Terrorism in the EU: geographically widespread and multifaceted

23 June 2020
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Today Europol publishes the new EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2020 featuring facts, figures and trends regarding terrorist attacks and arrests in the EU in 2019

Terrorists’ ultimate goal is to undermine our societies and our democratic political systems. Terrorism generates fear, empowers political extremes and polarises societies.  Europol’s EU Terrorism Situation and Trend report (TE-SAT), published today, pulls together facts and figures on terrorist attacks and arrests in the EU in 2019: 

  • A total of 119 foiled, failed and completed terrorist attacks were reported by a total of 13 EU Member States; 
  • 1 004 individuals were arrested on suspicion of terrorism-related offences in 19 EU Member States, with Belgium, France, Italy, Spain and the UK reporting the highest numbers;
  • Ten people died because of terrorist attacks in the EU and 27 people were injured. 

Vice-President for Promoting our European Way of Life, Margaritis Schinas, who is leading the European Commission’s work on developing a European Security Union Strategy, said: “Terrorism continues to be a threat for the world, Europe, our citizens, our security and our way of life. More than ever, the EU needs to intensify its counter-terrorist measures, information sharing and law enforcement cooperation both on the ground and online. We will present shortly a new EU Security Union Strategy to set out the areas where the Union can bring added value to support Member States in ensuring security – from combatting terrorism and organised crime, to preventing and detecting hybrid threats, to cybersecurity.”

Ylva Johansson, EU Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, said:
“We cannot afford to lower our guard in fighting terrorism threats, whether jihadists or right wing. Having law enforcement capabilities, tools and cross border cooperation that are fit for the digital age is key. That way, every person in the EU, irrespective of background, should feel safe against these threats”.

Catherine De Bolle, Executive Director of Europol, said: “While many right-wing extremist groups across the EU have not resorted to violence, they contribute to a climate of fear and animosity against minority groups in our EU cities. Such a climate, built on xenophobia, hatred for Jews and Muslims, anti-feminism and anti-immigration sentiments, may lower the threshold for some radicalised individuals to use violence against people and property of minority groups as we have witnessed this all too often in recent months. My thoughts are with those people and their families who in 2019 suffered the consequences of terrorist and extremist violence. The ultimate goal of law enforcement officers is to save lives and minimise the number of victims of intolerance and political violence”

Nearly all of deaths and 26 injuries were the result of jihadist attacks. One person was injured in a right-wing terrorist attack. In addition, several people were killed in right-wing extremist attacks. The number of jihadist attacks continued to see a decrease – meanwhile, right-wing attacks and, in particular, left-wing attacks saw an increase during 2019.

Right-wing terrorism: online communication was observed to strengthen international links between right-wing extremists

After a decline in reported attacks in 2018, in 2019 three EU Member States reported a total of six right-wing terrorist attacks (one completed, one failed, four foiled), compared to only one in 2018. Additionally, several attacks not classified as terrorism under national law committed by right-wing extremists were reported by Germany and claimed the lives of three people. Furthermore, last year right-wing attacks in Christchurch (New Zealand), Poway (USA), El Paso (USA), Bærum (Norway) and Halle (Germany) were part of a wave of violent incidents worldwide, the perpetrators of which were part of similar transnational online communities and took inspiration from one another. Violent right-wing extremists maintain international links, for example through participation in concerts and rallies marking historical events in a variety of EU Member States. Right-wing extremist ideology is not uniform and is fed from different sub-currents, united in their rejection of diversity and minority rights. One element of violent right-wing ideology is the belief in the superiority of the ‘white race’, which will have to fight a ‘race war’. Right-wing extremists deem this confrontation unavoidable to stop the alleged conspiracy by the ‘system’ to replace white populations through mass immigration.

Jihadist terrorism: the situation in conflict areas outside Europe continued to impact the terrorism situation in Europe

The so-called Islamic State (IS) lost its last territorial enclave in Syria, but transformed into an underground insurgency in Syria and Iraq and maintained its global network of affiliates. Hundreds of European citizens with links to IS remained in Iraq and Syria. Al-Qaeda again displayed its intent and ambition to strike Western targets, while its regional affiliates aim to integrate and coordinate populations and armed factions in conflict areas. Last year, eight EU Member States were hit by jihadist terrorist attacks.

Left-wing and anarchist terrorism: Greece, Italy and Spain continued to be the epicentre for these attacks

The number of left-wing and anarchist terrorist attacks in 2019 (26) reached the level of 2016 and 2017 after a decrease in 2018. All attacks took place in Greece, Italy or Spain. The number of arrests on suspicion of left-wing or anarchist terrorism in 2019 more than tripled, compared to previous years: from 34 in 2018 to 111 in 2019, due to a sharp increase in Italy. Private enterprises along with critical infrastructure and public/governmental institutions were among the most frequent targets for left-wing and anarchist terrorists and extremists. Violent left-wing and anarchist extremists continued to pose a threat to public order in a number of EU Member States. Support for Kurdish populations in Syria remained a central topic, and left-wing extremists and anarchists are believed to have travelled to join Kurdish militias in north-eastern Syria.

How was terrorism funded last year?

In 2019, several cases of funding the return of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) were observed. FTFs in conflict zones continued to seek financial support from people in Europe for the purpose of covering their expenses or even arranging their return back to Europe. Funding for terrorist groups outside Europe decreased compared to previous years, likely as a result of reduced opportunities for transferring funds to IS. Funds are transferred outside Europe mainly through cash, money services businesses or underground banking, such as hawala, and through combinations of these methods. The abuse of virtual currencies, although promoted by some terrorist groups, has been observed mainly to cover expenses of individuals or small cells.

Extremist groups in Europe mainly receive funds from their base of supporters. Right-wing extremists, for example, continued to use a mix of traditional and innovative methods to finance their activities in 2019. Right-wing extremist groups collect fees from members and donations from supporters and sympathisers, via bank accounts, in cash during concerts or, rarely, through the production and distribution of propaganda material.

The methods: firearms and explosives 

The use of firearms and explosives continued to prevail in ethno-nationalist and separatist terrorist attacks and violent attacks inspired by right-wing ideology. Right-wing extremists and terrorists appeared to be increasingly interested in acquiring knowledge regarding the use of explosives. The explosive devices used in left-wing and anarchist extremist attacks were made from an array of readily available materials. 

On the other hand, jihadist terrorists were also observed to show a growing interest in the use of firearms and explosives in addition to bladed weapons. Homemade explosives continued to be used in most of the explosive-related cases suspected of being linked to jihadist terrorism. Knowledge on how to make HMEs was for the most part transferred or facilitated online, including via encrypted cloud-based instant messaging services and social networking sites. 

In the EU, there is little evidence to suggest that a nexus between organised crime and terrorism exists on a systematic and formalised basis. However, there are indications of a transaction-based convergence of low-level criminals and extremists, who frequently overlap socially in marginalised areas. 

Terrorist propaganda continued to be produced in 2019

Both jihadist and right-wing extremist propaganda incite individuals to perpetrate acts of violence autonomously and praise perpetrators as ‘martyrs’ or ‘saints’, respectively. The impact of official IS media decreased, in terms of volume, content, potency and immediacy, following the loss of most of its territory, media production facilities and personnel. Nevertheless, content supporting IS and containing threats continued to be produced by online supporters of the group under a variety of self-styled online propaganda outlets. Such supporter-generated content and recycled material was continuously disseminated in 2019, thereby partially supplementing the decreased production capacity of official IS media. The measures taken by social media platforms to counter the spread of terrorist propaganda led some groups, to return to ‘traditional’ ways of online communication, including websites and news portals. Suspects arrested for terrorist propaganda in Europe sometimes had a long involvement in jihadist activities.

Europol has produced the TE-SAT, the EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, since 2007. The European Counter Terrorism Centre (ECTC) was established in early 2016 introducing policy and organisational coherence to Europol’s support to the EU Member States’ fight against terrorism. Europol acts as a central hub of expertise working to provide an effective response to terrorism.