Jihadist radicalization is an interactive process. This is how the myth of “lone wolves” is debunked by Petter Nesser, an expert on jihadism in Europe, researcher at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment and author of Islamist Terrorism in Europe. Apparently, it is the Islamic State itself which feeds propaganda on the action of lone wolves in Europe, since it would like to successfully activate hundreds of individuals without connections between them and with top ranks, therefore making it more difficult to intercept for national security services. This would guarantee a myriad of small attacks. Yet, up to now this has not happened, as the investigations underway after the recent attacks in Spain, which killed 14 people, reveal. With time, not only do new connections between the cell in Ripoll emerge, but also links with individuals previously involved with the terrorist attack of Madrid in 2004. It is precisely this interaction between different levels and contacts with older jihadist generations, according to Nesser, that the work of the secret services should focus on today.
A cell of more than ten individuals, various rented vans, an older leader with links to past terrorist attacks and to an international network. Is there an evolution from the past in the preparation of the August terrorist attacks in Spain?
“The attacks in Barcelona were quite typical of the terrorist threats in Europe. In general, in terms of their modus operandi, we can see that patterns are constantly changing: new tactics emerge, but this does not mean that the old ones disappear. We are dealing with small changes that are needed by the terrorists to avoid the action of security services. Terrorists act in a very pragmatic way, because they know that security services are much more alert and attacks with vehicles and knives are a lot less complex. Bombs and explosives have been the weapons of choice for jihadists in Europe, but lately simpler tools prevail, precisely because explosive devices require access to chemicals which are difficult to find, especially for those who are on the radar of security services”.
What is the history of radicalisation in Spain?
“Spain has a history of jihadism which goes back to the 90s, especially of cells linked to financing of terrorist activity. The first group to settle on the territory in the 90s was the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria, the Algerian GIA. Some cells were integrated in al-Qaeda’s network. A financing cell behind the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in New York operated in Spain, with links precisely in Catalonia. The Spanish networks have been dominated by the presence of Moroccan and Algerian individuals and, as with the rest of the European countries, always had transnational links: in Europe and in areas of conflict. In 2004, following the Madrid attack, these cells were cracked down on by security services and many members were arrested, but since then many cells have resurged and groups of new generations are partly based on old networks. There is absolutely a link between today’s networks and those of the 90s. In the case of Barcelona, the imam of Ripoll, Abdelbaki Es Satty, is probably linked to a facilitator of the network behind the Madrid terrorist attack of 2004”.
So the so-called lone wolves don’t exist?
“The pattern of establishing links with already existing groups is very common. Some important examples that explain this mechanism are the strong links between Djamel Beghal – French citizen of Algerian origins active in the GIA until the 90s and then with jihadist networks with connections to zones of conflict, Ed. Note – the perpetrators of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack and the so-called Wattignies plot (thwarted in 2017 by the authorities, Ed. Note). And again: connected to the Wattignies plot there was also Lionel Dumont, of the so-called Roubaix gang (active in the 90s with links to al-Qaeda, Ed. Note). It is these ‘entrepreneurs’ who have contacts with personalities involved in the areas of conflict. They provide the chance for new generations to create relations with the group in war zones in the Middle East. They also function as guarantors between the movement and the new cell. They are the contact points: this dynamic is highly important in understanding the threat we are faced with today”.
Could the fact that the new jihadist generations have links with old terrorist networks help the action of security services?
“Of course, it is also for this reason that the secret services should have a historical approach to terrorist investigations. There are in fact very few real cases of lone wolves. We tend to focus much on the social aspects of radicalisation, on the lack of integration, on the more or less significant presence of Muslim communities in European countries. Yet, the attacks, as the one in Finland in August proves, happen in nations with small Islamic communities (Finland has 50,000 Muslims, Ed. Note), in places where there is a poor level of integration but also in countries where the level of integration is higher. Where and when plots happen is where there are networks with links with conflict zones. In Finland for example, the reported support for Ansar el-Islam in Iraq since 2004. Subsequently the country saw an increase in the number of jihadists and an increase of radical activity, while the departures of foreign fighters reached up to 80 (out of a population of 50,000 Muslims, which is along with Ireland in proportion the highest number in Europe, Ed. Note). Many explain these phenomena through social aspects, which certainly have a role to play, but we can see jihadist networks developing in the most unexpected places, or in very unlikely places. They develop where there is a critical mass of ‘entrepreneurs’, able to build a network, and are ideological and more connected with war zones: this is when you see attacks popping up”.
Could this be one of the reasons that have made Italy immune to the attacks up to now?
“It could be, even if Italy since the first years after 2000 has experienced failed plots as well as actual attacks. Italy has not been spared. The threat is relatively lower compared to many neighboring countries, however. Sweden is just as difficult to interpret: it is a nation with a quite extensive immigrant population, vast suburbs and historical networks”.
A report of the secret services of Finland, struck in August by a knife attack, states that the foreign fighters who left the country have reached high levels in the Isis hierarchy. What kind of weight could this have on the threat in Europe?
“The last time Sweden experienced a high level of threat was when Swedish individuals reached high positions within the predecessor of the Islamic State, al-Qaeda in Iraq (Aqi). One of the explanations of the intensity of the threat in France is precisely given by the presence of French jihadists in the ranks of the “department for international attacks” of Isis. This is a significant factor: if foreign fighters of a certain country climb the ranks of the leadership in conflict zones, there would be more attacks in their country of origin. The case of jihadist radicalisation, to a greater extent than other forms of extremism, is an interactive process. Jihadists must discuss for example the permissibility of an attack with someone who they consider a religious authority, as happened in the case of the terrorist in Manchester. The media reported conversations with an individual within the hierarchy of Isis. This interactivity is a special feature of jihadist networks which don’t necessarily occur in other radical movements. Many cases in Europe portrayed as lone wolves’ attacks have proved themselves otherwise after investigations. The most evident example is Mohammed Merah, in France (he carried out various terrorist attacks in the region of Toulouse in 2012, killing seven people, Ed. Note), who is still today considered a lone wolf but he was connected to a network in France, he had travelled in Europe and in the Middle East and had links with jihadist groups”.
When there is an attack in Europe, authorities try to immediately understand if there is an underlying order directed by an external leadership, as was the case in the past with al-Qaeda. What are the differences between the modus operandi of al-Qaeda and Isis today?
“I’m beginning to think of Isis as a much bigger version of al-Qaeda. For every prisoner killed by al-Qaeda, Isis kills ten or a hundred, and it has certainly won the competition for the amount of mobilised foreign fighters, which is one of the greatest threats for Europe. As with regards to direct link with the leadership: there are few examples in the past of jihadists who met with the top ranks, and if they had, it occurred well before the attacks. Even al-Qaeda has a system of handing down orders or directions via lower levels through a hierarchical system. Both al-Qaeda and Isis are very much based on a hierarchical system, in which there is an extensive bureaucracy: there is a registration system for all foreign fighters for example, with information on their origins. Both delegate responsibilities. One of the principal elements of which we must be aware is that at some point they need to communicate. It seems important for them to be interacting. It is difficult to intercept these communications because they are encrypted, but the communication exists. They are the ones creating this propaganda surrounding the lone wolves, because this is what they would like to achieve”.
Was it not already a precept of al-Qaeda to avoid interceptable communications? A strategist of the group, Abu Musab al-Suri, spoke of cells at work in a single direction but without any contact amongst them.
“Isis would like to reach as many lone wolves as possible. If it managed to activate hundreds of lone wolves, difficult to intercept, it could have small attacks almost daily, but this for the moment is not happening: because there are still interactions and discussions between cells and ‘entrepreneurs’”.
Does this interaction represent an opportunity for the secret services, a weak point to take advantage of?
“From the point of view of the states, as long as there are networks there are possibilities to stop attacks and to reduce threats. But in the last few years European security services are lagging behind because the surge in recruitment with the rise of Isis is unprecedented: the number of foreign fighters is so huge compared to the past. And by necessity, this affects the threat level. We know from history that a percentage of those who travel to conflict zones return and later become involved in terrorist plots as operative or ‘entrepreneur’”.