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Terrorism is often defined as “The premeditated use or threat of use of extra-normal violence or brutality by subnational groups to obtain a political, religious or ideological objective through intimidation of a huge audience, usually not directly involved with the policy making that the terrorists seek to influence”[1]. Terroristic acts are often carried out by radicalized individuals (lone actor terrorists) or terrorist cells (groups and/or networks). The EU Directive 2017/541 on combating terrorism[2], which all EU Member States were obliged to transpose in their national legislation by 8 September 2018, specifies that “terrorist offences are certain intentional acts which, given their nature or context, may seriously damage a country or an international organization when committed with the aim of:

●    seriously intimidating a population;

●    unduly compelling a government or international organization to perform or abstain from performing any act;

●    or seriously destabilizing or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a country or an international organization.

Terrorist Actors

Lone actor terrorist

Lone actors do not operate within a group, in the role of a steady member of a large terrorist cell or of an organization. The inspiration of a lone actor terrorist, also frequently described as ‘lone wolves’, frequently comes from publications of like-minded individuals through online and offline contact. The explosive amount of violence, that is often used by lone actor terrorists, frequently overshadows their ideology and becomes the ideology itself. A significant difference between jihadist and right-wing lone actors lies in their psychopathology.

Terrorist cells

In 1990-2000, jihadi terrorists worked in groups and planned bombings with certain types of explosives and/or hijackings. The most impactful terrorist attack took place on 9/11 in 2001, where terrorist cell Al-Qaeda, led by the Saudi multimillionaire Osama Bin Laden, hijacked two passenger flights and flew into the twin towers in Manhattan. From that point on, security measures increased all around the globe, resulting in a decrease in attacks carried out by groups. Currently, jihadists in Europe mainly act alone, whilst being loosely connected to a wider Muslim extremist environment. Self-radicalization of small groups or individuals takes place through the internet, as opposed to organizational influence from and contact with  groups like Al-Qaeda or Islamic State (IS).  

Terrorist Acts

Terrorism in Europe

The European Union’s Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, published in June 2020, describes the trends regarding Terrorism in Europe. In 2017, 66% (of 205 incidents) were conducted by ethno-nationalist and separatists. In 2019, out of a total number of 119 attacks, 48% was carried out by Ethno-nationalist and separatist perpetrators. Jihadist attacks also decreased with 36% between 2017 and 2019. In 2020, horrifying attacks with terrorist motives took place in Nice, Vienna, Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, Paris (former Charlie Hebdo Offices), London, and Hanau. The EU Commission developed a strategy plan for the protection of public spaces and the identification of vulnerabilities in order to prevent these attacks. Motivations and modus operandi vary among attackers, therefore conducting research is of utmost importance to prevent these attacks[3].


Although the number of deaths resulting from terrorist attacks take up about 1.5-3% of the total number of deaths by intentional homicide in Europe[4][5], the number of injured victims, the severity of injuries and gruesome details of the attacks often have a large impact on society. Citizens’ feelings of security and freedom of speech and religion are threatened by right-wing or extremist attacks on places of worship, journalists, teachers and other victims. Attacks on places of worship and governmental officials with a neutral standpoint, also threaten our Democracy and Rule of Law. Terrorist attacks can also immensely impact the fear of crime and perception of safety, for instance, the more media attention on terrorism can make the feeling of being unsafe and the chance of a terrorist feel more close than it might be. This also asks for measures and attention to influence this fear of crime and perception of safety.

Modus Operandi

Modi operandi of terrorist actors differ among different perpetrators. Groups and/or individuals linked to Jihadi terrorism form the largest threat with regards to the use of explosives. The placement and use of explosives vary from controlled activation from a distance to person-borne IEDs (suicide vests). Their targets mainly form public places of mass gathering, such as public events, shopping malls, places of worship. Right-wing terrorists appear to increase their knowledge on explosives as well. The most often use of a firearm in European attacks is the AK-47. The type of threat for public spaces and use of weaponry, differ between types of perpetrators. Methods of right-wing terrorists, in addition to the use of (semi-)automatic firearms, include arson and explosive attacks with IIDs and/or IEDs.

Type of terrorist attacks in the context of PRoTECT

Within the EU PRoTECT project some examples of types of terrorist attacks were distinguished:

  1. Fire arms attack - small calibre pistol or semi/full-automatic rifle;
  2. Sharp object attack - knifes, machete, other sharp and blunt objects;
  3. Vehicle attack - use of vehicle as a weapon by ramming large crowds;
  4. Improvised Explosive Device (IED) - left/concealed in objects or goods (based on home-made or commercial explosives);
  5. Person-Born Improvised Explosive Device (PBIED) - explosives concealed on a person (suicide or carrier);
  6. Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Improvised Explosive Device (UAVIED) - explosives delivered by a remote-controlled airborne device;
  7. Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devise (VBIED) - explosives concealed inside a vehicle (or its cargo);
  8. Chemical attack - threat object concealed in goods or carried items (e.g. canister or UAV dispensed);
  9. Biological attack - threat object concealed in goods or carried items (e.g. canister or UAV dispensed);
  10. Radiological attack - threat object concealed in goods or carried items (e.g. canister or UAV dispensed).


Ethno-nationalist and separatist terrorism

Ethno-nationalist and separatist terrorist attacks form the largest group. In 2017, 67% of all terrorist attacks in Europe were carried out by this group. The number of attacks has decreased in the past years, forming 48% percent of the total number of terrorist attacks in Europe. Nearly all attacks were related to Dissident Republican (DR) groups in Northern Ireland.

Jihadist terrorism

Jihadist terrorism has been defined by the TE-SAT as a “violent sub-current of Salafism, a revivalist Sunni Muslim movement that rejects democracy and elected parliaments, arguing that human legislation is at variance with God’s status as the sole lawgiver”. Their ideology is to create an Islamic State that will be governed by Islamic Law (Sharia). Many of these ideologists are affiliated with Al-Qaeda or Islamic State (IS)[6]. Between 1990-2000s jihadi terrorism in Europa was characterized by random mass casualty attacks on transportation. In the late 2000s more common to target Jews and satire artists that offended the prophet Muhammed. Nearly 70% of Jihadist terrorists are between 20 and 28 years old and 85% of the attacks have been carried out by male offenders.

Right wing extremist terrorism

Right-wing lone actors had significantly committed more violent offenses in the past and had used more firearms that bladed instruments during their terrorist attack. Right-wing terrorists and extremists carry out xenophobic, pro-Nazi, misogynistic (anti-feminism) or anti-Semitic attacks. Music and websites play an important role in the radicalization of right-wing extremist views. The right-wing extremist spectrum has been described by Europol as “a mixture of prejudices, contemptuous and totalitarian ideologies that, each in their own way, pose a threat to security”[7]. Right-wing terrorists often show warning behaviors, while planning the attack carefully and posting manuscripts or videos of their ideologies on the internet.

Warning behaviors and distal characteristics[8]

  1. Pathway warning behavior is research, planning, preparation, or implementation of an attack.
  2. Fixation warning behavior is an indication of pathological preoccupation with a person or a cause, accompanied by a deterioration in social and occupational functioning.
  3. Identification warning behavior indicates a psychological desire to be a pseudocommando, have a warrior mentality and to closely associate with weapons or other military or law enforcement paraphernalia, identify with previous attackers of assassins or to identify oneself as an agent to advance a particular cause or belief system.
  4. Noval Agression behavior is an act of violence that appears unrelated to any targeted violence pathway and is committed for the first time. It is often a test of one’s capability to carry out an act of violence.
  5. Energy burst warning behavior is an increase in the frequency or variety of any noted activities related to the target. Even if the activity itself is relatively innocuous. It takes place usually within hours, days or weeks before the attack.
  6. Leakage warning behavior is the communication to a third party of an intent to do harm to a target through an attack, such as posting online videos or sharing a manuscript online.
  7. Last Resort warning behavior is evidence of a “violent action imperative” and “time imperative”. It is often a signal of desperation and distress.
  8. Directly communicated threat warning behavior is the communication of a direct threat to the target or law enforcement beforehand.

Left-wing and anarchist terrorism

Greece, Italy and Spain have had the largest number of left-wing and anarchist attacks within the EU. The political motives to form a revolution against the political, social and economic system of a state, are often pursued through violent means. Marxist and/or Leninist ideologies lie at the grounds of their ideals. This group of perpetrators often uses IEDs or IIDs and/or military-grade weapons. Examples of left-wing and anarchist terrorist groups are the ‘Red Brigades’, ‘Informal Anarchist Federation’ and the Greek ‘Synomosia Pyrinon tis Fotias (Conspiracy of Cells of Fire)’[9].

Footnotes and references

  1. Phillips, P.J. (2016). The Economics of Terrorism. Routledge: New York.
  2. Directive (EU) 2017/541 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 15 March 2017 on combating terrorism and replacing Council Framework Decision 2002/475/JHA and amending Council Decision 2005/671/JHA, https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX%3A32017L0541
  3. European Commission. “Counter Terrorism and Radicalisation.” EC, https://ec.europa.eu/home-affairs/what-we-do/policies/counter-terrorism_en. Accessed 06 11 2020.
  4. Intentional homicide statistics includes murder, deadly assault, assassination, terrorism, femicide, infanticide, voluntary manslaughter, extrajudicial killings, illegal killing by police or military. It excludes attempted homicide, justifiable self-defence, assisted suicide, euthanasia, and abortion.
  5. Eurostat. “Recorded offences by offence category - police data.” Data Browser, Eurostat, 20 07 2020, https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/databrowser/view/crim_off_cat/default/table?lang=en. Accessed 06 11 2020.
  6. Sedgwick, M., ‘Jihadism, Narrow and Wide: The Dangers of Loose Use of an Important Term’, Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. 9, No 2, 2015, p. 34-41.
  7. Europol (2020). European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report. https://www.europol.europa.eu/sites/default/files/documents/european_union_terrorism_situation_and_trend_report_te-sat_2020_0.pdf. Accessed 10 11 2020.
  8. Sedgwick, M., ‘Jihadism, Narrow and Wide: The Dangers of Loose Use of an Important Term’, Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. 9, No 2, 2015, p. 34-41.
  9. Europol (2020). European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report. https://www.europol.europa.eu/sites/default/files/documents/european_union_terrorism_situation_and_trend_report_te-sat_2020_0.pdf. Accessed 10 11 2020.