The State of Play of Jihadist Terrorism in Western Europe

Western Europe has suffered a large number of terrorist attacks since 2014, in major urban centres in Spain (Barcelona),  France (Paris, Nice and Marseille), Great Britain (London, Manchester), Sweden (Stockholm, Malmo), Germany (Berlin, Cologne, Freital, Hanover, Munich, Essen, Wurzburg, Ansbach, Dresden, Hamburg), Belgium (Brussels), the Netherlands (Amsterdam, Utrecht, Rotterdam, Amhem, Zoetermeer)  and Denmark (Copenhagen) killing a total of 537 people.

This surge in Jihadi terrorism reached its peak in 2015-2016, just as ethnically motivated terrorist activity subsided across Europe. [1] According to Europol reports, in 2018, Jihadi attacks subsided due to developments in Syria and Iraq.

In 2020, the major threat vis-à-vis European Union security remains terrorism. The fact is, Jihadi terrorism is nihilistic, as it does not turn against a state or a regime but the notion of a nation-state itself and concepts such as rule of law and popular sovereignty. In sum, Jihadi terrorism can be described as an anti-modernist movement. The utopia advocated is a Caliphate with theocratic rule. Added to this, around 2016-2017, there was a surge of terrorist attacks from the far-right wing, mainly extreme nationalists and xenophobes connected to groups or ideologies with Islamophobic, anti-European and anti-Globalization undertones. Both movements are growing in Western Europe.

Institutional challenges

In terms of targeted countries, those that are suffering the most from Jihadi terrorism (either Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State) are France, Belgium and Great Britain.[2] Over and beyond the wave of attacks witnessed, one must also take into account foiled and failed attacks (207 in 2017 and 129 in 2019) which brings to the fore a new set of dilemmas for the balance between security and individual freedoms. [3]

Another challenge within the European Market is the mobility -people, goods, capital- under the prism of Home Security in a European context. Here, borders should be at the heart of European debates.

Although Jihadi terrorism has subsiding since 2018, the threat of resurgence remains[4]. French President Emmanuel Macron, recently discussed the need to rethink the Schengen regime.[5]

Demographic Profile of Terrorists

An understanding of terrorism requires the understanding of the terrorist and the demographic profile of Jihadi Terrorists in Western Europe is evolving.

Through the terrorist attacks perpetrated in Western Europe, it became easy to identify the terrorist archetype even if there is no certified profile, but rather similarities between attackers.[6] They have a migrant heritage, although 60% of them are born in the country in which they are active. Their heritage is Muslim but this includes a substantial number of recent converts. There is no specific ethnicity that is more susceptible to radicalisation. In France, for example, terrorists have the French nationality with various origins : Moroccan, Chechen, Afghan, Algerian or Somali.

According Europol, profiles reveal young and dynamic people, around 25 years old, 70% are between 20 and 28 years old. Sometimes, they are 30/36 years old but the youngest are around  16/17 years old. The majority of suspects are men but the number of women has been increasing. Women usually have European citizenship allowing them to move with therr families in any European countries.[7]

The socio-economic profile of Jihadi suspects is straightforwardly working class. It seems that terrorists are not generally successful businessmen or in comfortable situations, economically, although there are exceptions to the rule. Usually, the hold precarious jobs. They have a limited work experience and often petty criminal backgrounds. In addition, it seems that there is family influence in the radicalisation process. The same can be said of their psychological profile as there is no conclusive line between intellectual ability, psychological makeup and radical Jihadi action.[8]

The Question of Counter-Terrorism

The significance of a profile is self-evident.

First of all, it allows us to better understand social mechanisms of recruitment. In prisons, the radicalisation rate is extremely high, especially in France, Great Britain, Spain and Belgium. However, the significance of online social networks is increasing.[9]

While thousands from Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Spain, and the UK went to fight under the banner of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, there was a surge in online activity aiming at recruitment. Female Jihadists swelled in numbers, while the phenomenon of younger lone-wolf attackers proliferated.[10]

Both age and experience affect the modus operandi.

The targets remain the same: civilians in public gatherings (events, shopping, areas, churches etc..) and, less often, the military establishment.

Organised cells use kamikaze attacks, machine guns and explosive materials that they manufacture (flash and black powder), but less experienced perpetrators use cars or knives to inflict violence. Although there has been a surge in lone wolf attacks, there are also signs that certain groups that are accessing sophisticated know-how that may allow them to use chemical and biological substances.[11]

Over and beyond the significance of profiling for investigative and prosecutorial purposes, there is an issue of prevention and social rehabilitation. It is difficult to assess the impact of social outreach programs. However, what is clear is that as attacks are becoming more decentralised, ideological, and founded on individual rage rather than centralised planning. In this context, there is a practical need to understand the process leading from indoctrination to politically significant terrorist activity.


[1] Alexandre Pouchard et al. : « Les attentats terroristes en Europe ont causé près de 2400 morts depuis 2001 » 4/07/2019,

[2] Europol : « Terrorism situation and trend report » 23/06/ 2020,

[3] Europol : « Terrorism Situation and Trend Report » 27/06/ 2020,


[4] Ibid

[5] Isabelle Ory, Jean-Rémi Baudot : « Les propositions de la France pour modifier l’espace Schengen » 1/12/2020,

[6] Kevin Gertsch et Tybalt Felix : « Les terroristes n’ont pas un profil type, mais des points communs notables » 16/06/2017,

[7] Europol : « Terrorism Situation and Trend Report » 27/06/ 2019,

[8] Kevin Gertsch et Tybalt Felix : « Les terroristes n’ont pas un profil type, mais des points communs notables » 16/06/2017,

[9] Europol : « Terrorism situation and trend report » 23/06/ 2020,

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

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