Christmas Eve 1994: Air France Flight 8969 is hijacked by GIA, Armed Islamic Group of Algeria. During the operation three passengers lose their lives, while the four hijackers are killed in Marseilles by the Gendarmerie Nationale that breaks into the plane. That was the day when Europe met for the first time on its own soil the terrorism of Islamist origin, that in the following twenty years would not abandon it. It is on this time-frame that Petter Nesser, from the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, and author of over three hundred pages that trace the history of Islamic terrorism in Europe, focuses.
Analyzing every single Islamist terrorist attack that took place in the continent, Nesser investigates on how the jihadist networks have evolved in Europe from the 1990s to today, the targets and modus operandi of the attackers, trying to find a synthesis between the “leader-led jihad” theory by Bruce Hoffman and the “leader-less jihad” theory by Marc Sageman. According to the former, the attacks would be engineered by a leader (al-Qaida in the 2000s); for the latter, the jihad is the work of individuals who, by their own initiative, intercept other potential jihadists and create a network. They would convert to jihadism creating autonomous movements not so much for ideological reasons, but rather because of psycho-sociological reasons (lack of integration into society, frustration, the search for a strong identity, rebellion against one’s parents...).
According to Nesser, when considered individually, the two theories are reductive and prevent us from fully understanding the phenomenon as a whole. For example, the Hoffman theory is useful in order to explain major attacks that are coordinated by a leader (like the massacre in the London underground in 2005), but cannot give an account of the smaller attacks, such as the one to the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who was killed in 2004 in Amsterdam for the images of his movie Submission. By combining the two approaches, and focusing with great analytical rigor on individual trajectories, Nesser identifies four different types of jihadist terrorist: the entrepreneur, the protégé, the drifter and the misfit. At the same time he pays also close attention to the interweaving of local, regional and international events that form the background to the attacks.
While France was the first victim of Islamist terrorism, Nesser says, Britain is the country in which in the 1990s the first jihadist community was born, forming what would be known as Londonistan. Europe in general, with the freedom provided by its democratic regimes, was the ideal place to create a sub-culture in radicalized mosques, to raise funds and recruit new members by exploiting the social media potential. So on the one hand Europe was perceived as a threatening presence for its foreign policy, but on the other it served as a shelter for its naturalized citizens, giving them leeway. Until the mid-2000s, it was the second aspect to prevail, ensuring a “covenant of security” for Europe. Then the commitment of the European countries in Afghanistan and Iraq, the issue of the satirical cartoons and the Israeli operations in Gaza, according to the author, changed the situation, erasing the “covenant”. The rise of the Islamic State did the rest, turning Europe into a prime target of the jihadists and creating a climate of insecurity that the return of foreign fighters from Syria will likely worsen.
Since jihadism has started striking our continent once again, there have been many publications on the subject. But few books can match the rigor, depth and balance of Nesser’s work, an essential tool for anyone working in the field of Islamist terrorism.
[This article is published in Oasis no. 24. To read all the contents buy a copy or subscribe]