The new terrorist profile: A home-grown process of radicalisation in Europe




By Mark Huband

Financial Times, 6 May 2005

When a British court last month handed down a 17 year sentence to an Algerian terrorist found guilty of plotting a poison attack in the UK the evidence against him revealed both the clarity and uncertainty of the current terrorist threat in Europe.

Kamel Bourgass, who had already been sentenced to life for murdering a British police officer, fitted the profile of the extremists who had raised the suspicion of counter terrorist authorities in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 2001 attacks.

While UK counter terrorism officials were using the evidence presented in the Bourgass case to illustrate the severity of the threat, they were also aware that Bourgass is more akin to what the threat used to be rather than what it has become.

“If you look at al-Qaeda’s initial aims, they see themselves as the vanguard: ignite the fuse and let events take off,” says a senior French official.

“Osama bin Laden has succeeded in this aim. Other groups are taking off that have no real link to al-Qaeda.

“Its strategy is to remain a vanguard. It can’t hope to control these various disparate groups, but they can soft pedal on their own attacks by getting other people to do them for them.”

Understanding the new terrorist profile on the continent, while contending with threats from people such as Bourgass, have become the twin challenges.

Although the role of externally based operatives who travel to Europe has remained significant, the primary focus has now shifted to second and third generation European Muslims.

Across the continent, counter terrorism officials have singled out the complex process of radicalisation as being an essential element in the building of this new threat.

This has been accompanied by detailed assessments of how far skills dispersed across the continent have reduced the dependence of indigenous cells on operatives from abroad.

“It was the Madrid train bombings that opened people’s eyes to what is going on in Europe,” says a senior counter terrorism official, referring to the attacks of March 11, 2004, which left 191 people dead.

“The terrorists kept a low profile. Their funding – amounting to £10,000 – was from petty crime, credit card fraud and hashish dealing. The attack was very low-tech. They didn’t have any external training, and had not been associated with any of the [al-Qaeda] camps,” she says.

The problem facing European governments as they try to hinder what one UK security official describes as the “radicalisation escalator”, is that no measure will be wholly adequate.

Ultimately, the decision of an individual to follow an extremist path will be determined by his or her personal aspiration.

When a distant relative of the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh was stabbed to death as he cycled to work in Amsterdam on November 2, 2004, a chain of events was unleashed that have strengthened perceptions of the terrorist threat in western Europe.

The AIVD, the Dutch intelligence service, revealed links between members of the network to which Theo van Gogh’s killer was associated and extremists in Switzerland, Morocco and Spain.

The group is suspected of being in the process of hatching plots to attack various government buildings – including the AIVD headquarters – and to kill high profile individuals.

In a detailed analysis of the threat published in March the AIVD made clear where it saw its priorities in combating the threat.

“Combating terrorism starts with countering the radicalisation processes. Preventing, isolating or curbing radicalisation are important means to combat terrorism with a long lasting effect.

“Traditional counter terrorism without a focus on radicalisation processes and prevention will prove to be less effective in the long run,” the report says.

At a recent London conference of radical Muslims, the strength of these sentiments was made clear by a succession of speakers, one of them telling the audience: “We are at war. It’s time for brothers, sisters and children to prepare. Prepare as much as you can. Whether they are sticks or stones or bombs. Prepare as much as you can, to defeat them. To terrorise them. That is what the message of Mohammed was. Just by terrorism alone.

“Is it not the case that when Osama bin Laden speaks, kings and queens and prime ministers stop to listen? Why? Because he terrifies them.”

Security officials in the UK are trying to determine if the arrest last August of eight men from the ethnic Pakistani community was a signal that efforts to discourage radicalism within the long-established Muslim community had failed.

Surveillance of suspected extremists in the UK’s Pakistani community began in early 2003.

MI5, the domestic security service, and London’s Metropolitan police anti-terrorist branch, expanded their surveillance in response to intelligence that gave clues to how al-Qaeda was adapting to the loss of its Afghan base.

As one UK security official said after the arrests in August: “It’s not a threat that we have imported. It’s activity we are definitely capable of growing ourselves.

“They are not down and outs. They are young, British, educated and the sort of people that years of policy have been intended to try to bring into the fold. They are part of a new generation that has emerged since September 11.”

But the growth of indigenous cells and localised networks is a phenomenon that counter terrorism officials see as organisationally separate from the growth of militancy in areas where conflicts have given radicals the chance to fight jihad.

According to a senior intelligence officer responsible for following their activities, some militants have left Iraq for other parts of the Middle East, central Asia and Europe.

“They have security experience, such as how to lose people who are trailing them, as well as having the qualities of guerrilla fighters. They also know how to do surveillance. It’s too early to know what their role is. But the skills they have gained are of major concern.”



© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.