After the 2004 Madrid bombings, the 2005 London attacks, and the
myriad terrorist plots thwarted over the last few years, commentators
and policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic have come to the
realization that Europe faces an enormous challenge from terrorism of
Islamist inspiration. Yet terrorism is only the tip of the iceberg, the
most visible manifestation of a larger problem. Europe faces today a
tripartite threat from radical Islam, of which the terrorist is only
the most immediate and evident, but not necessarily the most dangerous
The European Islamist Pyramid
This tripartite threat can be visualized as a pyramid. At the top of
it are the violent jihadists, a few thousand individuals scattered
throughout the continent who openly challenge the societies they live
in, and are willing to spill blood to achieve their goals. Below them
are what can be defined "peaceful revolutionaries," groups and networks
that openly express their opposition to any system of government that
does not strictly conform to shari'a (Islamic law), yet do not,
at least openly, directly resort to violent means to further their
agenda. Finally, the base, the largest section of the pyramid, is
occupied by groups that publicly purport to support democracy and the
integration of Muslim communities within the European mainstream, but
quietly work to radicalize Europe's Muslim population.
Each of these aspects of radical Islam has a different presence, structure and modus operandi.
Each, consequently, presents a different kind of challenge to European
policymakers and intelligence agencies. And while Europeans are finally
paying attention to the jihadist threat and have devised solutions to
contain it, there is only a limited understanding of the other two
Individuals that espouse the most militant interpretation of Islam
began to establish a presence in Europe in the mid-1980s. Their numbers
were reinforced at the end of the decade and during the first years of
the 1990s, as small groups of so-called Afghan Arabs and other
committed jihadists who escaped prosecution (or worse) in the Middle
East and North Africa settled in Europe. Exploiting the freedoms of the
West, these violent Islamists continued to support their groups'
activities in their countries of origin through propaganda,
fundraising, and recruitment. Europe constituted the ideal logistical
base for groups such as the Egyptian Gamaa Islamiya or the Algerian GIA
(and then the GSPC), which established extensive networks throughout
By the second half of the 1990s these groups and networks began to
gravitate toward the orbit of al-Qaeda, embracing its message of global
jihad. It was in places such as Bosnia, Chechnya, and, of course,
Afghanistan, that jihadist groups from various countries made contact
and decided to join forces, fighting not only against their traditional
enemies (regimes in the Muslim world), but also against "the far
enemy," i.e. the West.
A key role in this cross-pollination of ideas and methods among
jihadist groups was played by some of Europe's most radical mosques,
such as London's Finsbury Park, Milan's Islamic Cultural Institute,
Vienna's Sahaba, or Hamburg's al-Quds, which became popular meeting
points for radicals from all countries. These networks that had long
operated independently in Europe soon became franchises for al-Qaeda on
the continent, significantly contributing men, funds, and logistics to
the group's growth.
Over the last few years, there has been a generational change in
jihadist networks. Most of today's jihadists, particularly in northern
European countries, are second-generation Muslim immigrants in Europe
(with a small but significant number of converts).
Today we can visualize the reality of jihadist networks in Europe as
a continuum. At one extreme, we find homegrown groups: small clusters
of mostly European-born radicals with no ties to external groups that
act in absolute operational independence. At the opposite side of the
spectrum, we see compartmentalized cells contained in a well-structured
network and subjected to a hierarchical structure, as was the model of
jihadist groups operating in Europe in the 1990s.
In between these two extremes there is a whole spectrum of
realities, positioned according to the level of autonomy of the group.
The most recurring model seems to be that of the July 7, 2005, London
bombers: a small group of young men, most of whom were born and raised
in Europe, who know each other either from the mosque or from the
neighborhood, and who become radicalized in Europe. Only a few of these
locally groomed jihadists travel abroad to gain from various al-Qaeda
affiliate groups the necessary bomb-making expertise that will make the
group jump from an amateurish cluster of friends to a full-fledged
The challenge posed by jihadist networks, wherever they sit on the
continuum, is daunting. While in the past these networks were largely
focused on supporting activities taking place outside of the continent,
today they consider Europe a primary target. Since 9/11, European
intelligence agencies, often assisted by their American counterparts,
have dismantled scores of networks and prevented dozens of terrorist
attacks. Most European countries have also made significant changes to
their legislation to deal more effectively with terrorism, though in
some cases improvements are still needed.
Looking ahead, the task faced by European authorities is
overwhelming. In Britain alone, MI5 believes that there are around
4,000 terror suspects and 200 jihadist networks spread throughout the
country. Intelligence officials believe that smaller but comparable
numbers of jihadists operate in other European countries, even in
traditionally "quiet" areas such as Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.
The Peaceful Revolutionaries
A complete rejection of Western values and proclaimed desire to
establish an Islamic state (Caliphate) worldwide are the
characteristics not only of jihadist groups, but also of several
seemingly non-violent organizations operating in Europe. The most
organized among these "peaceful revolutionary" movements is
Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT, or Party of Liberation), which has established a
presence in most European countries. HT's worldview is simple: all the
solutions to man's political, economic, cultural, and social problems
are to be found in Islam, and the only way for humanity to achieve
justice is to abandon any man-made system (including democracy) and
establish a Caliphate encompassing not simply today's Muslim world, but
every non-Muslim state, too.
HT's message is spread through an unrelenting propaganda effort.
This includes websites and publications in various European languages,
leaflets in Muslim neighborhoods and in front of mainstream mosques,
and even videos on YouTube. HT conferences, attended by thousands of
sympathizers, are regularly held in the United Kingdom, Denmark,
Austria, and Germany. HT is so strong in Europe that, in what is a
seemingly counterintuitive but telling move, several of its members
have traveled to the Middle East to spread the organization's message
and re-Islamize Middle Eastern masses.
HT does not simply appeal to the disaffected masses of unassimilated
European Muslims. Members of HT tend to be highly educated young
professionals who are second-generation Muslim immigrants in Europe.
Their ranks are buttressed further by a small cadre of converts.
HT's rhetoric is sophisticated and skillfully tailored to the ears
of Western Muslims. Moreover, it generally stops short of expressly
advocating violence, in order to avoid scrutiny by authorities. HT
states that Islam is under attack, that Muslims have a duty to defend
their fellow Muslims worldwide, and that they must establish the
Caliphate in order to mount this defense. However, HT stops short of
specifying how Muslims should do so.
While HT does not openly endorse violence it provides powerful
ideological tools to radicalize Muslims. The jump from embracing HT's
worldview to committing violent acts in order to further its goals is a
short one. For this reason, HT is often identified as a "conveyor belt"
to terrorism. Moreover, while the organization itself has never been
directly linked to terrorism, some European HT members have.
HT continues to frustrate many European governments. Germany banned
HT in 2002 for being anti-Semitic, but the group continues to operate
under different names. Similarly, after the London bombings, the
British government attempted to ban HT, but desisted after realizing
that the lack of direct links to terrorism would pose legal challenges.
Other European countries debate whether HT's activities should be
banned or whether they should be safeguarded by freedom of speech.
In recent months there have been indications that HT preaches
violence in small gatherings, or where it believes the media or
intelligence agencies are not monitoring its activities. Shiraz Maher,
a former HT regional director in England, who has left the group and
produced a documentary for BBC about it, is clear in his belief that HT
does not eschew violence. "Hizb ut-Tahrir despises democracy and
believes shari'a law must be imposed over the whole world," says Maher, "by force if necessary."
Maajid Nawaz, another former senior HT member, asserts that "they
[HT] are prepared to, once they've established the [Islamic] state, to
fight other countries and to kill people in the pursuit of unifying
this state into one state." Nawaz also acknowledges the disruptive
impact that his former group's teachings have had on society at large:
"I think that what I taught has not only damaged British society and
British Muslim relations and damaged the position of Muslims in this
society as British citizens, I think it's damaged the world."
Islamization by Penetrating the System
At the bottom of the pyramid is the numerically most significant
component of political Islam in Europe: the Muslim Brotherhood and
other revivalist movements such as the Pakistani Jamaat-e-Islami or the
Turkish Milli G?r?. Over the last half-century, these movements have
established offshoots in numerous European countries, thanks to their
activism and foreign funding. Revivalist organizations such the Muslim
Council of Britain, the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, or
the Islamic Society of Germany have become the de facto
representatives of the Muslim communities of their countries. They
control a large number of mosques and interact with government
institutions as preferential partners.
When dealing with the media and governments, these organizations
present a moderate fa?ade, publicly supporting integration and
democracy. Yet in their mosques, revivalist organizations espouse a
diametrically different rhetoric, still embracing the zealous ideology
of the organizations of their origins. Their aim is the radicalization
of European Muslim communities and the creation of Muslim separatists
who seek separate social spaces (from schools to swimming pools) and
While they do not officially advocate the use of violence in the
West (although they do so in Iraq and the Palestinian territories), it
can be argued that these revivalist groups pose a challenge more
insidious than that of other Islamists who openly challenge Western
governments and values. Thanks to their public words of moderation,
they often manage to establish preferential relationships with European
elites. In some cases, they are even seen as partners in European
governments' fight against radicalization. The legitimization and power
they acquire through these government endorsements allow them to
augment their status within the Muslim community and, hence, their
ability to radicalize it.
Revivalist organizations concentrate their efforts in radicalizing
European Muslim populations, while appeasing and penetrating the
official governing system. Operating within the legal framework, and
often with the support of European governments, their activities create
the foundations on which other, more radical groups build. They
represent the base of the pyramid and a problem that Europeans have
been unable to address.
Each section of the Islamist pyramid poses a different kind of
challenge to Europe's security and way of life. Europeans must
recognize each as such and find the appropriate legal and political
tools to address them.