By Helena Snider
Will the spate of terror attacks in Europe abate soon? In fact, according to Lord Evans, the former head of MI5, the threat might persist for another “20 to 30 years”. In an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he commented that the issue was a “generational problem”, against which the UK needed to “persevere” to overcome. Following the attack on the Finsbury Park Mosque in June, the fourth terrorist incident in three months, Sky News’ home affairs correspondent Mark White reported on the “unprecedented tempo” of counter-terrorism investigations in the U.K.
These attacks, and the strident government responses, are not unique to the U.K. Just hours after 86 people were slaughtered on Bastille Day last year in Nice, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls stated, “The times have changed … this hyper-terrorism is here to stay”.
The threat of Islamist terrorism has existed for a long time, but instances of it in Europe seem to have become more frequent. In 2015, Cas Mudde, writing for the Huffington Post, described terrorism as the “new normal” for Europe after the terrorist attacks in Paris. This description seems even more apt after fatal attacks in Istanbul, Paris, London, St. Petersburg, Stockholm, Hamburg, Manchester and Barcelona this year alone.
Nevertheless, we must acknowledge that terrorism has always existed in Europe. Before the presence of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, Europe faced threats by Ireland’s Republican Army (IRA), the Basque separatist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) and Italy’s Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari. According to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database, there have been nearly 19,000 terrorist incidents in Europe since 1970, most of which occurred during the 1970s and 1980s. Does it make sense, therefore, to describe terrorism in Europe as “the new normal”?
What strikes me about Lord Evans’ comments is not the acknowledgement of a problem; that terrorism is a problem for the West, and has been for a while, is obvious. What is perhaps more astonishing is the specificity of the time frame in which we can expect these threats to continue.
David Rapoport, an American historian, categorises the development of modern terrorism into four distinct waves: ‘Anarchist’, ‘Anti-colonial’, ‘New Left’, and ‘Religious’. These waves, beginning in the late 19th century, each lasted for approximately one generation – 25 years. Lord Evans claims that “we are at least 20 years into this” and “will still be dealing with the long tail in over 20 years’ time”. The frequency of terror attacks seem to support Lord Evans’ comments, and point towards one conclusion: that the West is certainly experiencing the ‘religious’ wave of terrorism. But if Rapoport’s theory accurately charts the last century of terrorism in Europe, it raises a vital question: how far are we into the current wave?
Lord Evans’ comments come in spite of the successful U.S.-led military operation, which has significantly shrunk the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate. As the New Yorker reported in May, Isis has now lost 66% of its territorial gains in Iraq, and 50% of those in Syria.
Evans’ views may therefore come as a surprise, given the connections between terrorists acting in Europe and Isis, via ideological inspiration or direct (often online) indoctrination. But there is in fact a direct correlation between Isis military setbacks and the frequency of terrorist attacks. As Isis retreats further from its strongholds it may rely on, and encourage, more foreign attacks to sustain its profile overseas.
Moreover, and alarmingly, since the rise of jihadi extremism four decades ago, its ability to reinvent and revive movements that appeared beaten has proved its enduring characteristic. As Ali Soufan recounts in his The Anatomy of Terror, “each time, Al Qaeda [for instance] has seemed doomed to fail but has actually recovered and come back stronger”.
What does this mean for the West? Is the ‘religious wave’ of terrorism the new normal? Given how events are unfolding in the Levant, Evans’ periodisation seems scarily justified. The threat from Islamist terrorism in the West is unlikely to end soon.
Image: Frankieleon via Flickr and Creative Commons