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Islamist Terrorism in Europe: A History

0 Comments 🕔11.Aug 2016

At a time when Islamist terrorism has again gripped public attention, Peter Nesser’s book arrives as a useful addition to the topic. In a field such as this, it is in the nature of research to incorporate whole swathes of information and source materials that are inaccessible. However, Nesser has collected enough research, including sources from active security officers and analysts, to be able to present an analysis that is both respectable and readable. It is also in the nature of scholarship that we look for patterns—but what to do with an area such as this, where the only pattern that can be discerned with certainty is the insistent reference to Islamic authority? Where even the definition of “terrorism” is uncertain? Nesser’s approach is to allow events to take the lead, trying to find sufficient common grounds to produce a narrative that does not simply descend into chaos and coincidence.

The book takes a primarily chronological approach and is characterized by two threads. It begins with the “Afghan-Arabs,” described by others as itinerant jihadis, accumulating experience in one conflict situation, which they then transport to the next opportunity (Bosnia and Chechnya in the first instance). Pakistan has already made its appearance at this point, with the army and the intelligence service (ISI)—strongly Islamized under President Zia ul-Haq (d.1988)—engaging with Afghanistan in an effort to strengthen its hand against India. The story moves on to Europe as the effects of Bosnia and Chechnya offer a fertile ground for Al-Qa’ida’s (AQ) initial forays into the continent (with 9/11 as the deafening background noise). In three chapters, Nesser then deals with the “Iraq effect” and the associated trends from 2003 to 2008, what Marc Sageman refers to as the “third wave.”[1] Here, several different groupings and tendencies intermingle with shifts in regional focus, but also a broadening of the European arena from France and, rather ambiguously, the United Kingdom, into Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Spain, and Germany. This is when the European public first wakes up to Islamist terrorism on its doorstep with major attacks in Spain (2003) and London (2005). It is also when European events themselves start to become fodder for the terrorist narratives, above all the Danish cartoons of 2005. But like previous waves (Nesser seems to basically agree with Sageman’s periodization) this one also recedes, partly due to the decline of the leaderships through attrition, and partly through mutual rivalries. The best example of this is the mutation of AQ from being a centrally-led operation to becoming a franchise—as well as the increasing tension between the AQ leadership and its largest franchisee, namely AQ in Iraq, led by Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, whose hatred of Shi’ites sets the tone for the next wave, and the ultimate break with AQ.

With the collapse of Syria and the unprecedented number of foreign fighters involved, we are now in what Rik Coolsaet has called the “fourth wave.”[2] Nesser suggests that the links between Europe and so-called Islamic State are little understood. Here we run into the problem faced by all authors covering current events: the events are not over yet. Coolsaet had just managed to include the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris on January 7 2015 before surrendering under the publisher’s pressure to get the book to market. It’s interesting to consider the more recent attacks in Paris and Brussels in light of his analysis. But to do that, we need to look at the other red thread.

The second red thread is an attempt to suggest a “typology of jihadi terrorists in Europe”—the European location is essential, as I doubt that it can easily be transferred to other regions. Nesser identifies four categories (12-18), accepting that they are not exhaustive, and that there are overlaps. The “entrepreneur” is the essential organizer—often well-educated, and a religious and political activist who is the node that holds a cell together and links to other cells. The “protégé” is often closely associated with the entrepreneur, a friend and trusted lieutenant, often someone who brings essential skills to the enterprise. Both of these types are likely to be motivated by a sense of justice and mission. Followers are likely to fall into two groups, “misfits” and “drifters.” Here, one is more likely to see the socially marginalized, often criminalized, youth that are seen by the public in recent terrorist incidents. The first two groups, suggests Nesser, are driven by grievances and ideology—the misfits by personal grievances, and the drifters through coincidental ties with someone already in a group. Clearly, it is still too early to determine where the most recent attacks fit into this analysis, but if there is an entrepreneur in there somewhere, he has not been identified in the first couple of weeks of investigation. The links between the Paris and Brussels attacks also suggest that the distinction between cell and network is vague. The speed with which connections have been unraveled by the authorities also suggests that the culprits have not been very good at establishing the classical cell structures, which stood the left-wing extremists of the 1960s to 80s in such good stead.

Is one entitled to conclude that, at least in its formative stages, what we are experiencing today is self-inflicted: blow-back from US encouragement of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s, reluctant European responses to the viciousness of the Bosnia war and quiet relief at the suppression of election results in Algeria in the 1990s, and the incompetent tunnel vision of the occupation of Iraq from 2003? Certainly western preaching of human rights and the values of democracy have all too frequently been exposed as manipulative, and therefore not to be taken seriously, providing a discursive context making it much easier to offer extreme Islamic interpretations as valid alternatives. In Nesser’s analysis, however, Islamic interpretation plays a very marginal role. During the earlier phases, hard-line Islamist propagandists based mainly in London, together with the analyses coming out of the AQ leadership, increasingly focused on what was said to be Europe’s breaking of the “contract” with them: so long as Europe provided refuge and did not attack Islam, Europe was not a legitimate target. That contract was, in their eyes, broken with the growing European involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Madrid attack in 2003 was the first major response. But soon recourse to logics appealing to Islam, however twisted, was of declining interest. Nesser’s account harmonizes with suggestions that authorities such as Europol regard Islamic discourses to have lost their role.[3]

Nesser’s analysis is nuanced and balanced. He does not make the mistake of some of the more alarmist literature, which argues that Islam is an essentially aggressive religion prone to the use of violence. He very carefully keeps to the data, presenting the individual incidents and personalities, and avoids the temptation to over-generalize or to let assumptions run away with him—although assumptions are sometimes made necessarily, given the occasional paucity of data. The book also implicitly points to two reasons why security services will always be one step behind. They will never have sufficient resources to keep tabs on every potential terrorist. And whatever category of individual biography can be identified as conducive to terrorism, the fact remains that the majority of them do not follow that course.

Reviewed by Jørgen S. Nielsen, University of Birmingham

Islamist Terrorism in Europe: A History
by Petter Nesser
Hurst Publishers
Paperback / 376 pages / 2015
ISBN: 9781849044059


[1] Marc Sageman, Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008, pp. 49-50.

[2] Rik Coolsaet, “Facing the fourth foreign fighters wave,” Egmont Paper, 81 (May 2016),, accessed 25 March 2016.

[3] Cited in Coolsaet, p.3.

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