IntelBrief: Terrorism in the West: Comparing the Threat in Europe and the U.S.
January 9, 2019

Terrorism in the West: Comparing the Threat in Europe and the U.S.

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Bottom Line Up Front

• In 2017, Europe suffered from the highest number of terrorist attacks linked to jihadist ideology in modern history.

• In the United States, 2018 saw just one death as a result of jihadi-linked terrorism, although right-wing terrorists killed 15 Americans the same year.

• The threat of terrorism in Europe looks qualitatively different than the threat posed to the United States.

• Europe and the U.S. collaborate in many areas of counter-terrorism but have also adopted essential differences in their respective strategies.

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In 2017, Europe suffered from the highest number of terrorist attacks linked to jihadist ideology in modern history. According to a report by the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), the number of failed, foiled, and successful terrorist attacks perpetrated by Islamic extremists in Europe increased by 725 percent between 2007 and 2017. In France alone, more than 20,000 people are on the so-called ‘S-List,’ which refers to individuals allegedly vulnerable to the risk of radicalization. European security services and intelligence agencies remain busy, with a regular and high operational tempo of counter-terrorism investigations and operations across the continent. Not only does Europe face a consistent threat from jihadist terrorism, but over the past several years there has been a growing tide of right-wing revanchism in Germany, the United Kingdom, and in many former East Bloc countries as well.

In the United States, 2018 saw just one death as a result of jihadi-linked terrorism, although right-wing terrorists killed 15 Americans the same year. Indeed, after focusing almost exclusively on the threat posed by terrorist groups inspired by the ideology of ‘bin Ladenism,’ the U.S. has now awoken to a threat that has been percolating under the surface all along—right-wing ideology that spans a diverse array of groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, assorted neo-Nazis, and so-called white nationalists. High-profile incidents including the anti-Semitic Tree of Life synagogue attack in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in October 2018; a vehicle attack by a white supremacist in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017; and Dylann Roof’s murder of nine African-American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015 are indicative of the threat posed by right-wing terrorism. Many Americans have been horrified by the vitriol dominating the debate over immigration, a debate President Trump has continuously inserted himself into, usually through a series of ill-informed and impulsive tweets.

Even though the data being compared is 2017 (Europe) versus 2018 (U.S.), the general trend lines still suggest that the threat of terrorism in Europe looks qualitatively different than the threat posed to the United States. Europe faces a more significant threat from jihadist terrorism due to factors including geography, demography, and a host of socio-cultural variables, including a colonial legacy that doesn’t exist in the United States. But not only does the threat of terrorism look different, so too do specific elements critical to the fight against terrorism—the will and capability of the counter-terrorism services of the U.S. and Europe. The Europeans have been extremely active in pressuring social media companies to remove terrorist content from the Web. The U.S. maintains a world-class counter-terrorism capability, but some argue that the government has been slow to recognize or even deliberately downplayed the growing threat posed by non-jihadist terrorists. And while there is always a lag effect to identifying risk, even after it has manifested, the response to countering right-wing terrorism in the U.S. has been cumbersome and inadequate.

In response to the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11th, and many subsequent attacks in Europe and elsewhere by al-Qaeda and its progeny, including the so-called Islamic State, the West has constructed a vast counter-terrorism infrastructure that has cost trillions of dollars and involved operations in dozens of countries. As the Islamic State’s caliphate lay in ruins, there may be a renewed effort by the group’s supporters to encourage lone-wolf attacks in the West. And despite successful attacks either directed or inspired by the group, Western countries, including those like Belgium and France that were heavily criticized following accusations of intelligence failures, have improved their capabilities and taken strong measures to defend against the threat. With fewer resources, the Europeans have been more aggressive in responding to right-wing terrorism, again, perhaps a function of history given the legacy of Adolf Hitler, Nazi ideology, totalitarian governments and the appeal of Fascism. Moreso than at any point over the past two decades, the threat posed by terrorists is diffuse and diverse. Too often, we prepare to fight the last war, while lacking the foresight to see how threats morph and evolve.

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