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Homegrown terrorist attacks: is Europe at a higher risk than the US?

10 April, 2015

By Andrea Kazan – Research Assistant

Homegrown terrorism has been defined as acts of terrorism executed by individuals who were born or raised in the country they carry out the attack in, whether for political, ideological, or religious objectives. In the context of Islamic extremists in Western countries, these persons are generally not officially members of terrorist organisations, but instead associate themselves with radical foreign groups and are influenced by their ideas. Homegrown Islamist terrorist attacks comprise the majority of terrorism in the West today. In the United States, thirteen years have passed since 9/11, and all the most lethal Islamist terrorist incidents in the country since that date have been homegrown. There is strong evidence suggesting that Europe is at a higher risk of homegrown terrorist attacks than the US. However, the US should also be prepared to see its risk of homegrown terrorist attacks increase, partly as a result of its campaign against ISIS.

Why Europe is more at risk than the US: lack of integration of minorities

The Muslim communities in Europe are not as well integrated into society as those in the US. Regardless of whether European countries choose multiculturalism policies, as in Britain and the Netherlands, or integration policies, as in France, Muslim incorporation into societies in Europe has in many instances failed. Indeed, a study by Professor Maria Haberfeld showed that alienation in Europe is much higher than in the US across all Muslim socioeconomic classes. Only 7 per cent of Muslims in Great Britain identify themselves primarily as British compared to 81 per cent who identity themselves primarily as Muslims.

One manifestation of the lack of integration in Europe is the high rate of anti-minority sentiment within the general population. In a 2010 survey, 31 per cent of the country’s respondents agreed that Germany “is becoming dumber because of immigrants”. The survey also showed that far-right and anti-immigrant groups play a prominent role in European countries: they regularly receive more than 10 per cent of the votes in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France and Italy; and around 20 per cent in Finland and Norway. In Switzerland, the far-right Swiss People’s Party won 20% of the votes in 2009, “despite a campaign marred by accusations of racism”. In Europe, according to Haris Tarin, the problem is that Muslims are associated with both ‘immigration problems’ as well as ‘Muslim problems’. In contrast, in the US, the negative aspects of immigration are principally associated with Latinos.

Another manifestation of this comparatively poor integration is that the US Muslim communities are usually more educated and wealthy than the national average, giving them fewer reasons to feel alienated. In Europe, Muslim communities are frequently dominated by low-wage workers. Indeed, a significant proportion of Muslims in Europe are unemployed and economically disadvantaged. Unemployment is the main concern for Muslim communities in many European countries: 52 per cent of Muslims in France and 56 per cent to Muslims in Germany are very worried about unemployment. These conditions make it harder for Muslims to desire to integrate into their countries and increase their sense of alienation and vulnerability to extremism.

Why Europe is more at risk than the US: foreigners who join the fight with ISIS

The number of individuals who travelled to join the fight with ISIS in Syria is much higher in Europe than in the US, which will likely mean that Europe will suffer more significant consequences with regards to homegrown terrorism once the fighters return. It is estimated that more than 20,000 fighters have fled their countries to participate in the fighting in Syria and Iraq, with the vast majority joining ISIS or other extremist groups. In January 2015, more foreign fighters had traveled from the United Kingdom (500-600), France (1200), Germany (500) and even small European states such as Sweden (150-180) and Denmark (100-150) than the United States (100).

Officials have acknowledged that it is hard to track all the citizens who travel to these countries, and there is concern that these fighters will come back and carry out attacks in their country. The attack by French citizen and former ISIS fighter Mehdi Nemmouche on the Jewish museum in Brussels in 2014 is a clear example of the impact these individuals could have on their country once they return.

Studies have given various estimates of the probability that foreign fighters will carry out attacks in their home countries once they come back: one estimated that 1 in 9 foreign fighter subsequently becomes involved in terrorism in their home countries, whilst another gave a higher rate of 1 in 4 foreign fighters. Either way, there is legitimate concern that these fighters could become involved in homegrown terrorist attacks once they return, and with the number of fighters much higher in Europe than in the US, Europe could be faced with higher risks.

Why the US should also be prepared to see its rate of homegrown terrorist attacks increase

Homegrown terrorists in the US are usually motivated by the idea that the country’s government is waging a war against Islam. Indeed, most homegrown terrorists forget about the terrorist groups’ goal of establishing Sharia Law, and instead focus on this concept. For example, the US Army major Nidal Malik Hasan, who was responsible for the shooting in Fort Hood, was encouraged to do so in order to prevent the soldiers fighting in this perceived war. Afghan-American Najibullah Zazi was also inspired by this narrative, and attempted to detonate bombs in the New York subway.

The counterterrorism efforts undertaken by the US reinforce this ideology. The US-led coalition air strikes in Syria could, therefore, have a consequence on the rate of homegrown terrorism in the US. In addition, the US campaign against these groups will make formal participation in their efforts by US citizens more difficult. As a result, extremists will be less likely to become official members of terrorist groups, but more likely to carry out lone wolf operations, including homegrown terrorism. Indeed, even before ISIS emerged as a major threat, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and its affiliates were already increasing their encouragement of lone wolf attacks. In its English language magazine “Inspire”, AQAP claimed in 2011 that individual terrorism is “fundamental for exhausting the enemy and causing him to collapse and withdraw”. Other AQAP representatives, including Adam Gadham, praised the actions of homegrown terrorists and encouraged them. With the return of a muscular US approach to counter-terrorism in Iraq and elsewhere, these efforts are only likely to increase.

In conclusion, the lack of integration of minorities in Europe as well as the considerably higher number of individuals who fled to join the fight with ISIS could mean that Europe is at a higher risk than the US with regards to homegrown terrorist attacks. However, the US has been the leader in its fight against terrorism, strengthening the US against Islam narrative, and the US-led coalition airstrikes in Syria and Iraq today could mean that the US should be prepared to see its rate of homegrown terrorist attacks increase.

About Andrea Kazan

Andrea Kazan is a Research Assistant in the Security and Defense Division. Andrea holds an MSc in Global Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a BA in Political Studies from the American University of Beirut. Her main research interests include terrorism and non-state armed groups, human rights, international law and global emerging health threats.