Jihadism in Europe, the problem is not immigration


Photo by Christian Vinculado Tandberg/FFI

Should we expect more terrorist attacks in Europe? What is the relationship between jihadism and the complex topics of immigration and welcoming refugees?

Professor Thomas Hegghammer of the Forsvarets forskningsinstitutt at Oslo University, one of the leading experts in the world on this subject, does not have any doubt: “We should at least expect a few more plots or attempted attacks in 2017. For the past two years, Europe has faced a jihadi terrorist activity level of at about 15 serious plots per year. While there are signs that the activity is declining, it will probably not end abruptly.”

Hegghammer, author and co-author of many books on this subject, ranging from Jihad in Saudi Arabia (Cambridge University Press 2010), Al-Qaida in its own words (Harvard University Press 2008), and The Meccan Rebellion (Amal 2011), will be at Ca’ Foscari on Tuesday 28th February at 3pm giving a lecture entitled The Future of Jihadism in Europe, part of the cycle of international lectures for the Philosophy, International Studies and Economics Bachelor's Degree Programme, entirely taught in English.

During his lecture, the professor will also discuss the alleged relationship between the refugee crisis and terrorism: “Only a tiny proportion of Muslim refugees to Europe have perpetrated terrorist attacks, and the few who did, radicalised in Europe years after their arrival. The situation became more complicated in 2015-2016 when Islamic State started inserting operatives with the refugee flows to Europe. Still, we are probably talking about less than 100 such IS infiltrators from a migrant population in 2015 of almost 1,5 million.

It is a situation that puts the evolution of the European jihadist's profile into light, ever since the attacks in Paris: it is not just the IS sympathizer that has never been to Syria, but also the ‘foreign fighter’ that deliberately goes abroad to organize attacks; completely new faces as well as terrorists already known by international police.

Facing such a diffused threat, simple solutions like the ban on Muslim citizens, ordered by American President Donald Trump, do not work: “In my opinion, that infiltration threat is best dealt with through good intelligence and vetting systems, not by blanket immigration bans”, said Hegghammer. What the European institutions can do is “dismantle the networks. Take the radical leaders, recruiters, and entrepreneurs off the street. In the longer term, I believe we need to do more to prevent the emergence of a Muslim economic underclass in Europe. That involves spending more to improve education in immigrant-heavy areas, but also limiting low-skilled Muslim immigration to Europe”.    

However, there is another danger of our democracy, a “collateral effect” that Hegghammer is particularly troubled by: “My personal view is that we should not underestimate the degree to which perceived terrorist threats can trigger illiberal government responses. If Europe experiences a series of very deadly terrorist attacks, then anything is possible. Look at France; after the 2015 Paris attacks they adopted emergency laws which are still in place, more than a year later. Who knows what would have happened if France had seen several more mass-casualty attacks in early 2016. To me, that is one of the reasons why I think we must take counterterrorism seriously. If we don't, major attacks will happen, and governments will overreact."