Terrorism in the EU since 2015 

Security patrol activity to prevent terrorism. Photo by Manu Sanchez on Unsplash  

Europe has experienced a series of terror attacks since 2015. What is the EU doing to fight terrorism? Who are the terrorists? What is the current situation?

2015: an increase in terrorist attacks

A new wave of terrorist attacks has hit Europe since 2015, led by an increase in jihadist attacks, from two in 2014 to 17 in 2015, rising to 33 in 2017, according to Europol. Tackling terrorism is a priority for European authorities and the number of arrests related to jihadist terrorism in the EU increased from 395 in 2014 to 705 in 2017.

Jihadists are not the only group committing attacks in the EU. Europol also has four other categories of terrorist acts based on motivation: right-wing; left-wing and anarchists; ethno-nationalism and separatism; and single issues (for example animal rights or anti-abortion).

In 2017, most terrorist attacks carried out in the EU were classified as separatist attacks (137 out of 205). However, Catherine de Bolle, the Executive Director of Europol, said: “None of the reported activities in any terrorist category have been as lethal and have had such an impact on society as a whole as those committed by jihadist terrorists.”

Jihadist attacks killed 150 people in 2015 and 135 in 2016. It is worth noting that while the number of attacks rose in 2017, fewer people died (63).

More statistics on terrorism in Europe.

Religiously inspired terrorism in the EU  

The role of Islamic State

Most jihadist attacks in the EU since 2015 have been perpetrated or inspired by the so-called Islamic State (IS).

This jihadist group started to take control of territories in Iraq and Syria in 2014 and declared the creation of a caliphate. Occupied territories at their biggest were about the size of Great Britain.

As of summer 2014, an international coalition including several EU countries conducted military action against IS in Iraq and Syria.

In September 2014, senior IS leader Aby Muhammed Al-Adnani called on supporters to kill “non-believers” in Western countries. In May 2016, he called on IS supporters to kill unbelievers by any means available to them in their home countries if they were unable to join IS in Iraq and Syria.

EU countries, especially those in the anti-IS coalition, are regarded as legitimate targets by them.

Who are the terrorists?

According to Europol, jihadist attacks in 2018 were carried out primarily by terrorists who grew up and were radicalised in their home country, not by so-called foreign fighters (individuals that travelled abroad to join a terrorist group).

Radicalisation of home-grown terrorists has speeded up as lone wolves are radicalised by online propaganda, while their attacks are inspired rather than ordered by IS.

Europol explains that these terrorists may not necessarily be very religious: they may not read the Quran or regularly attend mosque and they often have a rudimentary and fragmented knowledge of Islam.

In 2016, a significant number of the individuals reported to Europol for terrorism were low-level criminals, suggesting people with a criminal history or socialised in a criminal environment may be more susceptible to radicalisation and recruitment.

Europol draws the conclusion that “religion may thus not be the initial or primary driver of the radicalisation process, but merely offer a ‘window of opportunity’ to overcome personal issues. They may perceive that a decision to commit an attack in their own country may transform them from ‘zero’ to ‘hero’.”

Trend in modus operandi

Since 2015, jihadist attacks have been committed by lone actors and groups. Lone wolves use mainly knives, vans and guns. Their attacks are simpler and rather unstructured. Groups use automatic rifles and explosives in complex and well-coordinated attacks.

There has been a tendancy for jihadist terrorists to favour attacks against people, rather than buildings or institutional targets, in order to trigger an emotional response from the public. Terrorists do not discriminate between Muslim and non-Muslim and attacks have aimed for the maximum of casualties, such as in London, Paris, Nice, Stockholm, Manchester, Barcelona and Cambrils, among others.

What is the definition of terrorism?

The EU’s common legal definition of terrorist offences as set down in the Council Framework decision 2002/475/JHA, are acts committed with the aim of:

  • seriously intimidating a population, or
  • unduly compelling a government or international organisation to perform or abstain from performing any act, or
  • seriously destabilising or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a country or an international organisation

The EU’s fight against terrorism

Action has been taken at the national and European level to increase the level and effectiveness of cooperation between member states.

EU measures to prevent new attacks are wide-ranging and thorough. They span from cutting the financing of terrorism, tackling organised crime, and strengthening border controls to addressing radicalisation and improving police and judicial cooperation on tracing suspects and pursuing perpetrators.

For example, MEPs adopted new rules to make the use of guns and the creation of home-made bombs more difficult for terrorists.

Europol, the EU’s police agency, has been given additional powers. It can set up specialised units more easily, such as the European Counter Terrorism Centre created in January 2016. It can also exchange information with private companies in some cases and ask social media to remove pages runs by IS.

In July 2017, the European Parliament created a special committee on terrorism to evaluate how to better fight terrorism at EU level. MEPs produced a report with concrete measures they want the European Commission to include in new legislation.

Find more explanations on EU counter terrorism measures in our infographic and videos.