The Sept. 15 terrorist bombing in a crowded London subway station – which injured at least 30 passengers but caused no deaths – was the latest in a string of terrorist attacks in Western Europe in recent years.
In mid-August, attacks in Barcelona and the nearby city of Cambrils killed 16 people and injured more than 130 just a few days before an attacker with a knife in Finland killed two and wounded eight others. Earlier assaults this year in London and Manchester, England, left dozens dead and hundreds more wounded.
Since 2015, there has been a sharp increase in both the number of attacks and deaths caused by terrorism in Europe.
There are three key factors contributing to this development: Europe’s large and often poorly integrated Muslim population, proximity to unstable regions like the Middle East and North Africa, and terrorists’ new focus on highly vulnerable “soft” targets.
The ISIL claimed on its Amaq news outlet that a “detachment” of its followers were responsible for last week’s London attack.
While terrorism in Europe today is commonly associated with Islamic extremism, since the end of World War II Europe has experienced Different waves of terrorist violence. In the 1970s and 1980s, the biggest terrorist threat was secular Marxist groups such as the Red Brigades in Italy and Germany’s Red Army Faction as well as separatist groups such as Spain’s ETA and Northern Ireland’s IRA.
But since Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the USA, radical Islam has become the greatest terrorist threat facing Europe.
In many Western European countries today, Muslims make up between 5 to 10 percent of the population. Many second- and third-generation European Muslims have struggled more than their parents or grandparents to assimilate, in part due to unemployment and xenophobia.
In contrast, the U.S. has a much lower proportion of Muslim residents – about 1 percent of the population – and they tend to be well integrated into American society, with educational attainment, household income and employment levels comparable to those of the general public.
According to a recent U.S Government study, over a period of more than 15 years, from Sept. 12, 2001, to the end of 2016, radical Islamic extremists killed 119 people in the U.S. in 23 separate attacks – fewer than the number who died in coordinated attacks in and around Paris on the night of Nov. 13, 201
The short road to IS:
Geography also works against Europe. For jihadis fleeing the battlefields of Iraq or Syria, Europe is simply easier to reach than the U.S. or other far-flung Western countries such as Canada or Australia.
As many as 5,000 thousand Europeans left to wage jihad in Iraq and Syria, far more than the number of Americans who joined IS and other terrorist groups. European security services estimate that as many as 30 percent of those fighters have returned home. Many pose little security threat, but there are likely dozens who are actively plotting attacks in Europe.
And thanks to the Schengen Agreement, which dismantled internal border controls within the E.U., terrorists can slip in and out of EU countries with ease – though not necessarily the UK, which does not participate. Counterterrorism cooperation among European countries has advanced in recent years, but Europe remains a patchwork of security and intelligence agencies.
But this is not the worst period of terrorism in modern European history. In 1972, the bloodiest year of Northern Ireland troubles, terrorist attacks killed 400 people in Western Europe, and the region accounted for more than 70 percent of terrorist attacks worldwide.
Still, the number and lethality of attacks in Europe have indeed been rising sharply in recent years, partially as a result of terrorists’ changing tactics.
While al-Qaida preferred complex, well-planned assaults like the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks and plans to take down airliners over the Atlantic Ocean, IS has demonstrated a penchant for indiscriminate violence.
Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, a senior IS strategist killed last year, called on Muslims to murder Europeans by any means necessary: “Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car.” He was especially keen on killing “the spiteful and filthy French.”
Either through incompetence or sheer good fortune, the crude, homemade bomb that shook London last week failed to detonate properly. The New York Times reported that witnesses on the train “described a tremor, a wave of heat and then a barrage of flames that quickly dissipated.”
European cities have added the new physical barrier to guard against such crude offences, but police and security services can do little to completely eliminate similar attacks.
The bigger question is what impact ongoing terrorist attacks will have on European politics and societies. In seeking to reduce the frequency and lethality of inevitable future terrorist attacks, Europe’s democratic societies are confronting hard choices.