At the invitation of Rehman Chishti MP, Quilliam staff attended Professor Peter Neumann’s talk on “After Paris: An Assessment of the Terrorist Threat in the UK and Europe” at Parliament on Tuesday 2nd December. With the Commons vote on Syrian airstrikes scheduled for the following morning, the talk could have hardly been more timely.
Professor Neumann, who is the Director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Professor of Security Studies at King’s College, and recently authored Die neuen Dschihadisten: ISIS, Europa und die nächste Welle des Terrorismus (The New Jihadists: ISIS, Europa and the Next Wave of Terrorism), shared his observations on developments in Europe as well as in Syria and Iraq. He started his talk by providing insights into the evolution of Islamic State’s (IS) strategy and noted that traditionally, IS provided its supporters with two options: they could either stay in Europe to provide logistical help by sending over technical equipment and money, or they could come to Syria to join the ‘caliphate’. However, since September 2014, IS has given its sympathisers a third option: they can stay in their home countries to carry out lone wolf attacks against IS’ enemies.
Neumann predicted that the future will bring more well-coordinated attacks in the style of Paris, but also more lone wolf attacks. These lone wolf attacks will pose new challenges to security forces, as their low degree of coordination and preparation makes them particularly difficult to predict and prevent. According to Neumann, we will also see more safe havens for IS fighters not only in Syria and Iraq but also in Libya, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other countries that might see an emergence of larger IS support bases.
Furthermore, Neumann warned that despite Al-Qaeda’s weakening since the emergence of IS, the group should not be underestimated. At the grassroots level many former jihadists have not yet decided whom they should support. Although the Al-Nusra Front is at the moment focusing on the situation in Syria, it might turn its attention back to the “far enemy” in the future. In particular, Al-Qaeda’s perceived competition with IS is potentially dangerous, as Al-Qaeda might feel under pressure to prove itself by staging large-scale attacks against international targets again.
Neumann then turned to an analysis of the situation in Europe, emphasising that many European countries are at a difficult point in history, where even relatively small terrorist attacks can be exploited and result in high degrees of political polarisation. He mentioned that even in some of the most liberal European countries, such as Denmark and Sweden, far-right extremist parties are on the rise.
Furthermore, Neumann said that there was shocking lack of cooperation between security agencies in Europe and no effective mechanism to share of intelligence. For example, only four countries have participated in Europol’s information exchange initiative by providing lists of names of potential terrorists. Although the United Kingdom is in a slightly better position – as an island it is more isolated and not part of Schengen – this does not mean that it does not need to access European databases and intelligence information to effectively deal with terrorist threats.
Neumann also raised the issue of capacities, giving the audience some figures to show that especially small countries such as Belgium do not have the manpower to deal with the high numbers of extremist cases. For example, out of the 130 people who returned from Syria to Belgium, not a single one was monitored by security forces. Although clearly this problem is more severe in smaller countries, Neumann said that bigger countries are also constantly fire-fighting because they are overwhelmed by the numbers.
Neumann suggested that institutions, however, cannot be set up overnight, but need to grow organically, and that we need to increase our prevention efforts in the meanwhile. He emphasised that it is important to talk to vulnerable people before the terrorists do and praised the Channel programme, which has received world-wide recognition as a best practice example for early prevention. He also mentioned the German hotline for parents as a good example of counter-extremism, as it does not involve the police and therefore lowers the threshold for parents to call.
Neumann’s speech was followed by an interactive discussion with the audience. Responding to Quilliam’s question about the nature of an ideal EU approach to counter-extremism, Neumann said that he viewed the role of the EU as a collector and distributor of information and know-how, without any attached powers.
In his reply to another question from the audience, Neumann suggested that the ideal solution to extremism consists of a combination of what the right and the left want: while the right wants to promote the British population’s sense of national identity, the left views improved economic and social inclusion as the solution. Neumann believes that we need to both giving people a strong framework based on British values and fight economic and social marginalisation.
In reaction to this, one woman in the audience suggested that the problem lies in Islam’s refusal of Western culture. Neumann eloquently replied by pointing out that this “West versus Islam” narrative is exactly the trap that IS wants to walk into and we should refrain from pointing fingers at Muslims and generalisations of such kind.
Another woman asked a question about the legal categorisation of lone wolf attacks. Neumann agreed with her in that the categorisation of lone wolf attacks is often problematic because crimes committed by Muslims might sometimes be wrongly attributed to terrorism, which distorts the statistics.