International Security Studies

Events

The Jihad in Europe

April 16, 2007 // 12:00pm1:30pm

This meeting, part of the ongoing Terrorism and Homeland Security Forum series, was co-sponsored by the Council on Global Terrorism, Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies, and the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Lorenzo Vidino began his talk on the Jihad in Europe by making the case that events in Europe directly impact U.S. homeland security. According to Vidino, Europe is right up there with Iraq and Afghanistan as a crucial global battlefield in the global war on terrorism. He noted that every one of al Qaeda's attacks on the United States has had a European connection: Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, entered the country on a Swedish passport. In 1998, after the African embassy bombings, it was to an office in London that al Qaeda sent a fax statement claiming responsibility for the attacks. Moreover, several of the 9/11 hijackers, including Mohammed Atta, were based in Hamburg, Germany. Even this past summer's terror plot at London's Heathrow airport in which terrorists sought to blow up several jumbo jet airliners over the Atlantic Ocean, Vidino said, showed that Europe has become a central front in the jihadists battleground. All of this, Vidino argued, was cause for concern.

Vindino stressed that jihadist networks in Europe were extremely complex and multifaceted. He identified three types of jihadist movements that have historically operated in Europe: groups that support integration into European society and oppose violence, such as the Muslim Brotherhood; groups that openly oppose both integration and violence; and, groups that openly oppose integration but support violence, such as al Qaeda in Europe. All three movements are part of the same problem, though they each espouse different ideologies. But European intelligence is aware of the threat and has been for years. A recent intelligence estimate by Britain's MI5 warned there could be as many as 30,000 known al Qaeda sympathizers living in Britain. All of whom, under the existing visa waiver program, Vidino said, could come to the U.S. virtually overnight having undergone little or no scrutiny.

According to Vidino, the historical evolution of the jihad in Europe has undergone three phases, beginning in the 1980s when jihadists from the Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and Algeria's Armed Islamic Group (GIA) came to the continent in search of political asylum. Unable to return to their home countries after the Afghan jihad for fear of being thrown in prison or tortured, many jihadists saw Europe as the ideal place to continue their activities. But because these groups limited themselves to recruitment and fundraising and, for the most part, carried out attacks only against the governments in their home countries and not in Europe, European law enforcement did not initially perceive them as a direct threat and consequentially turned a blind eye to many of their activities. The one exception during this period, Vidino said, was the 1995 Paris bombings carried out by the GIA in retaliation for French interference in Algerian affairs.

Local as well as global events during the mid-1990s transformed the jihad in Europe. During this second phase, Europe became a popular destination for jihadists en route to fighting in Bosnia and Chechnya. It was also during the 1990s that Osama Bin Laden's al Qaeda organization began to pay greater attention to Europe and jihadists based there. This development was part of a larger shift in focus from the "near enemy" to the "far enemy" the group was taking at the time.

The third phase in the historical evolution of the jihad in Europe was ushered in by the attacks of September 11, 2001. The attacks on New York and Washington led to fundamental changes in the way jihadists operated in Europe. That change was prompted both by necessity, the fact that a global crackdown on terrorists made it harder for these groups to function in daylight, and by strategic calculations made by the al Qaeda leadership that individual jihad, as opposed to the organized, structured jihad of the past, was the wave of the future. As a result, Vidino said, Europe today is home to everything from lone-wolf terrorists to organized groups and everything in between.

Terrorists operating in Europe today are primarily young, second-generation, self-radicalizers. Many have never received any formal Islamic religious training, instead discovering their brand of violent Islam online in internet chat rooms. Although Vidino called these self-starters "amateurish" and said they lacked concrete goals or strategies, he cautioned that they were still dangerous. He cited the example of the Dutch Hofstad group as the model of the future. Jihadists in Europe are increasingly "thinking globally, but acting locally", as was the case of Mohammed Bouyari, the murderer of Theo Van Gogh. Vidino said the youngest generation of European jihadists equates fighting in Fallujah and Kandahar with fighting in European cities and towns. Why go to Iraq when you can carry out jihad in Rotterdam?

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