A Who’s Who of Jihadi Terrorism in Europe

Review of Islamist Terrorism in Europe: A History, by Petter Nesser (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015)

Petter Nesser’s book, Islamist Terrorism in Europe: A History, ends on a very ominous note. Whilst penning the conclusion to his book in January 2015, Nesser noted a growing tendency of jihadists to emulate “Mumbai-style” attacks, where small teams of mobile gunmen attack multiple sites simultaneously. Nesser’s observation would seem prophetic in November 2015, when small teams of terrorists shocked the world by attacking and killing 130 people across various sites in Paris, France in a “Mumbai-style” attack.

This unsettling observation is one of many found in Islamist Terrorism in Europe: A History, as Nesser has charted the history of jihadist terrorist cells in Europe from the hijacking of Air France flight 8969 in 1994 to the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in 2015. Looking at specific case studies of terrorist cells and associated acts of terrorism, he paints a vivid picture of the lives, personalities, motivations and the connections of the individuals involved. Drawing from sources as diverse as media reports, expert interviews, judicial papers and jihadi propaganda material, Nesser guides readers through changing organizational trends in terrorist cells as he traces various patterns of leadership, funding, training and recruitment.

Nesser points out that the roots of jihadist terrorism lay in the 1980s when he identifies the development of “Afghan-Arab” networks by Arab mujahideen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, which eventually gave birth to Al Qaeda. While Al Qaeda never attacked Europe during this period, it included Spain in its plans for a global caliphate and eventually helped establish funding and recruitment networks for cells in Europe in the early 1990s. Nesser argues that these networks were bolstered by an influx of both jihadist and non-militant Islamists who fled to Europe in the wake of crackdowns by the various Muslim countries and that jihadists were successful in winning over members of non-militant religious movements to their own militant cause.

French GIGN operators storm Air France flight 8969.

French GIGN operators storm Air France flight 8969 on December 26th 1994.

While the Afghan-Soviet War created a jihadist threat to Europe, Nesser credits the Algerian Civil War as the catalyst for the first jihadist attack in Europe. This attack, the Air France flight 8969 hijacking on 24th December 1994, was orchestrated by the GIA, an Islamist group in Algeria fighting the French-backed Algerian government. The author contends that GIA’s ranks were fortified by battle-hardened veterans of the Afghan war and that it was able to develop networks in France by connecting these jihadist veterans with foot-soldiers drafted from ethnic-Algerian street gangs in France. This book delves deep into their lives and, using a series of interviews and background stories, reveals the central role of racism and a sense of social disenfranchisement in their motivations.

Nesser also argues that Al Qaeda’s role in Europe escalated with the US War on Terror as it stopped its indirect support for locally-organized European cells in Europe and established its own cells commanded directly by leaders in Afghanistan. Despite being weakened by the eventual loss of its central leadership in Afghanistan, Nesser contends that the American invasion of Iraq allowed Al Qaeda to find new recruits in Europe as it was able to successfully harvest anger among younger European Muslims against incidents like the torture of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison.

This comprehensive study also describes the emergence of British-Pakistani jihadist cells in the UK. He reminds the reader that a significant number of British-Pakistanis had a history of either direct involvement in terrorist attacks e.g. in Indian Kashmir or had provided assistance to terrorists e.g. Richard Reid for his failed shoe-bombing plot in 2001. Though these jihadists had never attacked European targets in the past, Nesser writes that this trend changed after 2004 when a reconsolidation of Al Qaeda in the Pakistani region of Waziristan allowed its leadership to reach out to Pakistani jihadists who had become increasingly agitated following crackdowns by the Pakistani state. Al Qaeda was able to use its new-found connections in Pakistan to reach out to British-Pakistani jihadists and thus connect its global network with home-grown cells used for the deadly 7/7 bombings in London in July 2005.

This number 30 bus was one of several targets attacked by terrorists in London.

This number 30 bus was one of several targets attacked by terrorists in London on July 7th 2005.

Other chapters in this book reveal that, as the War on Terror progressed, Al Qaeda became increasingly decentralized following the onslaught it faced from both western and Muslim governments. In response, it removed the connections between cells in Europe and its own leadership in the Muslim world. It also displayed an increased reliance on social media as it called for young Muslims to execute attacks on their own. This propaganda not only led to the creation of autonomous cells who only received few directions from Al Qaeda, but also inspired some “lone-wolf” attacks.

Nesser concludes his book with an analysis of the Arab Spring and its effects on terrorist cells in Europe. He argues, that despite a weakened Al Qaeda, the emergence of ISIS following the collapse of several Middle-Eastern states has exposed Europe to a new threat.

Like other books in the genre, Nesser’s work ends with several policy recommendations based on his observations. He believes that socio-cultural integration of Muslim minorities in Europe, while beneficial for society, should not be pursued as an anti-terrorism measure. Instead, given the wide variety of structures and modus operandi observed in terrorist cells, European governments need to formulate specialized counter-measures for each threat.

Besides being a meticulously-researched and interesting read for the casual reader Nesser’s work is also a welcome addition to existing scholarship on terrorism divided into two schools of thought. The first espouses a “leader-led jihad” model where radical Islamist ideology is used by a terrorist leader to recruit militants. The second rallies behind a “leader-less jihad” paradigm where social issues drive disaffected individuals to militancy in the absence of a centralized leadership. Nesser’s book points out flaws in this dichotomy, as it reveals that not only have cells frequently switched between being leader-led and leader-less, but have on occasion combined both modes of organization.