On 1 August 2018, the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), an open-source database of terror incidents maintained by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), released its data set for 2017. This article examines the latest GTD statistics on Islamist militant attacks in Western Europe. In order to paint a full picture of the threat, we combine the numerical dataset with an analysis of the presence, intent, and capabilities of Islamist militants in the region, using France, Germany, and the UK as examples.
As shown in Figure 1, the number of terror attacks by Islamist militants in Western Europe remained largely static between 2016 and 2017, decreasing marginally from 32 to 31 attacks. Furthermore, the impact of these attacks significantly declined, with the number of people killed or injured as a result falling by just under 50 percent.
Nevertheless, the number of attacks remains elevated compared to 2014 and 2015 levels, showing that Islamist militants maintain the presence and intent to target Western European counties.
However, the declining impact of these attacks reflects both the reduced capabilities of Islamist militants, and the improving counter-terrorism capabilities and robust security measures of targeted countries. These have increasingly limited the opportunity for successful, sophisticated attacks to take place.
Within Western Europe, France, Germany and the UK have been the focal points of Islamist militant attacks, especially since the Islamic State (IS) captured territory in Iraq and Syria in 2013-14. Figures 2 and 3, depict the GTD’s figures on the frequency and impact of Islamist terrorist attacks over the last four years.
France’s data most closely mirrors that for Western Europe as a whole. While the number of attacks remained largely static between 2016 and 2017, the impact of these has significantly declined. As shown in Figure 3, the number of fatalities and injuries decreased drastically, dropping from 536 to 27 between 2016 and 2017. Nevertheless, France was the target of almost 50 percent of all Islamist terrorist attacks in Western Europe, which shows that the presence and intent to target the country remains elevated. The year-on-year decline in impact is largely attributable to the reduced opportunity for Islamist terrorists to launch high-impact attacks in the face of French intelligence operations, rather than a lower intent to target the country. In fact, French security forces have proven successful in foiling terrorist plots against a number of high-profile targets in recent years, including Euro Disney, the Champs-Elysees, the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Eiffel Tower. As such, travellers and commercial operators in France should remain vigilant of the ongoing terrorist threat in the country, and implement suitable security and mitigation measures to ensure the threat to their interests remains contained.
In contrast to France, there were significantly fewer Islamist terrorist attacks in Germany in 2017 versus 2016. According to the GTD, both the frequency and impact of these attacks declined by approximately 90 percent over this period. German security measures have contributed to this decline. Although German counterterrorism forces were unable to prevent the Berlin Christmas Market attack in 2016, despite placing the perpetrator under surveillance for six months prior to the attack, Germany has since implemented various security initiatives, including government plans to spend an extra EUR 2 billion (USD 2.3 billion) on internal security between 2017 and 2020, the adoption of legislation that improves information-sharing with European and US-based intelligence agencies, and the expansion of public data surveillance. Counter-terrorism procedures are often the product of ongoing learning processes, as security forces constantly adapt to terrorist threats as these emerge and evolve over time. The improved capabilities of German counter-terrorism forces, and heightened security measures by in-country commercial operators, will likely continue to limit the opportunity for successful, high impact Islamist terrorist attacks in the country.
Unlike France and Germany, the UK saw an increase in both the number of attacks and the number of fatalities and injuries between 2016 and 2017. The Manchester Arena bombing, perpetrated by a self-radicalised British national with sympathies for Libyan Islamist groups, accounted for 55 percent of the fatalities for the year. However, the increase in frequency and impact in attacks is not necessarily indicative of a ‘step-change’ to the threat of terrorism in the UK, which has arguably remained static – albeit elevated – since 2014. Given the increase in the number of attacks, Islamist militants and their sympathisers clearly maintain a presence in the UK, and consider the country an attractive target. Capability and opportunity levels, however, remain largely limited amongst these terrorist elements. The attacks on Westminster and London Bridge, as well as Parsons Green, in which “improvised” weapons such as vehicles, knives and home-made explosives were deployed, are largely representative of the type of resources available to Islamist militant sympathisers in the UK. The success of the highly lethal Manchester Arena bombing is thus more likely an outlier incident, representative of how the existent threat level can manifest, rather than representing the average capabilities of Islamist terrorists in the country. Nevertheless, the threat posed by such individuals is increasingly mitigated by sophisticated and well-resourced UK counter-terrorism forces, and the implementation of elevated security measures around attractive commercial and public targets.
The GTD provides a useful starting point for analysing terrorism trends in Western Europe. Combined with an account of the presence, intent, capability, and opportunity for Islamist militants and their sympathisers to effectively conduct attacks, the overarching trend that shines through is that of a static, but elevated, threat of Islamist terrorism in the region. While several western European countries are consistently improving their counterterrorism capabilities, residents, travellers and commercial entities should continue to implement the preventative security measures necessary to reduce the risk they face to an acceptable level.
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