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Europe at the Center of the Terrorist Vortex, Again

The dramatic terrorist attacks in France, and counter-terrorism operations in Belgium and elsewhere, have cast a spotlight on Europe as a focal point of terrorism, writes Ian O. Lessor. This is not a new phenomenon. Over the last decades, several key shifts in the nature of terrorism have emanated from Europe, even as the bulk of global terrorism occurs elsewhere.

This fact is worth keeping in mind as policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic seek to counter the latest evolution of the terrorist threat — frequent, loosely organized acts by individuals or small cells, against a backdrop of religious extremism. Conditions in the Middle East and North Africa are part of the equation, alongside rage at perceived Western misdeeds, and a culture of violence among some poorly integrated immigrant youth.But Europe is the place where this new wave of modern terrorism is likely to be played out, where U.S. interests are most closely engaged, and where transatlantic counter-terrorism strategy will be tested.

The first wave of modern terrorism featured well-established groups, political ideologies, and limited lethality, with Europe as the leading theater. From the 1960s to the 1980s (and in some places, well into the 1990s and beyond), Europe was plagued by spates of ideologically motivated terrorism, principally of the extreme left. Small groups such as the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany, Action Directe in France, The Red Brigades in Italy, and November 17th in Greece targeted governments and individuals, and threatened the stability of societies across the continent.

This was also the hey-day of terrorism as a tactic of national liberation movements, with the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine responsible for shootings, bombings, and hijackings. Their origins were Middle Eastern, but Europe was a principle theater for this type of terrorism, from the Munich Olympics to attacks on airports in Rome and elsewhere. And, of course, Europe had its own very durable terrorism of this kind in the form of the Irish Republican Army, Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA), and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). For decades, Europe was also the focus of terrorist attacks aimed specifically at U.S. targets, whatever the motive.
September 11th — and the series of increasingly large-scale terrorist attacks seen in the years leading up to 2001 — exemplified the second wave of modern terrorism. The hallmarks of this new form of terrorism included much higher lethality, religious motivation, networked organization, and the prominence of private sponsors. The roots of this new terrorism — potentially super terrorism using weapons of mass destruction — were in the Middle East, including the so-called Arab Afghans among the fighters operating in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion. But, once again, the operational dimension was deeply rooted in Europe. Fourteen years on, few recall that the 9/11 conspirators met and planned their attacks in Hamburg. They shared a common experience of alienation and radicalization abroad, mostly in Europe.
The latest, and third, phase of terrorism — an amalgam of Islamic extremism, cultural alienation, and nihilistic violence — will have its center of gravity in Europe. Poorly integrated Muslim communities and proximity to irregular conflicts in North Africa and the Levant are key elements in this equation. The “foreign fighter” problem is not new. Mediterranean countries, in particular, worried about the security implications of fighters returning from earlier wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the scale of the circulation linked to ongoing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, and the networked nature of the challenge, are of a different order. The prospect of open-ended chaos on Europe’s southern periphery is likely to make this a standing challenge for European partners, and for EU and NATO strategy, over the next decade.
Finally, it is by no means clear that Islamic extremism is the only reservoir of terrorism in an economically and politically troubled Europe. Southern Europe, in particular, is exposed to the potential for terrorism at the fringes of populist movements of the right and left, fueled by xenophobic, anti-austerity, or nationalist anger.
The United States will have a direct stake in the struggle against this third wave of terrorism in Europe, and not just because it can lead to new attacks on U.S. territory or its forces and citizens abroad. The United States’ NATO strategy and commitments are likely to be tested by the terrorist challenge in and around Europe, just as security challenges of a different sort unfold to Europe’s east. Amid the focus on rolling back the so-called Islamic State and striking at terrorist sanctuaries in Yemen, Libya, the Horn of Africa, and elsewhere, policymakers must put counter-terrorism cooperation with — and in — Europe at the top of the agenda.


This article was first published by the German Marshal Fund. Dr. Ian O. Lesser is executive director of the Transatlantic Center, GMF’s Brussels office, and GMF’s senior director for foreign and security policy.

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