Issue Briefs



Michael Binyon

April 16, 2017

Swedish police have begun questioning the Uzbek driver who rammed his truck into a shop-front in Stockholm, as nervous Swedes wonder whether more of the large number of disaffected Muslim immigrants in their midst are preparing suicide bombings.

More political violence

The attack, as the main streets were crowded with shoppers, killed four people, and came only three weeks after a similar terrorist assault in London when a Muslim convert drove a hired car along Westminster Bridge, killing four pedestrians before stabbing a policeman outside parliament. Shortly after that, an Uzbek suicide bomber from Central Asia blew himself up in a metro train in St Petersburg, killing 14 people.

Is there an end to this?

Is Europe going to see more terrorist attacks on this scale – one a week for three weeks? Has the virus of Islamist extremism now taken hold in Muslim populations across the continent, reinforced by those Islamic State militants returning from fighting in Syria and Iraq? And what are Muslim leaders, representing some 15 million Muslim citizens of Western Europe, going to do to halt this grisly toll and stop a new wave of Islamophobia that sees all Muslims as potential terrorists?

Enhanced security measures

Western security services are certainly alarmed. For months the security threat in most countries has been classified as “severe” or even, at times, as “imminent”. Hundreds of extra security officials have been recruited by security services across Europe. Governments have sought new powers to monitor and intercept communications, especially internet traffic.

In October Britain’s internal security agency, MI5, announced that since 2013 it had foiled at least a dozen major terrorist plots. But every time there is a rare statement on how spy agencies are trying to keep track of hundreds of terrorist suspects, security officials give a warning that they cannot catch everyone. Inevitably, they say, one big plot will succeed in the future and hundreds may be killed.

New terror tactics

Terrorists have begun to change their tactics. Large-scale operations, involving attacks on public buildings, sports stadiums or aircraft, are being set aside. They need a lot of planning and involve a lot of people, and often they are compromised – either by the monitoring of mobile phones, careless talk by the plotters or information from spies placed at the heart of extremist groups. Instead, Europe is now seeing the growth of “lone wolf” attacks, carried out by angry individuals who are seeking personal “martyrdom” and are ready to kill themselves in spontaneous actions targeted at ordinary people in city centres.

Such operations, MI5 has warned, are very difficult to detect in advance. All the suicide bomber needs to do is to hire a car or commandeer a truck and drive into a crowded place where he can point his vehicle at crowds, aiming for children especially, and inflict maximum carnage and maximum horror. Often the terrorist will chose a symbolic target, such as the British parliament, or a holiday when people are out on the streets enjoying themselves, as happened in Nice.

Big plans often fail

Luckily, plans for greater carnage often do not work. The Stockholm killer had loaded his car with explosives, but these failed to detonate. The St Petersburg bomber had also planted a bomb in another section of the tunnel, but this was found and defused. But the randomness and the unpredictability of individual actions, even if only a dozen people are killed, is enough to terrify the general population. It is a tactic now openly encouraged by Islamic State, which is losing the battles in Syria and Iraq and is instead sending militants to Europe to radicalise young Muslim men in the hope that several will undertake terrorist attacks.

For IS and the extremist advocates of terror, the aim is simple: it is to so infuriate and destabilise Western societies that the authorities order blanket crack-downs on their Muslim populations, thus angering and radicalising them and driving many into the arms of extremism.

How to fight extremists

Western governments fully understand these aims. In general, they have been careful not to exacerbate tensions with harsh indiscriminate measures that could affect all Muslims. President Trump, early on, tried to carry out his threat to stop all people from seven unstable Muslim countries entering the US, but his proposals were swiftly blocked by human rights lawyers – to the relief of many security agencies which saw the measures as a perfect recruiting agent for extremists.

Instead, Western governments have stepped up efforts to get Muslim communities to monitor potential extremists in their midst with greater vigilance. They have appealed to Muslim leaders to speak out more forcefully. They have offered anonymous tip-off phone lines. They have urged teachers and school officials to report any strange behaviour by young people who may be thinking of joining radical groups or who are being groomed online by extremist propaganda. And they have taken prompt legal action against families and accomplices who have failed to report potential terrorists to the authorities. 

Not working as intended

So far, the tactic has had little visible effect.  It faces many immediate obstacles. The first is that any government funded anti-extremism programme is immediately suspect in the eyes of the very people most vulnerable to radicalisation – the young, the unemployed, the petty criminals and the disaffected. Those leading it are seen as government stooges, encouraging spying on their own community. The programmes have little street credibility. And often the officials running them are cynically profiting from the large funds handed out to any group that says it is fighting extremism.

Secondly, Muslim community leaders are often conflicted over the message. Many immigrant communities, faced with unemployment, discrimination and public hostility, think it better to stick together and not to allow divisions in their ranks to appear in public. Often they owe their position as acknowledged community leaders by being the most radical, the most outspoken and the most effective in confronting the host governments. The one thing they always fear is to be “out-Muslimed” by challenges from those who accuse them of going soft on their religious zeal.

Crisis within Islam

And finally there is the crisis within Islam itself, reflected in the many communities across Europe. This crisis is both confessional, reflecting the growing gulf in the Middle East between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and generational. Older, more integrated Muslim leaders, have little understanding of, or ability to counter, the slick, radical online messages that are so effective in influencing alienated young Muslim men. There is also the conflict between the new wave of fundamentalist and puritanical Islam with the modernity of today’s Western society – a conflict that is still unresolved in the Muslim heartlands.

A long and difficult fight

Governments know that the fight against radicalism will be long and slow and demands tolerance and acceptance of ethnic and religious differences. This is increasingly difficult amid the more nationalist mood of most European nations today. It is explicitly challenged by the political right – in France, Hungary, Italy and Germany and most of Eastern Europe.

The extremists therefore see their chance, and good opportunities to stir resentment among minorities who feel they are being targeted. Lone wolf attacks are likely to continue apace.

Western societies are having to live with terror.

Michael Binyon

Michael Binyon

Michael Binyon is a GPI Senior Adviser. He has been an editorial writer, columnist and foreign correspondent for The Times (of London) since 1971. For 15 years he was based overseas, reporting from Moscow, Washington, Bonn and Brussels, before returning to London to be diplomatic editor in 1991 and becoming the main foreign editorial writer in 2000. He retired from the staff in 2009 but still writes for The Times and other publications, and is a frequent broadcaster for the BBC and French, German, Canadian, Russian and Middle Eastern radio and television.

He published “Life in Russia” in 1983, has won two British journalism prizes and was awarded the OBE by the Queen in 2000.  


The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policy of GPI.