2018 represented a sharp departure from previous years in terms of the sheer number of jihadist attacks in the West. Though attacks in Western Europe and North America were on a steady rise prior to this year, in 2018 they plunged, and jihadist attacks in the West in 2018 were fairly unsophisticated and significantly less lethal. Meanwhile, declines in other indicators traditionally used to assess the strength of the jihadist movement—numbers of arrests and individuals departing for conflict zones to fight alongside jihadist groups—point to an overall stagnation in jihadist activities in Western Europe and North America.
That is not to say that the threat is gone. Officials in most Western countries continue to monitor large pockets of support for the Islamic State and, more broadly, jihadist ideology. From the perspective of European and American law enforcement, many of these pockets, which range from isolated fanboys to structured networks, could be potentially ready to activate themselves and carry out attacks. And, despite efforts by major social media providers, jihadism still thrives online and as a subculture among some disenfranchised Western Muslims.
Nonetheless, the territorial collapse of the Islamic State had a major impact on jihadist activities in the West. This decline—paired with a relative surge in right wing extremism in many Western countries—is leading authorities to partially refocus resources from jihadism to other security challenges, such as different forms of extremism, cybersecurity and information warfare. But any reassessment of how best to tackle terrorism in 2019 after the relative lull of 2018 should include a consideration of what lessons have been learned in terms of countering and understanding extremism over the last few years.
In particular, it is worth revisiting the pre-2011 environment to understand what may be in store. To some degree, the current situation is reminiscent of 2011, when the death of Osama bin Laden, a lull in terrorist attacks in the West, optimism about the early days of the Arab Spring and the general fatigue after a decade of War on Terror led many to think that the jihadist threat was on the decline, if not completely evaporated, in the West.
This assessment, fairly widespread in 2011, proved dramatically incorrect in the following years, as the Islamic State and other jihadist groups fighting in the Syrian civil war attracted some 6,000 Western foreign fighters and inspired an even larger number of sympathizers. Many Western policymakers initially failed to see the long-term security implications of the jihadist mobilization to Syria. In some cases, officials held the view that travel to Syria by foreign fighters was preferable, buying into the axiom that “if they fight over there, they don’t kill us here.”
It became dramatically clear in the following years that the presence of Western foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq triggered various problematic dynamics. Not only, in fact, did foreign fighters exacerbate the conflict, but many of them planned, instigated and executed dozens of terrorist attacks in Europe and North America. The recognition that conflicts provide fuel to the fire of radicalization—particularly those that have a high symbolic value and are relatively easy for foreign fighters to join—should guide policymakers in the coming years. The lesson may prove particularly important in light of the forthcoming withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and from other conflict zones in the region as well.
Similarly, in 2011 collective knowledge on the process of radicalization was extremely limited. Over the last few years, terrorism scholars and practitioners alike have devoted enormous attention to trying to understand why individuals radicalize. The results of these efforts are admittedly modest. Most agree that radicalization is a complex and highly individualized process and that there is no common profile of a “radicalized” individuals. Beyond these points, there is little consensus.
But the flurry of radicalization theories demonstrates the importance of a multidisciplinary approach, suggesting that a better understanding of radicalization is crucial to prevent and reverse it. While those in the field no longer place as much value on traditional models based exclusively on socio-economic analyses, theories based in psychology and social networks have gained ground.
This research and the corresponding multidisciplinary approach, though it represents a greatly expanded body of knowledge, is still in its early stages. Despite the lull in attacks and decreased attention paid to jihadism, it should be expanded to improve radicalization prevention and de-radicalization efforts in coming years. Moreover, many of the lessons learned with jihadist radicalization are likely to prove useful when dealing with other ideologies.
The last seven years also show that, without effective management, prisons can be potential incubators of radicalization. Among militants aligned with the Islamic State, high percentages (in some European countries, more than 60 percent) possessed a criminal background. For many of these individuals, the redemptive conversion from street thug to holy warrior took place behind bars. This trend is not entirely new: Since the 1990s, in fact, authorities in most Western countries have struggled with the phenomenon of charismatic inmates radicalizing fellow prisoners.
But in some countries, the challenge may metastasize in the immediate future: the large numbers of arrests related to the Islamic State in recent years have led to the incarceration of an unprecedented number of radicalized individuals throughout Europe and, to a lesser degree, the United States. Resources and expertise are needed to prevent the “ideological contagion” of the larger prison population and to attempt, when possible, to deradicalize those detained for terrorism.
During the Islamic State-related mobilization, a great deal of popular reporting focused on the role of online propaganda and networks in facilitating radicalization. While it would be highly incorrect to think that most people radicalize solely online—or, similarly, that the Islamic State attracted tens of thousands of supporters in the West only because of its slick social media presence—it is undeniable that digital communications played an unprecedented role in the latest mobilization.
Since 2011, there have been major developments in contrasting online jihadism. Governments and internet companies have at times held divergent positions, and the desire to protect free speech has often clashed with security concerns. Nonetheless, increased (though highly imperfect) government-industry cooperation has succeeded in marginalizing extremist material, pushing content and accounts that promulgate such material from major platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube onto lesser-known online platforms. While these smaller platforms do not enjoy the same audience as their better-known counterparts, the downside is that some utilize encryption and are more difficult for law enforcement to monitor. Eliminating online terrorist content is a chimera—but the ongoing effort to marginalize it must adapt and continue into the future.
Across the board, it is imperative that legal systems are up to speed in countering new developments of the threat. Many challenges from the last few years stem from the fact that most Western countries’ terrorism laws were unprepared to cope with the quantitative increase and qualitative shifts in radicalization—a deficiency whose side effects will linger for years to come. For example, at the outset of the recent mobilization, many European countries did not have laws criminalizing participation in a terrorist organization abroad.
Even in those countries in which such laws existed, prosecuting terrorism financing and bringing evidence from a battlefield to a civilian court are often difficult. As a result, of the over 1,000 foreign fighters from EU member states who returned to their native countries, only a small percentage have been prosecuted. Moreover, though national and transnational cooperation mechanisms have improved significantly, the last few years clearly demonstrated that inadequate legal tools constitute a major challenge to effective counterterrorism.
Many unpredictable factors will shape the next phase of jihadism in the West. It is unclear whether there will be another conflict as attractive as Syria was in the early 2010s, what the future will hold for the Islamic State and whether al-Qaeda or other groups will emerge or re-emerge as leaders of the global jihadist movement. These events are largely beyond the control of Western policymakers and counter-terrorism apparatuses. But Western countries can and should learn from the experiences of the last few years to adapt to the current threat and preemptively prepare for future challenges.
Dr. Lorenzo Vidino is the Director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. An expert on Islamism in Europe and North America