Trends in European Terrorism: 1970-2016

By Anthony Cordesman

This report provides summary statistical data on the trends in Western and Eastern Europe. It focuses on START and IHS Jane’s data, but also includes data from other sources – including the one useful current official source on terrorism in the world that presents declassified official data. This is the annual report on terrorism which is issued by Europol and the EU.

If one looks at the START data on the total for Western and Eastern Europe, which includes Russia, the impact of terrorism peaks in the 1970s. It rises again in 1991, driven by terrorist attacks in the Balkans, Palestinian violence, and terrorism in the FSU and Russia. It then peaks for a third time in 2014-2015, driven by both violent Islamist extremism and terrorist activity in the Ukraine.

A chart in this section also illustrates how limited the terrorist threat has so far been in both the U.S and Western Europe since 2011 relative to the terrorist threat elsewhere in the world, particularly in areas where Jihadists are attacking fellow Muslims.

Making regional comparisons is difficult because given sources define Europe differently and include or exclude Russia and parts of Eastern Europe. If one only examines Western Europe, the START reporting on the patterns in Western Europe shows a rise in incidents after 2010, driven largely by violent Islamist extremism and the influence and actions of ISIS, that reached new peaks in 2015-2016. Belgium, France, Germany, and the UK were key targets of such attacks. Turkey was a key center of terrorist attacks because of political unrest and Kurdish separatism in the late 1970s, late 1980s to mid-1990s, and then again from mid-2015 onwards.

Once again, the report shows that the IHS Jane's data provide a very different set of estimates. It should be stressed that this would be the same with all of the independent estimates that create a separate data base and drawn on a different mix of set of sources. The use of open source material imposes major additional limits on what any analytic effort can do.

The Europol/EU data provide key insights into the correlation between terrorism and counterterrorist activity lacking in other regions of the world. It also clearly distinguishes between Islamist extremist violence and other forms of terrorism:

  • In 2016 a total of 142 failed, foiled, and completed attacks were reported by eight Member States. More than half (76) of them were by the UK2. France reported 23 attacks, Italy 17, Spain 10, Greece 6, Germany 5, Belgium 4, and Netherlands 1.
  • Of the 142 attacks, less than half (47) were completed. Member States reported that 142 victims died because of terrorist attacks and 379 people were injured.
  • Nearly all reported fatalities and most of the casualties were the result of jihadist terrorist attacks. The total number of 142 attacks is a continuation of a downward trend that started in 2014 when there were 226 attacks, followed by 211 in 2015.
  • The largest number of attacks in which the terrorist affiliation could be identified were carried out by ethno-nationalist and separatist extremists (99). Attacks carried out by left-wing violent extremists have been on the rise since 2014; they reached a total of 27 in 2016, of which most (16) were reported by Italy.
  • The number of jihadist terrorist attacks decreased from 17 in 2015 to 13 in 2016, of which 6 were linked to the so-called Islamic State (IS). However, a precise ranking amongst and within terrorist affiliations across the EU cannot be established because the UK does not provide disaggregated data on attacks.
  • Explosives were used in 40% of the attacks, with similar numbers to 2015.
  • The use of firearms dropped considerably from 57 in 2015 to 6 in 2016.
  • Apart from jihadist, ethno-nationalist and left-wing extremist attacks, an increasing stream of violent assaults by right-wing extremist individuals and groups was noted across Europe, in particular over the past two years, targeting asylum seekers and ethnic minorities in general.
  • These assaults however do not generally qualify as terrorism and are therefore not included in the numbers of terrorist attacks being reported by Member States, with only one exception in 2016, reported by the Netherlands.
  • Most arrests were related to jihadist terrorism, for which the numbers rose for the third consecutive year: 395 in 2014, 687 in 2015 and 718 in 2016.
  • Numbers of arrests for left-wing and separatist terrorist offences dropped to half of what they were in 2015 (from 67 and 168 in 2015 to 31 and 84 in 2016 respectively).
  • Numbers of arrests for rightwing terrorism remained low at 12 in 2016, compared to 11 in 2015.
  • France is the only Member State in which the overall numbers of arrests continue to increase: from 238 in 2014, to 424 in 2015, and to 456 in 2016.
  • Almost one-third of arrestees (291) were 25 years old or younger. Only one in ten arrestees (9%) in 2016 was older than 40 years.
  • Arrests for terrorist activities (preparing, financing, assisting, attempting, or executing attacks) decreased from 209 in 2015 to 169 in 2016.
  • Arrests for travelling to conflict zones for terrorist purposes also decreased: from 141 in 2015 to 77 in 2016. This was similar to the decrease in numbers of arrests of people returning from the conflict zones in Syria and Iraq: from 41 in 2015 to 22 in 2016.

The Europol/EU report also provides a detailed summary analysis of the patterns in Islamist attacks lacking in the public reporting by all other countries and regions:

...The threat of jihadist terrorism is not perceived equally amongst Member States, of which the majority have not been confronted with jihadist terrorist activities at all in 2016, nor in one of the preceding years. These countries might be used for transiting of foreign terrorist fighters, (potential) jihadists or returnees, or unintentionally providing for a safe haven for them. These and other factors, however, including perceived insults to Islam, may influence potential risks. Switzerland for instance, not being an EU Member State and not being part of a coalition against IS, is aware of its vulnerability to jihadist terrorism by association with other Western countries and its international profile.

…As military pressure on IS increased and measures to prevent potential recruits from reaching IS-controlled territory became more effective, IS adapted its recruitment tactics. It now declared that perpetrating a terrorist attack in the West was even preferable to travelling to join IS.

The increased efforts to incite IS sympathizers in the West to perpetrate attacks were reflected in practical guidance for lone actor attacks provided in IS publications. The IS multi-language magazine Rumiyah18 contained a series of articles under the title “Just Terror Tactics”, which suggested terrorist attacks using knives, vehicles or arson, and gave tips on how to maximize the numbers of victims and impact. Perpetrators were admonished to leave some kind of evidence stating the motivation of the attack and allegiance to IS, such as a note attached to the victim’s body or a last will.

In 2016 IS preferred to claim lone actor attacks through its A’maq News Agency...The increased efforts by IS to directly recruit vulnerable people via social media and incite them to perpetrate terrorist acts in their country of residence, seem to not be limited to male targets.

…In 2012, already before the emergence of IS, al-Qaeda had redesigned its strategy to ensure its survival under the changed political circumstances following the Arab rebellions: al-Qaeda would merge with the population to the extent possible; cooperate with other Muslim groups based on common interests; and administer territories that fell under its control in a way so as not to alienate the population. The aim was to create safe havens from which al-Qaeda could plan and execute attacks on Western targets. The intransigent behavior of IS toward local populations made the implementation of this new strategy even more pressing for al-Qaeda in an effort to mark the difference to its opponent.

The data on Russia and the Ukraine show exceptionally sharp peaks and valleys in the number of incidents and attacks and their consequences. They highlight yet another area where there is no reporting on state terrorism, although Russia has clearly supported such movements in the Ukraine. There also is no clear separation of terrorism from insurgent activity, although the data on weapon type clearly reflect the impact of warfighting.

Once again, striking differences exist between the START and IHS Jane’s counts – differences illustrated in the examples in the tables for Russia and the Ukraine.
Photo credit: MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP/Getty Images

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy