The phenomenon of religiously-inspired terrorism presents several common features in Europe, which should be considered in the analysis of the recent attacks in France, Belgium, and Austria, as well as in England. To date, these are the countries most affected by the phenomenon, which however has remained in decline since to 2015.
First of all, this common European type of terrorism is always activated by an evident trigger (or “detonator“), which can take the form of local conflict-fueling events, be they the Sunni insurgency in Syria and Iraq, policy changes in Libya and the Sahel or, on a smaller scale, the ideological battle in France over the upholding of secularism (which is different from laicism) instrumentalized for the anti-Turkish confrontations. These ‘macro’ events, often of foreign policy, spread and take on a global character through social media. In this way they polarise public debate and transform from local to global matters. ‘Think locally and act globally’ is the strategy of all these groups, be they jihadists or left-wing and right-wing extremists.
These ‘detonator’ events impact on specific sub-cultures, both for individuals and groups, which arbitrarily identify themselves, for ideological and virtual solidarity, with the victims of the detonator-event, even if they are geographically completely detached from the phenomenon and without any real connection to it.
A link is thus aided by the globalised nature of the world today, between external and internal security that breaks the institutional and judicial barriers within whose borders the security forces and the judiciary operate. In addition, one enters into a new model of associative phenomena, which no longer requires actual or online ‘contact’ to create a criminal association, as in classical terrorism. Identification in virtual spaces is often enough to associate oneself with an event, a group, an ideology and act in accordance with the public model of the group. This phenomenon affects not only the Jihadists, but also counter-movements, for example those hundreds of European foreign fighters who went to fight in Syria against Isis in the ranks of the Kurds and the Turkish PKK or those groups that have associated no-vax movements with various types of extremism during the Covid-19 crisis. Emulation, fake explosive belts, online pledges of allegiance and statements of intent, live streaming of massacres, memorials and pamphlets justifying the violence, are present in all massacres, from one continent to another, no matter what ideology pretends to justify the killing.
Concentric waves and mutual radicalisation
The network is a liquid, de-jurisdictionalised world and apparently devoid of the traditional authorities of the states. In this liquid world, an event or a conflict, beyond its territorial dimension and its real reach, when taken on by the global media creates concentric waves, like a stone in a pond, that impact on those emerging islands that represent the single or small groups, which aren’t where most societies are (on the surface of the water). A happening in France, for example, can trigger a reaction among susceptible communities, even in distant countries. The actions of these groups, in turn, generate further concentric waves, which clash with other emerging groups, often opposed to them, creating the so-called phenomenon of ‘mutual radicalisation’, which is the new branding of the old theory of ‘opposite extremism’, which characterised European terrorism in the ‘70s and ’80s. This game of actions and reactions takes place within the vortex of polarisation, generated by political clashes and extremist languages of the media and political parties, who exploit security issues for purely electoral profit.
These phenomena can be intercepted and exploited by organised violent groups, by radical entrepreneurs; in which case the traditional associative nature re-emerges. But they can also be spontaneous, that is, self-activated by individuals who, through the acquisition of radical sub-cultures, have changed their identities and perceive the detonator-events as a threat to themselves and to their closed group. This latter case, which is that of the ‘lone wolves’, is often associated with forms of personality disorder and mental illness and is therefore very difficult to intercept.
The attack on Vienna
In the Austrian case, we find an apparent “detonator“ in the Charlie Hebdo case in France, whose video have been relaunched by the attacker Kujtim Fejzullai, coupled with an already firmly rooted radical reality. Austria is, after Belgium, ranked the country with the second most foreign fighters in in relation to the population size. Of the approximately 200 volunteers from Austria, who between 2014 and 2016 did the ‘hijrah’ in Syria and Iraq, most of them ended up in ISIS and, a smaller share, in the Hay’at Tahrir ash-Sham.
The breeding ground of these volunteers was represented by three groups, still well represented on the Austrian scene, which the mandated institutions were unable to properly integrate and supervise. Groups that in the mid-2000s broke with the traditional movements of political Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Turkish Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi of President Erdoğan, and the Salafi Quietists, who had hitherto controlled violent drifts.
The first of these is represented within sub-groups of the Slavic diaspora, which includes the Serbians of Novi Pazar, Bosnia-Herzegovinians and Macedonians belonging to the Bosniak minorities, and those of the so-called Gorani populations (from the Gora region) of Albanian, Kosovar or North Macedonian heritage. These are groups born from the Balkan wars but which then became settled with the second and third Austro-German generations. An example from the this first group is Abu Tejma – arrested in Austria in 2014 and sentenced to 20 years and for whom today salafi groups call for liberation. From Vienna this group has expanded to many German-speaking countries. Today they are present in an area ranging from the Italian Triveneto to Germany, passing through Austria and Switzerland.
The second group consists of about 30,000 Chechens refugees from the Russian wars of early 2000, an almost totally Austrian phenomenon. The Chechens have become dramatically famous in Syria and Iraq for their brutality, to the point of being feed among the other jihadists. In 2007, some of the refugees from within this group founded the Caucasian Emirate, led by Doku Umarov, and fought in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq before Syria, with connections throughout Europe, especially in Belgium, and the United States. Chechens have also been involved in numerous attacks in the United States, such as the Boston Marathon Attack in 2013. With the capture of Mosul, the Chechen diaspora split and their leader in Austria, Rustam Asildarov, swears allegiance to al-Baghadi, with the constitution of the Vilayat Caucasus. For many Chechens, however, the war in Syria was an opportunity to fight the Russians ‘outside’, enlisting everywhere from Jaysh al-Muhajiroon wal-Ansar, Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qa’idah), Junud ash-Sham or under ISIS flags. The ideology came through hunting the Russian enemy.
Finally, there is a third group, represented by Austrian Muslims without initial connections with immigrant minorities, mostly ex-detainees convicted for terrorism or veterans of the war in Afghanistan, who made a name for themselves as preachers thanks to the aura of the detention, jihad, sacrifice and repressive measures of Germany, which in 2012 outlawed the Millatu-Ibrahim, one of their movements. Many of these young men and women then ended up in Syria, where they connected to other ‘Austrian volunteers’ or stayed in Austria and Germany with the hope of being able to do jihad al-Qittal (Haly War) at home sooner or later.
How to prevent it?
All these movements are spread geographically in a sort of crescent that extends from the Balkans to Trieste and Venice, to Vienna and Munich, passing through German-speaking part of Switzerland and lapping Belgium. The Syrian War has created new ties for all of them, beyond the original nationality and divisions, linking them to the North African-influenced jihadism, which extend from the Mediterranean countries to France and French-speaking Switzerland.
There is no real terrorist organisation of these groups. But there is a common feeling in the form of an anti-Western jihadist subculture made up of sites, chats and communication on social media.
The lawyer of the young Vienna attacker, Mr. Rast, described him as a young man in search of identity: “He gave the impression of a young man who was searching for who he was…At no point did I have the impression that he was dangerous, although he certainly was.” What distinguishes him from many other young people is that his existential crisis has encountered a catalysing and totalising event that has given meaning to his existence and has ‘justified’ his taking action. To prevent it, one must not focus solely on the problems of these young people, often impossible to identify, like looking for a needle in a haystack, because symptoms of vulnerabilities or identity crisis are very common among youngsters. Moreover, for as long as they do not show signs of posing a danger to society, there are no applicable, legally justifiable security strategies, so they remain difficult to contain with security and legal means.
The current strategies for deradicalisation, which are based on the profiling of individuals, have so far been inconsistent as the many Austrian, French, Belgian or English cases prove, because they have not been able to tackle the deep socio-political roots that have led these groups to violent conflict with society and government institutions, the latter being a duty of the politics more than small NGOs or LEAs. It is a paradox that Kujtim Fejzullai, in his passage into Austrian prisons (22 months sentence) after being arrested by the Turkish authorities and extradited to Austria, had “successfully” followed an Austrian deradicalisation programme in prison. Similar cases are evident in England and other countries, where radicalisation feeds precisely on the formal prevention of radicalisation. These models of deradicalisation are inconsistent, since they claim to address long-terms great social and geopolitical problems with inadequate resources and powers, focusing mostly on ideological confrontation or counter-narratives orchestrated by para-institutional institutions or agencies that have zero credibility among the people they aim to serve.
Lessons learned since 2015, however, teach us that there are five areas in which prevention can mitigate risk, although it is impossible to reduce it to zero. Therefore, we must learn to live with these phenomena if we are to continue to have a foreign policy and preserve national and continental interests.
The first area is to avoid provocation, especially the use of religion and racial identities as a political weapon. This is common in third countries, but recently some Member States have also made this fatal mistake. We must recognize that Charlie Hebdo’s campaigns represented a clear provocation for large part of the Muslim communities in Europe and beyond. The legitimate protection of free speech must be harmonized with the need for national security and public order in this case, in order to protect the lives of citizens. The state and the media, as well as political parties, must know that in public space, polarisation is the greatest activator of violent actions that can explode where the soil is most fertile, which includes prisons and minority communities, thus activating phenomena of opposite extremism.
The second area concerns excessive use of judicial tools in social and geopolitical conflicts. Here, we must be aware that the state does not fight ideologies, but crimes, which are very distinct things, and does so with the principles of legality, materiality of crime, personal criminal responsibility, and proportionality. All draconian European and national legislation from 2015, which has lowered the threshold of criminal punishment for radical behaviours, automatically classified as ‘terror-related crimes’, is producing far-reaching boomerang effects. If the young Austrian attacker had gone to Syria freely, like so many others before him in Afghanistan or the thousands of European volunteers in our civil wars, from Spain to South America, perhaps foreign fighters today would not be the threat they have become. Because they cannot fight and die for their ideas elsewhere, they do so at home, with the unpleasant corollary that hundreds of innocent European citizens are carrying. Moreover, the EU legislators didn’t consider that hard detention condition for terror-related crimes committed by young individuals for minor online crimes or for their desire to be part of the destiny of their countries of origin could represent a boomerang when they are released. Punishment must be proportionate and law are in place to counter these phenomena in a proportionate matter, without deploying new legal title of terrorism, which has far-reaching negative consequences in the penal execution.
The third area is weapons control. In the Austrian case there was clearly a fracture in the security system, if recognised representatives of the radical world were able to have access to assault weapons and other lethal offensive means. The number of victims and the spectacular nature of the actions, which allow these groups to capture headlines and destabilise society, are largely dependent on these errors of preventive security.
The third area is the need to protect sensitive targets of high symbolic value. Terrorists hit these goals to fuel the conflict of civilisations between religions, states, and social groups. It is objectively serious that in many parts of Europe, for example, Jewish, Muslim or Christian centres are not adequately protected and that C-UAS protection systems are not active to protect political institutions, security infrastructures and VIPs. Attacks in this area with new systems and means, like drones, could have a catastrophic political and social impact and there are disturbing signs that terrorism is moving in this direction.
Finally, the fourth area is electronic digital surveillance. Contrary to mainstreaming approaches in preventing radicalisation, based on individual profiling, today we need a Situational Crime Prevention model integrating online and offline behaviours. We must reverse the preventive-investigative cycle, firstly focusing on reducing potential negative drivers generated by meso and macro factors potentially leading to criminal acts, and only by then addressing micro factors that concern the individual. This can be done using OSINT tools, which produces criminological maps and indicators useful to reduce the risk of a crime to occur based on public-private cooperation. Only after this first analysis, data can be further analysed in an investigative approach, addressing individual responsibilities through criminal profiling. These preventive activities based on the design of multi-layered criminal risk maps, measuring the interplay of events, entities and sub-cultures in relation to specific geographic locations, cannot be carried out by the police, contrary to what is still so often theorised by EU strategies today. The police have no competence in these areas, until a crime is assumed. But these OSINT analysis can find valuable support in intelligence functions and public-private collaboration as part of the private intelligence community. Unfortunately, policy-makers in many Member States continue to consider LEAs as the main actors of prevention and does not seem willing to open itself to the technical cooperation of vetted civil society organisations.
This closure, of course, has a price. Vienna paid this price, like Paris and London.
 Unofficial Mossad [@MossadNews] (2020). Tweet. Retrieved November 04, 2020 from: https://twitter.com/MossadNews/status/1323698234536136705.
 Bennhold, K., Eddy, M. and Schuetze, C.F. (2020). Vienna Reels From a Rare Terrorist Attack, The New York Times (November 3, 2020). Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/03/world/europe/vienna-attack-shooter.html.
 Clarke, R.V. (1995). Situational Crime Prevention. Crime and Justice Journal 19, pp. 91-150. Retrieved from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/1147596?seq=1.