Will Europe see a rise in terrorism in a post-COVID world?

In this article we take a look at a potential rise in terrorist acts committed on European soil in the wake of relaxed COVID-19 restrictions.

Norway attack: What happened?

On the 15th October the Norwegian police arrested and charged a 37-year old man after the killing of five and the injuring of two in a bow and arrow attack in Kongsberg. Reports have described the attack as being carried out over a rather large area. The identity of the man, Espen Andersen Brathen, has been revealed alongside the following information, he is a resident of the Norwegian town and a Danish citizen. Authorities have not, however, yet disclosed what the charges against him are. They have stated that he was approached prior to the attack with concerns surrounding radicalisation. And so, we do not yet know if this is an act of terrorism or a simple act of violence.

A bit more on the current context of Norway, this attack comes in the wake of a change in government. Just a month ago, parliamentary elections pushed the long-standing Conservative Party out of the majority rule in favour of the Labour Party. Jonas Gahr Store is now set to take on the role of Prime Minister. The attack has therefore taken place during a rather turbulent time for Norwegian society.

Is this a signal that there will be a spike in terrorism in Europe?

Regardless of whether this was an act of terrorism, or rather an act of violence, what has just happened in Norway can still inspire us to ask an interesting questions: Will we see more terrorism in Europe now that society and the economy appear to be reopening?

Remember the Paris attacks?

Back in 2015, Europe, and especially France, was shaken to its core. November of that year saw a number of simultaneous attacks at significant cultural spots throughout Paris. Earlier that year, we also saw the Charlie Hebdo shooting, the Île-de-France attacks, which were then followed by the Nice truck attack and the Brussels bombings in 2016. ISIS having brought terrorism to the West and onto European turf so-to-speak, we saw the US, the EU, and Russia respond to this existential threat.

What was seen as rather particular and unique with these attacks is that the phenomenon of lone wolf attacks emerged. More than that, we saw local citizens taking up proverbial arms against their own society, as opposed to foreign agents. This was associated with a trend in increased radicalisation and the use of propaganda to increase ISIS membership and support.

2020: Europe’s reprieve from terrorism

While terrorism did not disappear from European territory in 2020, it did stabilise. Just to get a better idea, in 2015, the EU bore witness to 682 terrorist related arrests, and 150 deaths. Numbers remained high for the next few years, with a marked drop in 2018. This number has come to a new low since 2020. Last year, the EU was subject to 254 arrests and 12 deaths, with only 10 jihadist terrorist attacks.

Just as an aside, the total number of terrorist attacks that swept through Europe in 2020 was 57. While only 10 were jihadist attacks, they have been responsible for the largest number of casualties. It is, however, important to take a look at the remainder. Of the 57, 14 were ethno-nationalist and separatist attacks within France and Spain, with another 24 being left-wing led and anarchist events all in Italy.

Then what have the terrorists been doing?

While we have seen a marked drop in attacks, we have also seen a rise in propaganda. During the pandemic, extremists have taken the time to exploit the situation. More specifically, with the dawn of the pandemic, we have seen an increased use of the internet. Online communities are now playing an important role in disseminating violent extremism. With the move from Telegram to block terrorist group, jihadists have since made a move to multiple, smaller platforms, such as gaming platforms. Right-wing and jihadist extremists, have both adopted this method.

This is particularly interesting when placed in the context of Norway. With the information that the attacker was on a watch-list for risk of radicalisation, this is a clear indicator of the authorities’ fear surrounding the growing threat of online radicalisation.

Is this then the calm before the storm?                   

We have therefore established that terrorist groups have worked to grow their support base. This therefore means that there is an increased number of potential lone wolf attackers out there. Countries are now coming out of isolation, and so the target-risk presented by large crowds is returning.

Most EU countries have made waves in vaccine roll-out. 67.1% of France’s population is fully vaccinated, 65.3% in Germany, and 67.3% in the UK. We are therefore seeing that the majority of European citizens are vaccinated. As this number rises, we will see a decrease in restrictions on social gathering. This means a return to cultural hotspots: restaurants, concert halls, promenades, and the like. With this, we will essentially be providing extremists with more targets. The ultimate questions is, should we be anticipating a spike in terrorism throughout Europe in 2022?

What does Taliban rule mean for ISIS activity on European soil?

One thing to consider is that ISIS will have to divide its forces. The Taliban has been fighting a war against ISIS separate from the one it has been waging against the US. Now with the Taliban ruling in Afghanistan, ISIS faces an existential threat in the Middle East. ISIS fighters have actually fled Afghan territory to go into hiding from the Taliban. Europe may in fact experience insulation from jihadi terrorism in that ISIS may be forced to focus on maintaining a Middle Eastern stronghold.