social networks.  In one (1) case, the single defendant was convicted of maintaining contacts with persons abroad affiliated with terrorist organisations, but also of encouraging a person in Lebanon to carry out an attack against Hezbollah or the US military.

The most physical acts were attempts to travel to combat zones or activities related to foreign fighting: Four (4) people were charged for attempting to travel to the Syrian-Iraqi territory to join IS, one (1) for joining an armed group in Syria and recruiting others, and another one (1) for practicing proselytism in Switzerland and providing logistic support for foreign fighters in Turkey.

In conclusion, it appears that out of the 24 individuals who were convicted by the FCC for terrorism-related offences, 18 convicted individuals were engaged in exclusively or predominantly digital activities, while six (6) mobilised physically to support terrorist groups. It important to note that although they were more physically involved than others, their activities on social media and via messaging platforms, that were occurring alongside, were aspects of essential relevance for their conviction.

Gradual widening of the net

Legally speaking, individuals were primarily convicted for supporting criminal organisations or AQ/IS-affiliated groups. Only three individuals were convicted for participating in a terror group. This can be explained by two things. On the one hand, it is difficult to prove membership and participation in the loosely organised networks and groups that characterise the jihadist phenomenon after 9/11. On the other hand, the analysis of the cases in question makes it clear that, compared with the quite restrictive definition of participation, the notion of support is a very large one and has come to mean basically any activity that can be considered as putting a terrorist organisation in a favourable light. By way of example, one individual was partly convicted for posting an image on Facebook of a functioning hospital in a zone controlled by the group IS to show that infrastructures are not all damaged under the terror group’s reign. In another case, an individual was convicted for sending three propaganda images via Whatsapp to another person. It is therefore barely surprising that most of the cases lead to convictions for the rather loosely treated notion of support.

The Swiss anti-terror dispositif’s evolution is also part of a larger trend, bolstered by the attacks of 9/11, to expand the applicability of criminal legal frameworks into the pre-criminal sphere, thereby widening the penal net in relation to acts that are considered to fall under the umbrella of terrorism-related activities. This is understandable from a political perspective but poses a number of challenges from a legal and ethical perspective. In fact, the preventive turn of Swiss anti-terror laws and the way they are applied leads authorities to investigate and sentence acts that are increasingly detached from the actual act of violence that is sought to be prevented. In an increasingly pre-criminal sphere, it is impossible to cover the entirety of punishable acts and therefore differential and unequal treatment becomes more likely. These aspects need to be considered when thinking about future ways to strengthen and expand anti-terror efforts in the Swiss context.

Two decades of terrorism trials in Switzerland #ReaCT2022

An overview of the cases tried by the Swiss Federal Criminal Court since 9/11

A discussion with Ahmed Ajil, criminologist and researcher at the University of Lausanne.
This is episode 6 of a series that our Swiss-Italian think tank dedicates to the Annual Report on Terrorism and Radicalisation in Europe #ReaCT2022
In 20 minutes, #ReaCT2022 authors introduce their analyses and elaborate on the most relevant aspects
The publication is available in two languages (Italian and English)

Download the Report HERE

New Insurrectional Terrorism ignites individual terrorism in Europe

by Claudio Bertolotti

From Africa to Afghanistan: Europe looks with concern at jihadist exaltation

The Islamic State no longer has the strength to dispatch terrorists to Europe as the loss of territory, financial strenght and recruits reduced its operational capability to zero. However, the threat remains significant due to the availability and action of lone actors, self-starters driven by emulation without a direct link to the organization.

While on the ideological level the Islamic State remains the main jihadist threat, it is however unlikely that it will be able to replicate the overwhelming appeal the “Caliphate” enjoyed in the 2014-2017 period, as it lost the advantage of novelty, which constituted its strength, particularly with younger people. In addition, both from a legislative and operational perspective, Europe has been able to significantly reduce its own vulnerabilities, although there were greater achievements in terms of counter-terrorism rather than prevention. On the whole, however, the scenario remains uncertain due to the risks connected to copycat attacks (“effetto emulativo” in Italian) and the “call to war” issued in relation to international events, which can mobilise individuals in the name of jihad. The most important event which occured in 2021 that has provided and will continue to provide impetus with respect to transnational jihad is the success of the Taliban in Afghanistan as, on the one hand, it feeds jihadist propaganda via the underlying message that “victory results from fighting to the bitter end”; on the other hand, it fuels a competition between jihadist groups engaged in exclusively local forms of struggle and resistance and those which, like the Islamic State, understand and promote jihad solely as an means of fighting to the bitter end on a global level.

In this overall and constantly evolving picture, we must pay attention to growing extremist forces in some areas of Africa, specifically in sub-Saharan Africa, the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and, furthermore, in Rwanda and Mozambique, in order to counter the rise of new “caliphates” or “wilayats” that could directly threaten Europe.

In its prolific jihadist propaganda, the Islamic State boasts of its spread throughout the African continent and emphasizes how the goal of countering the presence and spread of Christianity will lead the group to expand into other areas of the continent. In the Maghreb, Mashreq and Afghanistan, the activities of the Islamic State are centered around the intra-Muslim sectarian struggle, while in Africa its presence imposes itself as part of a conflict between Muslims and Christians with the help of propaganda insisting on the need to stop the conversion of Muslims to Christianity by “missionaries”, and under the “pretext” of humanitarian aid.  Within this context, there’s no shortage of violence taking place; kidnappings and murders of religious missionaries, attacks against NGOs and international missions from Burkina Faso to Congo, and attacks on Christian villagers, especially during Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

A drop in attacks, but the threat of terrorism persists

Over the past three years, from a quantitative perspective, the frequency of terrorist attacks remained linear. From 2017 to 2020, 457 attacks took place in the European Union, the United Kingdom and Switzerland, including failed and foiled attacks: from 2014 to 2017, their number stood at 895.

In 2020, there were 119 attacks -including 62 in the UK and 2 in Switzerland-. According to Europol (TeSat 2020) 43% of those are attributed to radical left-wing movements (with a decrease from 26 to 25); 24% to separatist and ethno-nationalist groups; 7% to far-right groups (compared to 2019, there was an increase in percentage yet they decreased in absolute term); 26% are jihadist actions. Although jihadist violence is marginal compared to the total number of actions motivated by other ideologies, it remains the most relevant and dangerous in terms of results, the victims it causes -from 16 victims in 2020 to 13 in 2021- and direct effects.

In the wake of major terror events linked to the Islamic State group in Europe, 165 jihadist actions have taken place from 2014 to 2021, according to START InSight’s database; of those, 34 were explicitly claimed by the Islamic State; they were perpetrated by 219 terrorists (63 were killed in action); 434 victims lost their lives and 2,473 were injured.

The number of jihadist events recorded in 2021 stands at 18, down slightly from the 25 attacks of the previous year, but with an increase in the percentage of “emulative” actions – meaning, actions inspired by other attacks that occured over the previous days-; from 48% in 2020, they rose to 56% in 2021 (in 2019, they stood at 21%). 2021 also confirmed the predominance of individual, un-organized, mainly improvised and unsuccessful actions that progressively replaced the structured and coordinated actions which had characterized the European urban “battlefield” in the years from 2015 to 2017.

The “European” terrorists

Active terrorism is a male prerogative: out of 207 attackers, 97% are male (7 are women); unlike in 2020, when there were 3 female attackers, 2021 did not record the active participation of women.

The median age of the 207 terrorists (male and female) is 26: a figure which varies over time (from 24 years of age in 2016, to 30 in 2019). The biographical data of 169 individuals for whom we have complete information allow us to draw a very interesting picture which tells us that 10% are younger than 19, 36% are between 19 and 26, 39% are between 27 and 35 and, finally, 15% are older than 35.

88% of the attacks (where we have complete information) were carried out by second and third-generation “immigrants” and first-generation immigrants, both legal and irregular.

Of the 154 out of 207 terrorists analyzed through START InSight’s database, 45% are legal immigrants; 24% are descendants of immigrants (second or third generation); 19% are irregular immigrants; this last figure is growing, rising to 25% in 2020 and doubling to 50% in 2021. The presence of an 8% of citizens of European origin who have converted to Islam is significant. Overall, 77% of terrorists are regular residents of Europe, while the role of irregular immigrants stands out with a ratio of about 1 for every 6 terrorists. In 4% of the attacks, children/minors (7) were found to be among the attackers.

The ethno-national map of terrorism in Europe

The phenomenon of jihadist radicalization in Europe afflicts certain national/ethnic groups more than others. There is a proportional relationship between the main immigrant groups and terrorists, as it seems to appear from the nationality of the terrorists, or of the families of origin, which is in line with the size of foreign communities in Europe. The Maghrebi origins prevail: the ethno-national groups mainly affected by jihadist adherence are Moroccan (in France, Belgium, Spain and Italy) and Algerian (in France).

Increase in recidivism and individuals already known to intelligence

The role played by repeat offenders – individuals already convicted of terrorism who carry out violent actions at the end of their prison sentence and, in some cases, in prison – is prominent; they accounted for 3% of the terrorists in 2018 (1 case), then rose to 7% (2) in 2019, to 27% (6) in 2020, and were down to a single case in 2021. This seems to confirm the social danger represented by individuals who, in the face of a prison sentence, tend to postpone the conduct of terrorist actions; this evidence points to a potential increase in terrorist acts over the coming years, coinciding with the release of most terrorists currently detained.

Parallel to repeat offenders, START InSight found another significant trend, which is related to actions carried out by terrorists already known to European law enforcement or intelligence agencies: they account for 44% and 54% of the total in 2021 and 2020 respectively, compared to 10% in 2019 and 17% in 2018.

There is a certain stability related to participation in terrorist actions by individuals with a prison history (including those detained for non-terrorist offenses) with a figure of 23% in 2021, slightly down from the previous year (33% in 2020) but in line with 2019 (23% in 2019, 28% in 2018 and 12% in 2017); this confirms the hypothesis that sees prisons as places of radicalization.

Is the offensive capacity of terrorism being reduced?

In order to draw a precise picture of terrorism, one needs to analyse the three levels on which terrorism itself develops and operates, and that is the strategic, the operational and the tactical. Strategy consists in the employment of combat for the purpose of war; tactics is the employment of troops for the purpose of battle; the operational level is between these two. This is a simple summary which underlines an essential feature: that is, the employment of fighters. 

Success at the strategic level is marginal

16% of the actions were successful at the strategic level, as they brought about structural consequences consisting in a blockade of national and/or international air/rail traffic, mobilization of the armed forces, far-reaching legislative interventions. This is a very high figure, in consideration of the limited organizational and financial capabilities of the groups and lone attackers. The trend over the years has been uneven, but it highlighted a progressive reduction in capability and effectiveness: 75% of strategic success was recorded in 2014, 42% in 2015, 17% in 2016, 28% in 2017, 4% in 2018, 5% in 2019, 12% in 2020 and 6% in 2021. Overall, attacks garnered international media attention 79% of the time, 95% domestically, while organized and structured commando and team-raid actions received full media attention. An evident, as much as sought after, media success that may have significantly affected the recruitment campaign of aspiring martyrs or jihad fighters, whose numerical magnitude remains high in correspondence with periods of heightened terrorist activity (2016-2017).But while it is true that mass media amplification has positive effects on recruitment, it is also true that this attention tends to diminish over time, due to two main reasons: the first, is the prevalence of low-intensity actions over high-intensity actions – which have been decreasing – and on low- and medium-intensity actions – which increased significantly from 2017 to 2021. The second, is that public opinion is increasingly inured to terroristic violence and consequently less ‘touched’, particularly by “low” and “medium intensity” events.

The tactical level is worrisome, but it is not the priority of terrorism

Assuming that the aim of terrorist attacks consists in killing at least one enemy (in 35% of the cases, the targets are security forces), this aim has been achieved over the period from 2004 to 2021 on average in 50% of the cases. However, it should be taken into account that the large time frame tends to affect the margin of error; the trend over the 2014-2021 period, hints at a decline in the results of terrorism, with a prevalence of low-intensity attacks and an increase in actions with a failed outcome at least until 2019. The results of the last six years in particular, show that success at a tactical level was obtained, in 2016, in 31% of the cases (against 6% of formally unsuccessful acts), while 2017 recorded a success rate of 40% and a failure rate of 20%. An overall trend that, when taking into consideration a 33% success rate at the tactical level, a doubling of failed attacks (42%) in 2018 and a further downward figure of 25% success rate in 2019, can be read as a result of the progressive decrease in the operational capability of terrorists and the increased reactivity of European security forces. But if the analysis suggests a technical capability that has indeed been reduced, it is also true that the improvised and unpredictable character of the new individual and emulative terrorism has led to an increase in successful actions, growing from 32% in 2020 to 44% in 2021.

The real success is at operational level. The “functional blockade”

Even when it fails, terrorism gains, in terms of the costs inflicted upon its target: e.g. by engaging the armed forces and Police in an extraordinary way, distracting them from normal routine activities and/or preventing them from intervening in support of the community; by interrupting or overloading the health services; by limiting, slowing down, diverting or stopping collective urban, air and naval mobility; by restricting the regular course of daily personal, commercial and professional activities, to the detriment of affected communities and, moreover, by significantly reducing the technological advantage, the operational potential and resilience; and finally, more in general, by inflicting direct and indirect damage, regardless of the ability to cause casualties. Consistently, the limitation in the freedom of citizens is a measurable result that terrorism obtains through its actions.

In other words, terrorism is successful even in the absence of victims, as it can still impose economic and social costs on the community and influence the latter’s behaviour over time as a consequence of new security measures aimed at safeguarding the community: this effect is what we call the “functional blockade”.

The ever-decreasing operational capability of terrorism notwithstanding, the “functional blockade” continues to be the most significant result obtained by terrorists, regardless of tactical success (killing of at least one target). While tactical success has been observed in 34% of the attacks which took place since 2004, terrorism has proven its effectiveness by inducing a “functional blockade” in an average of 82% of the cases, with a peak of 92% in 2020 and 89% in 2021: an impressive result, when considering the limited resources deployed by terrorists. The cost-benefit ratio is, no doubt, in favour of terrorism.

Michele Brunelli (ed.), Understanding radicalisation, terrorism and de-radicalisation. Historical, socio-political and educational perspectives from Algeria, Azerbaijan and Italy (Book Review)

By Andrea Carteny, Elena Tosti Di Stefano

In recent decades, radicalisation and terrorism have come to the forefront of International Relations, giving rise to a wealth of conceptualisations and study perspectives, which shed light on the multiple, diverse connections between terrorist phenomena, radical ideologies, and global, regional, or local conflicts. Particularly relevant in this respect is the need to consider factors such as ethnicity, religion, historical heritages, as well as migration. Such consideration is even more salient if the military dimension of counteraction is flanked – and sometimes replaced – by prevention, deterrence, and integration strategies involving the educational, economic, and social resilience spheres.

It is on this premise that the volume Understanding radicalisation, terrorism and de-radicalisation. Historical, socio-political and educational perspectives from Algeria, Azerbaijan and Italy was developed.Published by Rubbettino in the editorial series “Laboratorio sull’Intelligence dell’Università della Calabria”, the collective work presents the results of an intense and fruitful two-year research activity carried out within the project PRaNet – Prevention of Radicalisation Network (2019-2021).

The PRaNet project, led by the Italian University of Bergamo, entails the creation of a university network between the latter institution and two universities from countries belonging to the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Algeria and Azerbaijan, with the aim of deepening knowledge and understanding of phenomena linked to radicalisation, as well as promoting social inclusion and developing de-radicalisation policies for integration purposes. Project activities have been implemented within the framework of the multiannual programme “Strategy for the Promotion of Italian Higher Education Abroad 2017/2020”, jointly supported by the Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research (MIUR) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MAECI). These include, in addition to research initiatives, exchanges of students, teachers, researchers, and trainees through ad hoc programmes, such as the MaRTe Master’s degree at the University of Bergamo in “Prevention and Fight Against Radicalisation, Terrorism and for International Integration and Security Policies”, as well as vocational activities at the University Mohamed Lamine Debaghine (Sétif 2), in Algeria, and the ADA University fi Baku in Azerbaijan.

The book draws on the consolidated experience of Michele Brunelli, Professor of History and Institutions of Islamic Societies at the University of Bergamo and Director of the Master MaRTe, who has coordinated international projects concerning de-radicalisation and prevention of violent extremism in Algeria, Azerbaijan and Burkina Faso, and edited, also last year and for the same publishing house, the volume Prevention and countering of confessional terrorism and radicalisation.

The scientific quality of the book derives not only from addressing, through various perspectives, the main key-categories for understanding terrorism (definition, causality, consequences, and response), but also from analysing the historical, cultural, and socio-economic factors relating to the phenomena of radicalisation, terrorism, anti-terrorism, and de-radicalisation, taking as case studies three different confessional contexts: Italy, as a traditionally Christian society; Algeria, a Sunni Islamic country; and Azerbaijan, characterised by a Shia Muslim majority but a prevailingly secular society.

As the title suggests, the study revolves around three concepts – radicalisation, terrorism, and de-radicalisation – which are in turn the subjects of the three sections of the book respectively.

The first section scrutinises the complex relationship between radicalisation and the question of minorities and identity cleavages. Lala Jumayeva, Assistant Professor in International Affairs at the ADA University of Baku with an expertise in conflict resolution, investigates the link between ethnic minorities and radicalisation in the Caucasian area, while Naouel Abdellatif Mami, Professor of Psycho-pedagogical Sciences and Foreign Languages at the University Sétif 2, deals with the issue of identity and freedom of expression as drivers of extremism in the Algerian context. Šeila Muhić, Researcher at the University of Bergamo specialised in the field of human rights, explores the migration phenomenon in Italy as a potential fertile ground for radicalisation. Further insights are offered by the second chapter of the section, which brings together a series of essays on female radicalisation and women victims or actors of terrorism. Anar Valiyev, also a Professor at ADA University and an expert on history and institutions of the post-Soviet space, discusses case of ISIS in relation to women and children victims of radicalisation in Azerbaijan, with particular reference to Salafist environments. Next, Naouel Abdellatif Mami examines the condition of women in Algerian history, focusing on the “black decade” (1991-2002) as well as on women’s role in the development of approaches to resilience. The last study of the second chapter, carried out by Emilija Davidovic – an expert on human rights in the post-Yugoslavian scenario – concerns the involvement of women in extremist violence in the European (Western and Balkan) context. The third chapter then provides a broad overview of the phenomenon of political-religious radicalisation in post-Soviet Azerbaijan, which mainly affects minority religious and ethnic communities (Sunni and alloglot).

The second section of the book addresses terrorism and its several conceptualisations. First, Ilas Touazi, Researcher at the University Sétif 2 with an expertise in terrorism/counter-terrorism, presents an analysis of the jihadist threat in Algeria, placing emphasis on the transnationalisation of local terrorism. Professor Michele Brunelli subsequently explores the evolution of politically and ideologically motivated terrorist crimes in the European scenario, notably in Italy. The book continues with the contribution of Aydan Ismayilova, a graduate of the MaRTe Master’s course and an expert on jihadism, who examines terrorist phenomena in the Caucasus area, focusing on Armenian terrorist movements and religious extremist groups. Further food for thought is provided by the fifth chapter, which includes research contributions on critical infrastructure as the main targets of terrorist attacks. As such, Inara Yagubova (Project Manager at the ADA University of Baku) deals with the terrorist threat to energy infrastructure in Azerbaijan, while Nabil Benmoussa, Professor of Economics at the University Sétif 2, analyses the economic implications of terrorism in Algeria and the related policies of contrast. The essay written by Fabio Indeo, Analyst at the NATO Defense College Foundation and expert in energy geopolitics of Central Asia, explains the vulnerabilities and the strategies of protection of European critical infrastructure, also in light of the new challenges posed by cybercrime. Afterwards, Commander Mario Leone Piccinni, Officer of the Italian Guardia di Finanza and specialist in cybercrime, outlines the intricate financing systems of terrorist organisations at the international and local level.

The third and last section deals with de-radicalisation policies and strategies. The seventh chapter hence investigates counter-terrorist responses, with a first essay by Stefano Bonino, a criminologist expert in terrorism and organised crime, who discusses Algerian counter-terrorist strategies – from the most repressive ones to “soft” measures. As for the other two countries under consideration, counter-terrorism and radicalism activities in the Azerbaijani context are examined by Anar Valiyev, while the Italian case is carefully analysed by Stefano Bonino and Andrea Beccaro, the latter being Professor of Strategic Studies and War Studies at the University of Turin and the State University of Milan respectively. The following chapter puts emphasis on the role of education in preventing and responding to terrorism and radicalism, as clearly emerges from the case study of Azerbaijan, here discussed by Valiyev. Likewise, Benmoussa outlines the recent educational reforms in Algeria, conceived as part of the response to these phenomena; Šeila Muhić, for her part, illustrates the programmes of civil society involvement to counter violent extremism at the European level. Last but not least, the ninth chapter closes the book with an essay by Karim Regouli (Researcher at the University Sétif 2) on the delicate process of reconciliation in Algeria after the decade of violence triggered by Islamic terrorism.

For the breadth of the topics it covers, for the multiplicity of perspectives it offers and for the originality of the comparative case studies, the book provides a significant contribution to research on radicalisation and terrorism, representing, furthermore, an invaluable reference for developing effective counteraction policies. Among recent studies, the volume ranks amongst the most relevant on such topics, together with – inter aliaCommunities and Counterterrorism (Routledge, 2019), edited by Basia Spalek and Douglas Weeks, Countering Violent Extremism. The international deradicalisation agenda (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021) by Tahir Abbas, as well as “Countering International Terrorism, with particular reference to the phenomenon of foreign fighters” edited by the Società Italiana per l’Organizzazione Internazionale (SIOI) in 2019.

Understanding radicalisation, terrorism and de-radicalisation. Historical, socio-political and educational perspectives from Algeria, Azerbaijan and Italy undoubtedly constitutes a point of reference for scholars and experts, as well as for national and international institutions. The adopted multidisciplinary approach – historical, political-institutional, economic, social, operational, and socio-educational – provides for a comprehensive and articulated framework, which can be applied not only to religiously motivated terrorism and radicalisation, but also to the many historical-political expressions of such phenomena.

The new horizons of radicalisation

by Chiara Sulmoni

The pandemic of extremism

   On a global scale, terrorism has (long) tended to make fewer victims, despite a wider geographical spread and the fact that, particularly in Syria and sub-Saharan Africa, the threat has grown. This is the picture drawn by the Global Peace Index (GPI) 2021, which measures the impact of a series of indicators on the peacefulness of nations. The same document depicts an international context where, on the one hand, “the conflicts and crises that emerged in the past decade have begun to abate”; on the other, COVID19 brought about new tensions. Between January 2020 and April 2021, there were more than 5’000 pandemic-related violent events. The economic, social and even psychological impact of the different measures put in place to contain the spread of the virus helped create the conditions for a rise in extremism and in the number of militants and supporters of various causes, including conspiracy theories – be it of a political, identity, anti-technological, no-vax nature – which found their echo in anti-government protests and demonstrative actions, such as dozens of attacks against 5G masts suspected of spreading COVID19; disruptions at vaccination centers; and threats directed at scientists, politicians and even, as occasionally reported in Italy, shopkeepers and restaurateurs requesting their clients to exhibit Green Passes. On the Internet and in the streets, different orientations more frequently happen to coexist and overlap, converging temporarily on common causes and battles and/or driven by the aim of increasing their own visibility and support base.

   According to terrorism expert Ali Soufan, in the future law enforcement, analysts and researchers might look to 2020 as a watershed moment in terms of recruitment by non-state actors. It should be emphasized, however, that the significant and progressive increase in protests, civil unrest and political instability has been captured by the GPI since 2011; this is a particularly pronounced trend in the United States, where the scale of the problem clearly came to light on 6th January, 2021 when a diverse crowd of supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump, convinced that they could overturn the outcome of the vote, felt legitimized by the narrative of the “stolen elections” – which was pushed forth by some in the political spectrum and the media – to storm the Capitol. The insurrection against the transfer of power between the two American administrations, which caused five victims and left a hundred others wounded, generated a greater, albeit belated, awareness of the risks associated with an internal extremist drift which has now become a priority issue for national security. The 700 plus individuals who were arrested and prosecuted – including a 12% with a military background, according to data gathered by the Program on Extremism at George Washington University – are a jumble of exponents, supporters and sympathizers of various ideologies and acronyms linked to the worlds of white supremacism, neo-Nazism, armed militias and the conspiracy universe (QAnon above all), who were identified and incriminated also thanks to their activities and interactions, fully visible on social platforms.  A substantial part of these citizens did not appear to be officially affiliated to any organization; in this context, some experts today speak of mass radicalization.

The new normal of radicalization, shifting profiles and risks

   Twenty years since the attacks of 11th September, which opened a long chapter in the fight against terrorism at the national and international levels that took various shapes – from military interventions to the strengthening of police and intelligence measures, from legislative changes to more interdisciplinary study of the subject, to prevention and de-radicalization initiatives – not only has the threat not vanished; today, it is more widespread, fragmented and complex to deal with. The ecosystem of violent extremism is characterized by strong competition, but also by a growing exposure to the strategies, tactics and “perceived victories” of ideologically distant groups – analysts have not failed to point out, for example, the attention paid by far-right circles to the “success” of the Taliban, whose return to power after a long insurgency doesn’t merely motivate al-Qaeda and / or fighters within the jihadist galaxy, but also other (armed) groups who make “traditional society” their bulwark, oppose liberal values in the West and/or aspire to civil conflict. The proximity and sometimes the cohabitation of themes – e.g. jihadist vis-à-vis Accelerationst – narratives and symbolism does not entail a watering down of ideological principles or beliefs but rather, as one can read in a research on the subject (ICSR, January 2022), “an enhanced focus on results over practice”. With reference to the Salafi-jihadist sphere, in ReaCT2022 Michael Krona also explains that “supporter groups online are expanding the terrorism universe by forming new entities that are less inclined to attach themselves to a single organisation and instead promote wider ideological interpretations (…)“. Today, the production of propaganda and extremist narrative – but also calls for action – are no longer a prerogative of terrorist movements’ media, but an operation which sees the significant contribution of a large base of followers and militants acting on their own, both with regard to the creation of new content – where topics might differ from those addressed by the group’s official channels – and to its dissemination; a large number of indictments and convictions for crimes related to terrorism (not only of a jihadist nature) actually concern activities such as collection, assembly and dissemination of material which might also be useful for planning attacks. Because of this fragmentation, the tech giants’ battle to “clean up the Internet” is far from easy, due to the skills of those “instigators” in disguising the content of posts and accounts; in deceiving algorithms; in migrating from platform to platform (including those popular with youngsters, like TikTok) and in moving along grey areas and through encrypted Apps.

Britain is among the European countries most affected by terrorism and radicalization and for this reason, it anticipates and provides very important data and food for thought. Recently Dean Haydon, Senior National Coordinator for Counterterrorism Policing outlined the new profiles that are changing the equation in the country: in short, according to the latest trend, it’s more common today to come across individuals of British origins or nationality, increasingly young and attracted to the ideologies of the extreme right, who self-radicalize online and act on their own initiative. But 2020/21 data on referrals for suspected radicalisation to the Prevent programme -which steps in when people are thought to manifest early signs of extremism – reveal that 51% of the cases concern “mixed, unstable or unclear ideologies” (MUU).  Considering that there’s also a very high percentage, a preponderance even of situations where mental health problems, addiction and/or other difficulties might play a role – making youth particularly vulnerable to online propaganda – violence prevails over ideology as a motivating factor, as a channel for venting personal discomfort and – according to experts – as a means to “acquire significance”.  As a remarkable number of people suffering from autism spectrum disorder have entered the Prevent circuit, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation Jonathan Hall stated that “it is as if a social problem has been unearthed and fallen into lap of counter-terrorism professionals.” Within this context, radicalization takes on the connotations of a public health problem that must be studied and addressed from a broader perspective than the one adopted till now, which placed a strong emphasis on the role of ideology and consequently, with a view to countering the phenomenon, on counter-narrative. An attack which took place in August 2021 in Plymouth, where a 22-year-old who was familiar with the incel environment shot 7 people before taking his own life, is emblematic of the various nuances that make the task of identifying what new forms of violence represent a terrorist threat particularly difficult. Well-known in the United States and relatively new to Europe, incels are “involuntary celibates”, individuals who fail to establish a relationship with the opposite sex; scholars explain that within this “bubble” – which is also dubbed incel “culture” and is endowed with its own specific jargon – one can come across resentment and hate speech spurring violence against women. More generally, it harbors a mix of misogynist, racist, anti-Semitic and conspiracy beliefs. From March to November 2021, there was a six-fold increase in visits by British users – which include children aged 13 and over – to the three main online forums linked to incel ideology (data collected by The Times with the Centre for Countering Digital Hate). Official statistics say that 2021 set a record in the number of children arrested for terrorist offences.

The new horizons of radicalization are not to be observed solely in the Anglo-Saxon world; with reference to jihadism, the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service in their 2020 Report had already drawn attention to individuals “whose radicalisation and violent tendencies are rooted more in personal crises or psychological problems than in ideological conviction. The frequency of such acts of violence, which have only a marginal link to jihadist ideology or groups, will in general remain the same or possibly even increase.”  Within the same year, the first two such attacks in Switzerland took place in Morges and Lugano with the perpetrators – a man and a woman – fitting this description.

Rethinking radicalisation with a view to prevention

Over the past 15 years, security policies and counterterrorism initiatives focused mainly on propaganda and recruitment by al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and related groups. Jihadism does remain the form of terrorism causing more victims; Europol itself reports that in 2020 – possibly also due to the pressure of the pandemic on security forces? – the number of attacks which were carried out exceeded that of foiled/failed ones and more than doubled, compared to the previous year. However, as previously highlighted, there’s today a new risk emanating from a post-organized reality, where militants and (potential) terrorists are only vaguely inspired by the Islamic State; they act independently and alone, yet “exalt” and encourage one another in group, within communities and ecosystems. Outside of the academic environment, this aspect of (re)socialization – the search for a sense of sharing and acceptance, be it in a real or virtual community – is not always sufficiently grasped; yet, it is paramount in order to fully understand the process of radicalization, which lists social exclusion among its most significant triggers. Today, society at large is characterized by similar dynamics of belonging and identification with a movement or cause, in opposition to others; concurrently with strong polarization and growing “social encapsulation”, these are all elements favoring the incubation of extremism. From this perspective, the battle against conspiracy theories and fake news, which are embedded in the narratives of many, more or less violent acronyms – especially those linked to the far-right – acquires strategic significance and calls for more awareness on the part of politics and the media. Due to the many facets of social problems which might lead to violence at this historical moment, it is the time to “rethink radicalization” by paying more attention to the sociological and psychological aspects, with a view to enhancing prevention – which does not consist in repression by means of security / Police interventions in the pre-criminal phase, but rather in being engaged on the ground and in planning activities aimed at strengthening support networks where social and personal hardships may manifest at the local level. As highlighted in ReaCT2021, this approach implies long-term collaboration among different actors (NGOs, public and private institutions, civil society, families) and constant dialogue among researchers, field operators, law enforcement agencies and legislators. Faced with terrorism’s creativity and adaptability, as well as with the new normal of radicalisation which defines the current era, updating approaches and tools at our disposal to counter this threat is of the utmost importance.

#ReaCT2022: 3rd Report on Radicalization and Terrorism

Director’s introduction: The new terrorism among pandemic, social unrest and jihadist extremism

In my role as ReaCT’s Executive Director, I am pleased to introduce #ReaCT2022, the 3rd Report on Radicalisation and Counter-Terrorism in Europe (go to #ReaCT2022, n.3 year 3).

In their assessments, the authors who submitted their work for this issue took into account the repercussions of new social and conflict dynamics brought about by COVID-19 and also the effects of the Taliban victory in Afghanistan.

COVID and the Taliban drive diverse terrorist threats 

Terrorism adapts, evolves and is affected by events which ignite violent actions in the name of an ideology that justifies its methods, aims and purposes. Trends recorded in 2021 are coherent with the dynamics of the past few years; they also anticipate a likely scenario for 2022, a year that will continue to be shaped by two major developments: the Covid-19 pandemic and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. These two developments, in different ways, contribute to an increasingly threatening landscape.On the one hand, the social consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic will increase heterogeneous radical phenomena and bolster violence linked to conspiracy or ideologically-driven extremist movements; on the other hand, the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan represents a leitmotif within the global jihadist narrative.

The terrorism landscape we face in 2022 

Most data presented in this paper are drawn from START InSight’s database, which provides annual trends in jihadist terrorism and events in Europe.

In more general terms, the West is currently looking with concern at jihadist exaltation, from Afghanistan to Africa. The Islamic State no longer has the strength to dispatch terrorists to Europe as the loss of territory, financial strenght and recruits greatly reduced its operational capability. However, the threat remains significant due to the availability and action of lone actors and self-starters without a link to the organisation yet mobilised by jihadist narratives around global events. Risks connected to emulative attacks are high; 56% of the events in 2021 can be categorised as emulative actions, according to START InSight’s database. This trend is growing. Over the past three years, from a quantitative point of view, the frequency of terrorist attacks has remained linear. Europol attributes 43% of the attacks to radical left-wing movements, 24% to separatist and ethno-nationalist groups, 7% to far-right groups, while 26% are jihadist actions. While jihadist violence might be marginal in absolute terms, it continues to be most relevant in terms of its consequences and the number of victims. The number of jihadist events which took place in Europe in 2021 stands at 18 (START InSight).   

Two decades of terrorism trials in Switzerland

Although Switzerland has not experienced a large-scale attack of the kind experienced in other European countries over the last decade, the phenomenon of politico-ideological violence in the jihadist spectrum is nevertheless present. Ahmed Ajil explains that from 2004 until November 2021, the Swiss Federal Criminal Court has tried a total of 17 criminal proceedings related to jihadist terrorism cases. Most of these proceedings took place after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war and the subsequent territorial expansion of the IS group in June 2014.

The African challenge

As highlighted by Enrico Casini and Luciano Pollichieni, since the early 2000s, a growing number of jihadist organizations emerged in Africa. They are characterised by a globalist rhetoric but remain deeply connected to local dynamics (political, ethnic, or criminal) and they are also increasingly involved in illicit traffics of different types and shapes (from smuggling to human trafficking and slavery to maritime piracy). In virtue of its contiguity with the Mediterranean, instability generated by terrorist groups in Africa has an immediate effect on Europe, as demonstrated by the various migration crises of the last years.

Jihadist communities online expand the terrorism universe by forming new entities

We asked Michael Krona, a media scholar researching salafi-jihadist propaganda, to provide us with his take on the dynamics of jihadist online communities; he underlines how communities that were previously started as direct extensions of a specific organization (like the Islamic State – IS) increasingly become intertwined with broader ideological strains, rather than only relaying official IS propaganda. Supporter groups online are expanding the terrorism universe by forming new entities.

The new horizons of radicalisation

  Two decades since the 9/11 attacks and in pandemic times, the threat of terrorism has become more widespread, fragmented and complex to deal with. Chiara Sulmoni writes that the ecosystem of violent extremism is characterized by strong competition, but also by a growing exposure to the strategies and narratives of different groups. New profiles underline the domestic character of the threat and indicate how terrorists and individuals who radicalise frequently have a history of mental distress and exhibit a propensity for violence rather than ideological conviction. As society itself is becoming increasingly polarized and extremism finds its way into the mainstream, there’s a need for renewed attention on the sociological and psychological aspects inherent to radicalisation processes, with a view to enhancing prevention. 

The EU supports the Western Balkans with a new project on prevention of radicalisation

With reference to the Western Balkan area, Matteo Bressan explains how prevention of radicalisation leading to violent extremism and terrorism represents a key priority for EU Member States and Western Balkan partners. As common challenges require a common approach, the Commission will support the region in preventing and countering all forms of radicalisation. The Commission will mobilise practitioners’ expertise within the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) to support prevention work and facilitate exchanges among professionals.

Dealing with radicalised minors: the Italian approach

Minors are among the targets of jihadist propaganda and extremist ideologies more in general. They can be involved in different ways: as unaware victims of adults’ choices or as direct recipients of an ideology which exploits their need to belong. In her case study, Alessandra Lanzetti illustrates how  the State Police’s Central Directorate of the Prevention Police (DCPP) gained experience in this field and how it developed an experimental intervention protocol on child returnees, based on the criteria of timeliness and multidisciplinarity.

New radicalisms and other terrorisms fueled by the pandemic effects. Far right, radical left, anti-Semitism: from conspiracy to violence

Mattia Caniglia explains how one of the most worrying trends in 2021 has been the increasing attraction exercised by right-wing violent extremism on young people. This is probably linked to the fact that right-wing extremist propaganda is mainly disseminated online, and gaming platforms have been increasingly used to spread extremist and terrorist narratives. Evidence from investigations and research activities that emerged over the past year suggests that, in some instances, RWVE seek to emulate jihadists with respect to recruitment techniques, modi operandi and propaganda strategies. Furthermore, high-profile terrorist attacks – whether Islamist or far-right in nature – can increase reciprocal radicalization processes, where neo-Nazis and jihadists attempt to “up the ante” by increasing the frequency and lethality of attacks.

Within this context, there’s also a growth in anti-Semitic sentiment; Sarah Ibrahimi Zijno discusses the extreme and easy propagation of substantially anti-Semitic points of view, first within the American alternative right and later also within the alternative European right, with particular reference to the former communist part of the continent; as well as the substantial rapprochement of some left-oriented press towards the same conspiracy algorithm already of the alternative right, with the silent, progressive abandonment of the distinction – already fragile and questionable in itself – between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.

Conspiracy theories from pop culture to violent militancy: the NoVax paradox

Andrea Molle explains how the NoVax movement is now spearheading the rise of militant conspiracy and rapidly replacing religious radicalism as the primary concern for national security. His paper analyzes some of its essential traits, highlighting the risk of mass radicalization it carries.

Updating Terrorism Risk Assessment Instruments

In recent years, with the advance in Europe and the United States of more or less organised forms of extreme right-wing extremism and white supremacism, notes Barbara Lucini, the Terrorism Risk Assessment Instruments (TRA-I) have been the subject of renewed reflection with respect to their adaptive capacity, resilience and effective assessment of the multiple and varied paths of radicalisation that are being witnessed.

Neo-Nazi extremism and deradicalisation

The case study presented by Luca Guglielminetti is the first in Italy that concerns a so-called deradicalization activity aimed at a boy involved in subversive activities of the neo-Nazi far right. The path undertaken was born in the framework of a European project “Exit Europe”, which involved partners from 5 countries with a view to integrating P/CVE interventions.

Future wars: the new centrality of intelligence and the redefinition of cyberspace

In this analysis, Marco Lombardi shares his reflections on some emerging aspects of warfare, intelligence and the role of terrorism. The scenario of the future war seems to underline the maintenance, indeed the strengthening of the operating methods of terrorism in recent years, which has found its success for the ability to penetrate media communication and for the innovative (ie surprising) use of technologies. It almost seems that the terrorism of the first twenty years of the new century has experienced the new opportunities of warfare, which then consolidated into widespread practices among all the actors in the conflict.

And finally, Andrea Carteny and Elena Tosti Di Stefano reviewed for us a recent publication –Understanding radicalisation, terrorism and de-radicalisation. Historical, socio-political and educational perspectives from Algeria, Azerbaijan and Italy – which collectively presents the results of an intense and fruitful two-year research activity carried out within the project PRaNet – Prevention of Radicalisation Network (2019-2021). 

Thanks to all the Authors who have contributed to the current #ReaCT2022 Report. My gratitude goes in particular to the Editor, Chiara Sulmoni, START InSight’s President, for her fundamental and special input.


Claudio Bertolotti (ENG), Director’s introduction: The new terrorism among pandemic, social unrest and jihadist extremism

Claudio Bertolotti (ENG), New Insurrectional Terrorism ignites individual terrorism in Europe

Ahmed Ajil (ENG), Two decades of terrorism trials: an overview of the cases tried by the Swiss Federal Criminal Court since 9/11

Claudio Bertolotti (ENG), Afghanistan, Syria and the Sahel: the ‘New Insurrectional Terrorism’ (NIT) takes root. A revolutionary, subversive and utopian phenomenon looks to the West

Enrico Casini, Luciano Pollichieni (ENG), Caliphs, trafficking, and discontent: convergences and perspectives of jihadist terrorism in Sub-Saharan Africa

Michael Krona (ENG), Jihadist communities online build their own brands and expand the terrorism-universe by forming new entities

Chiara Sulmoni (ENG), The new horizons of radicalization

Alessandra Lanzetti (ENG), Case study – Radicalised minors: the Italian model, between security protection and social reintegration

Matteo Bressan (ENG), The EU supports Western Balkans with a new project on prevention of radicalization

Barbara Lucini (ENG), TRA-I and radicalisation processes: current considerations and future prospects

Mattia Caniglia (ENG), Right-wing violent extremism in 2021: a rising threat across Europe?

Sarah Ibrahimi Zijno (ENG), New anti-Semitism: main factors and trends after the pandemic

Luca Guglielminetti (ENG), Case study – Neo-Nazi extremism and deradicalisation: the first case study in Italy

Andrea Molle (ENG), Conspiracy theories from pop culture to violent militancy: the NoVax paradox

Marco Lombardi (ENG), Future wars: the new centrality of intelligence and the redefinition of cyberspace

Andrea Carteny, Elena Tosti Di Stefano (ENG), Review – Understanding radicalisation, terrorism and de-radicalisation. Historical, socio-political and educational perspectives from Algeria, Azerbaijan and Italy, M. Brunelli (edited by).

#ReaCT2022: The 3rd Report on Terrorism and Radicalisation in Europe

Available to download from 24th February in Italian and English on and

#ReaCT2022 includes 15 contributions on jihadism and other forms of violent extremism characterising the current threat landscape, which acquired further strength and visibility throughout the pandemic. This Report aims at fostering long-term dialogue and collaboration with institutional and academic actors who are concerned with the issue of radicalisation. #ReaCT2022 is addressed to security personnel, social workers, the media, students, researchers and last but not least, the general audience.

Violent extremism, radicalization and case studies.  The contents of the Report.  The overall contents of the 2022 Report ranges from numbers and profiles of jihadist terrorists in Europe, to a discussion of New Insurrectional Terrorism (NIT), which draws renewed strength and motivation from the return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan; from an analysis of the sub-Saharan context where jihadist organisations are characterised by globalist rhetoric but remain deeply connected to local dynamics, to European commitment in helping the Western Balkans prevent violent radicalisation; from an overview of the terrorism cases tried by the Swiss Federal Criminal Court since 9/11 to the dynamics of online jihadist communities; from the new horizons of radicalization, which broadened during the pandemic and require that more attention be paid to group dynamics and social problems linked to violence; to several articles focussing on the far-right, anti-Semitism, conspiracy theories, the NoVax movement; to case studies on the social reintegration of radicalized minors and deradicalization within the neo-Nazi context, which highlight the approach and the work carried out by Italian authorities. Finally, the Report includes considerations on the updating of Terrorism Risk Assessment Instruments (TRA-I), which are developed with the aim of being able to better assess the threat posed by radicalization processes and related activities; reflections on future war scenarios; a review of the recent book titled “Understanding radicalisation, terrorism and de-radicalisation. Historical, socio-political and educational perspectives from Algeria, Azerbaijan and Italy”.

ReaCT – National Observatory on Radicalisation and Counterterrorism (Rome) was founded by a team of experts and professionals from START InSight – Strategic Analysts and Research Team, a research and editorial production company based in Lugano (Switzerland); ITSTIME – Italian Team for Security, Terroristic Issues & Managing Emergencies, a research center within the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart (Milan); CEMAS – Centro interdipartimentale per la ricerca scientifica e la cooperazione con l’Eurasia, il Mediterraneo e l’Africa Subsahariana, La Sapienza University (Rome); SIOIThe Italian Society for International Organization (Rome).

Europa Atlantica and Gruppo Italiano Studio Terrorismo (GRIST) also joined ReaCT as partners.

The Observatory includes a Board of Directors, a Steering Scientific Committee, a Parliamentary Committee and a Permanent Working Group.

All information on the website