Lorenzo Vidino: "Terror Threat from young Muslims born in Europe ?"

Posted in Terrorism , Europe | 15-May-10 | Author: Ioannis Michaletos

"The most likely threat comes from small groups of European passport-holders who travel to countries like Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen…
"The most likely threat comes from small groups of European passport-holders who travel to countries like Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen to obtain training and expertise."

- Exclusive interview with Lorenzo Vidino, the renowned Italian expert on Islam, international terrorism and European counter-strategies, conducted by Ioannis Michaletos, WSN Editor for South East Europe and South-eastern Office Co-ordinator -

Ioannis Michaletos: What is your view concerning the current European counter-terrorism strategy? Are the main issues being addressed in an adequate manner, or is there a long way before we can call the whole approach as a "strategy" itself?

Lorenzo Vidino: I think it is improper to talk about a cohesive European counter-terrorism strategy, as each European country employs different strategies that are the consequence of its history, culture, legal framework, previous experience with terrorism, and perception of the threat.

The European Union has been playing a remarkable role in attempting to harmonize the efforts of its member countries. Yet major differences remain. This is visible at the level of foreign policy, where some countries directly link the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan to their own security and therefore make a direct commitment of troops on the ground, while others are reluctant to do so. But there are also enormous differences in terms of internal policies. Some countries, like France, have a very aggressive legislation that allows authorities to take measures that would be inconceivable in, let's say, Germany.

This gap was much more significant nine years ago, immediately after 9/11, but I think that still today it is incorrect to talk of a full-fledged pan-European strategy. Thanks largely to the efforts of various EU institutions there is remarkable operational cooperation among European authorities at all levels and a continuous exchange of ideas among policymakers of various countries, which is unquestionably leading towards increasing homogeneity of counter-terrorism policies and practices. Yet I think there are legal, political, and cultural differences among different countries that prevent the formation of a homogeneous pan-European strategy. And, to be sure, I am not convinced that is a negative thing.

Once Brussels provides a general framework and forms of solid cooperation are established, I do not see any problem with each country implementing its own counter-terrorism policy in its own way. And indeed the system seems to be working. Proof of that are the dozens of attacks that have been thwarted over the last few years in several European countries.

Ioannis Michaletos: There has been a long talk around the interrelation between Islamic originated terrorism and illegal immigration from the Muslim countries to Europe. According to your estimation, is there a direct or indirect link between those two phenomena?

"The threat is, nowadays, for the most part, internal and homegrown"
"The threat is, nowadays, for the most part, internal and homegrown"
Lorenzo Vidino: I believe a correlation does exist but we would be making a mistake if we overemphasized it. Unquestionably in the 1980s and 1990s many radicals entered Europe illegally and played a key role in building some of the networks that are, to some degree, still active today. And still today we have seen many cases of militants doing so, in some cases with the direct intent of committing acts of terrorism inside Europe.

Moreover, there are indications that some terrorist groups have been involved in various ways in smuggling illegal immigrants into Europe, using the profits to finance their activities.

Having said so, it must be added that nowadays in most European countries the majority of individuals involved in terrorist activities of jihadist inspiration are second if not third generation Muslims and a small yet growing number of European converts; so basically, people who are European-born and have European passports. Unquestionably stronger European borders are necessary, among other things, to prevent the entrance of some militants trying to get in illegally. But we would delude ourselves if we thought that this was an external threat we could keep out. The threat is, nowadays, for the most part, internal and homegrown.

Ioannis Michaletos: Which do you think are the main geographical regions in Europe that can be considered as weak links, in terms of infiltration by extremist elements and/or terrorists?

Lorenzo Vidino: We have seen several cases of militants who entered Europe through the traditional routes of illegal immigration, in particular the continent's southern gateways (Spain, Italy and Greece). But, as I said earlier, the problem is largely homegrown rather than imported from the outside. European authorities believe, in my opinion correctly, that the most likely threat comes from small groups of European passport-holders who becomes radicalized in some European city and on the internet, then travel to places like Pakistan, Somalia or Yemen to obtain training and expertise, and then fly back to Europe legally, using their European passports to get in without attracting much attention.

That might be less likely in southern European countries like Spain, Italy and Greece, where immigration started later and only now we are starting to see a second generation of passport-carrying immigrants. But it is definitely the case in most other European countries.

Ioannis Michaletos: Which countries are considered as high-risk ones in Europe concerning potential attacks by terrorists?

Lorenzo Vidino: Terrorism is by nature difficult to predict, so it is difficult to exactly categorize threat levels. With this caveat in mind, I think it is fair to divide European countries in three tiers according to the threat level they face. Great Britain is the only European country that occupies the top tier, facing a threat that no other European country faces. That is due mainly to two factors.

One is the centrality the United Kingdom occupies in al Qaeda's and the global jihadist movement's narrative, which depicts it as former colonial power and today's neo-colonial occupier alongside the United States. The second reason is the high number of militants operating on its territory (British authorities put the number of militants ready to use violence operating on its soil in the thousands, in all continental European country we are talking about a few dozen or maybe a couple of hundreds in large countries like France and Germany) and the fact that they have direct connections to militants in Pakistan through family ties.

"I think it is improper to talk about a cohesive European counter-terrorism strategy"
"I think it is improper to talk about a cohesive European counter-terrorism strategy"
Countries that have a high-profile engagement in Afghanistan and that, for different reasons, have been at the centre of tensions with the Muslim world (like Denmark due to the cartoon controversy) would occupy a second tier. Then there are countries that, so far, have not been on the radar screen of jihadist groups, where the risk of attacks is limited. I would put most Eastern European and Scandinavian countries, Portugal, Ireland and Greece in this third tier.

Yet these countries are not necessarily immune from acts of terrorism from jihadist networks, which could, for example, plan attacks against American, British or Jewish targets on their soil, with the possibility of victims among the local population.

Ioannis Michaletos: Lastly, I would like to ask if you consider that the whole of the European Continent, will have to face sooner or latter the increase of its Muslim population as a core issue concerning its cultural, social and political identity? Is there a tendency that will result in ethno-religious cleavages in Europe between Muslims and the rest of the religions, equivalent to the divisions that brought conflicts to Europe over the previous centuries?

Lorenzo Vidino: Very sensitive topic that needs to be addressed

Some commentators and policymakers have stated the view that terrorism is, in reality, just an epiphenomenon, the tip of the iceberg, the most visible manifestation of a much larger problem. Some believe that this larger problem is Islam, which some believe to be incompatible with Western democracy. I disagree. There is indeed a larger problem than terrorism, but that is not Islam, but rather Islamism, the political interpretation of Islam also in its non-violent manifestation.

There are little indications that Muslims cannot be integral parts of modern European societies. Yet there are reasons to say that Islamism has little to do with democracy. As of today, the majority of Muslims living in Europe do not espouse Islamist ideology.

If that remains the case, one can make the argument that issues where cultural cleavages between Muslim and European culture exist can slowly fade away with the second and third generation and integration is possible. But if Islamist ideology gains more ground, I think that would be detrimental to the future of the increasingly ethnically and religiously diverse European societies, which will be increasingly polarized.

Many observers point to the need to re-evaluate the multicultural model of integration that, with varying degrees, has been implemented throughout Europe, and argue that multiculturalism should entail treating people equally despite differences, not treating them differently because they are different. Most Europeans feel that highlighting problematic behaviours within the Muslim community, if done without a malicious broad brush, is neither racist nor "Islamophobic," but moreover, is a necessary first step toward the creation of cohesive and harmonious societies.

A new model of European identity is equally necessary. Most Europeans rightly feel that a desire to cherish their own culture is not a sign of intolerance and nativism, as it has been sometimes portrayed. At the same time, Europeans must make a good effort at introspection and acknowledge that they need to redefine their concept of citizenship.

Unlike America and Canada, European countries have been, so far, largely unable to develop a sense of citizenship separate from century-long identifying factors, such as ethnicity and religious affiliation. While it is easy to become Americans, the ugly truth is that it is very difficult, even for second and third generation immigrants, particularly if they are not white and Christian, to be accepted as full-fledged Germans, Spaniards or Greeks.

Unfortunately issues related to integration and Islamism have long been ignored or downplayed by mainstream politicians. The Left traditionally did so out of a firm belief in the mantra of multiculturalism. The Right mostly abstained from tackling them out of political correctness and fear of alienating Muslims voters, a growing constituency that has largely shunned conservative parties.

The result has been that anti-immigration parties of various natures, from traditionalist right-wingers like the French National Front to autonomist forces like the Italian Northern League, have filled that void. Not shying away from sensitive debates on immigration and Islam, but rather, making them the centrepieces of their agenda, many of these forces have obtained impressive electoral results.

It is difficult to predict what will happen over the next few years. But unquestionably avoiding the debate over mass immigration, integration, Islam and Islamism is not a solution.