European Counterterrorism: the first outlook
Terrorism seems to be a never-ending nightmare of the European experience.
The efforts of the European Union to counter this highly specific security threat have been formalised in January 2016, with the institution of the European Counter Terrorism Centre (ECTC), an organisational base and expertise hub meant to coordinate and strengthen the Union’s counter-terrorism responses. Even before it was officially launched, it had served its role in collaboration with the European Union’s law enforcement agency (Europol) in the investigations on the November 2015 Paris attacks, during which 130 people died at the hand of the jihadist Islamic State terrorist group.
Eight years have passed since then, and now little public and media attention is devoted to the developments of the terrorist hazard in Europe, being it catalysed by far more tumultuous security threats and international developments such as Brexit, Covid-19, the Russo-Ukrainian war and the more recently erupted conflict between Israel and Palestine.
But while it is true that large-scale terrorist attacks have not been perpetrated in EU territories during the last couple of years, the European Union is just at the beginning of its very own “war on terror”.
The 2023 European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report
The annual European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (TE-SAT) is a yearly summary of major developments and trends regarding the terrorism situation in the European Union. It is created with quantitative and qualitative data provided by Member States, and includes assessments from researchers, which enrich the findings by granting an international perspective that embraces relevant global developments.
According to the 2023 TE-SAT, the threat of terrorism in Europe has not decreased: it has changed.
Sixteen successful attacks were carried out in the Union in 2022. Thirteen of them (eight of which in Italy) were perpetrated by anarchist and left-wing terrorists, mainly targeted at critical infrastructure, government institutions, private companies, and police personnel.
Nineteen arrests were carried out in connection with left-wing and anarchist terrorism in the EU; forty-five arrests were instead perpetrated on charges of right-wing terrorist offenses.
The number of attacks attributed to right-wing and jihadist terrorists is significantly lower than that of anarchists and left-wing actors (one successful attack; zero failed; three foiled), but, according to Europol, the threat posed by right-wing lone actors, radicalised online, remains significant.
With the employment of media and the internet as a propaganda, radicalisation, and recruitment channel, terrorist ideas have reached all corners of Europe through specific digital environments and content dissemination techniques: although with different ideologies and backgrounds, it seems that today’s European terrorists have common political interests and practices.
How is European Terrorism going to look in the future?
The Europol prediction is that the lines between the various types of terrorism – left-wing, right-wing anarchism, jihadism, and other ideologies – are likely to become more and more blurred in the future: points of convergence have already been observed in the use of digital platforms, narratives, selection of targets, and tactics. We should, however, expect increasing prominence of right-wing, left-wing, and environmentally-inspired violent extremism, which seem to already be appealing to large audiences.
Now more than ever, online mediums serve as a key element for terrorist propaganda: terrorist organisations may exploit and enhance the fluidity of the radicalisation processes on the internet, and this will likely lead to an increasing number of attacks perpetrated by lone-wolf actors.
Furthermore, terrorists may take a major interest in technologically enhanced or enabled weaponry: more and more easily granted by criminal resources online, a greater accessibility of such weapons might magnify the impact of future attacks, simplifying – or even zeroing out – the organisational efforts necessary to perpetrate incredibly disruptive and destructive actions.
Special attention should also be granted to bio-terrorism, which may gain momentum in the future, thanks to the premises posed by Covid-19 and the advancements of biotechnology.
What are we doing about it?
Europol’s counterterrorism responses have been widely developed in order to tackle the terrorist threat, especially so since the institution of the ECTC, which provides support to the Member States through a number of different channels:
1. Secure information exchange: the facilitation of secure information exchange among Member States and third parties is the main task of ECTC, and is provided via Europol’s sharing platform.
2. Cross-border cooperation, provision of coordination and in-house expertise, operational and analytical support in investigations: through the employment of CT specialists and analysts’ teams, the ECTC grants aid in the investigation process, providing facial recognition technologies, specific data analysis techniques, criminal analysis, on-the-spot technical support, and expertise. The ECTC also uses the Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme (TFTP) to track terrorism financing and money flows, to help uncover and block terrorist cells.
3. Shaping Internet Research Investigations Unified System (SIRIUS) Project: it facilitates cross-border access to electronic evidence, both from a legal and an operational point of view. Funding to the programme has been provided thanks to an agreement reached at the end of 2020 between Europol, Eurojust and the European Commission.
4. CBRN-E support: the ECTC’s CBRN & Explosive Team tracks trends related to CBRN and explosive incidents threat, and conducts technical analysis on bomb-making processes and illicit use of explosives. The ECTC also promotes conferences and active training programmes across the Member States, to develop prevention and response strategies to this specific threat.
5. CT JLT: the Counter Terrorism Joint Liaison Team (CT JLT), instituted in 20216, facilitates engagement and cooperation on CT-related matters, and, through weekly meetings, reinforces the collaboration between ECTC and Member States’ CT units.
6. Guest Officers: “guest officers” are short-term seconded national experts deployed by Europol to support on-field investigations, specifically regarding terrorist financing operations, and the infiltration in the EU of foreign terrorist members and criminals.
7. Cooperation with EC3: Member States can access the expertise of the European Cyber Crime Centre (EC3), and receive support in the investigations.
8. Addressing violent extremist and terrorist propaganda through the employment of social media as radicalisation mediums: the EU Internet Referral Unit (EU IRU), part of the ECTC, tackles the dissemination of online terrorist propaganda, aiding CT teams to develop tools and techniques to address terrorist activity online; for instance, using specialised expertise to detect online threats and claims of responsibility for attacks. Special attention is granted in the collaboration with the Member States when taking down terrorist and illegal content online, in order to safeguard fundamental rights and freedoms in the process.
9. Identification of European-wide counter terrorism implications (and outreach with relevant international partners): the ECTC’s strategic analysis reports on terrorism phenomena enable decision-making at a strategic level, recommending a direction of policy actions after thorough discussions within a wide network of partners, which also considers novel academic research.
Is this enough?
Overall, given the data provided by the 2023 TE-SAT, it seems that the counterterrorism activities and strategies enacted by the ECTC bear fruit, given the ratio of successful attacks/foiled attacks, arrests and convictions. The focus on investigations and prevention remains a high priority in the European security ecosystem: special efforts are assured to be provided to mitigate the terrorist threat in the future, working towards the goal of Making Europe Safer.
Pascal Pochard-Casabianca, AFP, from Corsica protests turn to riots over assault of jailed nationalist Yvan Colonna, retrieved from: