Trends in Extremist Violence and Terrorism in Europe through End-2016

By Anthony H. Cordesman

The following report is the first of two reports that put terrorism and Islamic extremism into the broader context of all forms of terrorism and extremism, including hate crimes. It addresses a new report by Europol on the patterns in terrorism in Europe through the end of 2016. It notes that the U.S. government does not provide any similar official data on the patterns in terrorism, and that the European report is to some extent a model that the United States should follow to establish the comparative levels of risk posed by given type of terrorism, and provide some data on the effectiveness of homeland defense efforts.

It also notes that the European report shows clearly that Islamic extremism is only one form of terrorism, although Jihadist attacks in the EU in 2016 were a key source of casualties and deaths—causing 374 out of 379 casualties (99%) and 135 out of 142 fatalities (95%). They also accounted for 718 out of 1002 terrorism-related arrests (72%).

At the same time, these attacks were designed to alienate non-Muslims from Muslims and focused on maximizing the number of casualties. They only made up 13 of 142 (9.2%) terrorist attacks in Europe in 2016 and were part of a much larger pattern of extremist and political violence. Like the United States, the Europol report also does not count most hate crimes as forms of terrorism, and therefore also understates the broader threat posed by other extremists acting out of racism or religious motives like antisemitism.

While the United States sometimes seems to be obsessed with ISIS, the Europol report focuses more broadly on the resurgence of al-Qaeda and the danger of lone wolf attacks. It focuses on the threat posed by extremist communication and propaganda, and looks beyond Europe to examine the interaction between the terrorist threat in Europe and other regions in the world. This analysis shows how serious the terrorist threat is outside the West, that it is a global problem, and that defeating ISIS will in no way bring a halt to the overall threat posed by violent extremism.

The second report draws on the semi-official data on terrorism in the START database and the steadily improving FBI annual report on hate crimes to show how terrorism in the U.S. compares with the broader patterns in hate crimes and terrorism. It is entitled Terrorism and Hate Crimes: Dealing with All of the Threats from Extremism , and will be released on July 5, 2017.

The data are a grim warning that overt, criminal acts of racism still present a major challenge in U.S. society. They make up more than 59% of all "single bias" hate crimes—over 3440 incidents, and single bias crimes are the most clearly identifiable of the 5,850 criminal incidents and 6,885 related offenses that were motivated by bias against race, ethnicity, ancestry, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender, and gender identity. These totals only involve reported incidents and reporting on hate crimes is far less comprehensive than terrorist attacks—all of which get massive media attention.

Religion was the second greatest cause of hate crimes—59.2% were targeted because of a race/ethnicity/ancestry bias; 19.7% because of a religious bias; and 17.7% because of a sexual orientation bias. These three causes alone led to the targeting of 96.6% of "single bias" hate crimes.

By comparison, the START database on terrorism—which the U.S. State Department uses to estimate the level of terrorism from all causes—found a total of 38 incidents of terrorism in the United States in 2015. START reported that only 16 of these 38 attacks had some connection to religion, but did not specify the faith involved.

The worst terrorist attacks did have more serious human consequences than hate crimes. They killed a total of 44 persons in 2015, and injured 52 others—a total of 96 victims inside the United States. START also estimates that 16 of the 52 incidents had some form of religious motive.

At the same time, America's past heritage of religious prejudice and bigotry accounted for far more incidents and for a total of 1,354 offenses reported by law enforcement. Antisemitism made up over 51% of these incidents, but Islamophobia poses a growing and very serious risk. The number of anti-Muslim incidents, however, ranked second at 22.2% of the total or 301 incidents. This was nearly 8 times the total number of terrorist incidents, and 19 times the total number of terrorist incidents that START reports had any link to religion. It also does not take account of cases where non-Muslims were confused with Muslims. Less than 4% involved hate crimes against a Christian sect, a significant decline from the past pattern of hate crimes up until the early 1960s—although accurate trend data are lacking.

If one looks at the human cost of hate crime attacks it is also striking that terrorism accounted for 96 victims in 2015—including 44 murders. This number has to be compared to 7,121 victims of hate crimes, and 2,608 of these victims suffered from physical hate crimes against persons ranging from simple assault to murder. A total of 883 of the 2,608 suffered from aggravated assault and there were 18 murders and 13 rapes.

The Failed U.S. Government Effort to Provide Any Meaningful Public Reporting on Terrorism

It is one of the ironies—and perhaps tragedies—of the American approach to terrorism that the U.S. government provides virtually no meaningful transparency as to its official views of the patterns in terrorism, the cost of its counter-terrorism efforts, and the effectiveness of its anti-terrorism efforts.

The one official public effort to estimate the patterns in terrorism—carried out by the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) —was cancelled years ago. The only thing approaching a semi-official source is the START database, which the State Department uses as the statistical annex to its annual Country Reports on Terrorism—but it is forced to rely on media reports which vary radically in quality and credibility by country and region.

The U.S. government does not provide any report on the cost of its "wars" against ISIS, and the only report it provides on the cost of homeland defense has been an obscure OMB effort in the Analytic Perspective section of the President's Budget request called “Homeland Security Funding Analysis” to estimate the cost of the different agencies that claim to be involved in homeland defense.

This report has included museums as part of homeland defense and excluded the NCTC, key elements of the intelligence community, and work by key elements of the Justice Department like the FBI. This annex provides no effectiveness data and no clear explanation of why many Departmental and Agency activities that are listed are seen as relevant to homeland defense.

The Trump Administration has made striking negative progress in addressing any of these issues. The State Department Country Reports on Terrorism, which legislation requires to be submitted by April 30th, have not been issued for this year. The OMB annex dealing with homeland defense has been deleted from OMB reporting on the FY2018 budget submission. It has advanced executive orders on immigration and visas that are supposed to address terrorist threats with no technical or statistical justification or explanation of the estimated threat.

The end result has been to feed forms of "Islamophobia" that exaggerate the very real threat posed by violent Islamic extremism and that often attack all Muslims and Islam, rather than focus on the real extremist threat posed by a comparatively tiny group of violent extremists. It has given the impression that such extremists are part of a "clash between civilizations" focused on hatred of the West and non-Muslims when all of the data on global terrorism and violence show that the vast majority—possibly well in excess of 90%—of the casualties caused by such extremist groups are fellow Muslims that are killed or injured in the efforts extremist movements make to seize control over the governments of largely Muslim states.

The resulting levels of fear, ignorance, and over-reaction directly serve the interests of extremist groups in dividing the United States, the West, and non-Muslims from the moderate regimes in largely Muslim states that are the principal source of the forces fighting extremism. The failure to provide proper analytic perspective and balance in reporting is the clear equivalent of "aid and comfort" to the enemy.

The Europol Alternative

Since 2007, reporting by Europol provides a sharp contrast to the lack of basic coverage, competence, and integrity in U.S. official reporting. This report is called the EU Terrorism Situation & Trend Report (Te-Sat) and a new edition covering 2016 was issued in June 2017.

Such reporting is far from perfect, and European counterterrorism experts are the first to admit that European countries vary sharply in capability and the willingness to address terrorist threats. The report does, however, provide a solid annual review of the trends in terrorism, the relative impact of Islamic extremism relative to other threats, and basic indicators of effectiveness for counterterrorism activity like the numbers of arrests, numbers of individuals tried, conviction rates, and length of sentence.

It directly addresses the number of attacks and casualties caused by Islamic extremist groups relative to other terrorists and extremist threats from right and left wing groups. It shows that these threats—along with ethno-nationalist, single issue, and anarchist threats—are responsible for the vast majority of terrorist attacks in Europe. It makes it clear that the Jihadist attacks in the EU in 2016 were a key source of casualties and deaths—causing 374 out of 379 casualties (99%). and 135 out of 142 fatalities (95%) They also accounted for 718 out of 1002 arrests (72%).

At the same time, these attacks were designed to alienate non-Muslims from Muslims and focused on maximizing the number of killings. They only made up 13 of 142 terrorist attacks (9.2%) and were part of a much larger pattern of extremist and political violence. Like the United States, the Europol report does not count most hate crimes as forms of terrorism, that also understates the broader threat posed by other extremists acting out of racism or religious motives like antisemitism.

While the U.S. sometimes seems to be obsessed with ISIS, the Europol report also focuses on the resurgence of al-Qaeda and the danger of lone wolf attacks. It focuses on the threat posed by extremist communication and propaganda, and looks beyond Europe to examine the interaction between the terrorist threat in Europe and the other regions in the world. This analysis shows how serious the terrorist threat is outside the West, that it is a global problem, and that defeating ISIS will in no way bring a halt to the overall threat posed by violent extremism.

Looking at the Patterns in Terrorist Attacks in Europe

These issues have been addressed in several previous Burke Chair reports that highlight the gaps and problems in official U.S. reporting. A new report, drawing on the latest Europol report, focuses on the different statistical and graphic estimates of the terrorist threat in Europe. This report is entitled Trends in Extremist Violence and Terrorism in Europe through End-2016, and is available on the CSIS web site at https://www.csis.org/analysis/trends-extremist-violence-and-terrorism-europe-through-end-2016.

This new report highlights several key aspects of the EU report:

  • 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 UK. 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 as a result 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.

The report also shows how small a part the attacks in Europe played relative to the overall threat of global terrorism and extremism, and the rising level of casualties in the rest of the world—the vast majority of which occurred in largely Muslim countries. It shows how limited the attacks and casualties were in Europe and the United States relative to other regions. It also provides a comparison to START data on the trends in attacks in Europe—often revealing just how different the estimates of the trends in terrorism can be if one compares different sources—and the need for some unclassified and official U.S. estimates and database. Two critical limits in the START data base are the inability to easily get meaningful casualty estimates and to distinguish Jihadist inspired attacks and their effects from other forms of attack.

A final section shows just how limited a portion of the global threat comes from ISIS proper or from al-Qaeda, and that ISIS "affiliates" and ISIS "-inspired" groups will pose a major continuing threat to the West and other regions of the world regardless of what happens to ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

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Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy