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Illustration by iStock; Security Management

Alone, Together: Diffuse Actors Increasingly Inspire EU Terror Attacks

Jihadist terrorism continues to be the main terrorism concern in the European Union, even as affiliation to known terrorism groups becomes less prominent among supporters, according to an annual Europol report published Wednesday.

Sixteen terror attacks took place in the EU in 2022 (compared to 15 in 2021), two of which were jihadist attacks. Twelve other terror attacks failed or were foiled, and authorities arrested 380 suspects in terrorism-related cases, according to the EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (TE-SAT) 2023. Four people were killed in terrorist attacks in 2022; two from jihadist attacks and two from a right-wing terror attack.

“Member states continue to view jihadist terrorism as the most prominent terrorist threat to the EU despite the fact that the number of jihadist attacks has decreased compared to 2021 and 2020,” wrote Catherine De Bolle, executive director of Europol, in the report’s forward. “The threat from right-wing terrorist lone actors, radicalized online, remains significant. Left-wing and anarchist terrorists and violent extremists continue to pose a threat to public safety and security in the EU.”

Online radicalization and the spread of propaganda has become more of a concern for EU officials—especially as terrorist actors become more decentralized.

“Diffuse actors connect and inspire one another, uniting behind grievances beyond ideology or group affiliation,” De Bolle explained. “This context is ripe for self-radicalization and for lone actors to begin engaging in attack planning, and poses significant challenges for preventing and combating terrorism and violent extremism in the EU.”

Fragmented Associations, United Ideologies

Analysis from Europol during the past year found that the jihadist movement in the EU is fragmented, made up of supporters and suspects who are less affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) and al Qaeda but sharing propaganda created by both groups.

“Groups coexist with individuals acting on their own or as part of fluid cells with friends and acquaintances,” Europol assessed. “They are part of various national and transnational jihadist networks, both online and offline. Actors involved in the planning of attacks frequently combined preparation activities with an extensive use of jihadist online platforms.”

Similarly, right-wing terror attacks in 2022 were not carried out by traditional actors. Instead, they were committed by males 16 to 20 years old who were lone actors, or small cells of individuals, who had been radicalized online. Many of these individuals see themselves as “defenders of the ‘white race,’” and are heavily influenced by right-wing extremist ideologies and groups from the United States, Europol found.

“Currently, lone actors or small leaderless cells, radicalized in transnational online communities and not belonging to any established right-wing extremist group, have the biggest potential for carrying out right-wing terrorist attacks in the EU,” according to the report.

Left-wing and anarchist terror attacks actors also leveraged the Internet to promote their messages and justification for their attacks—mainly an opposition to the state and capitalism—targeting critical infrastructure.

“Left-wing and anarchist extremists see themselves as part of an international movement and international contacts are a key feature of the scene,” Europol added. “They connect through social media as well as physical attendance at various events and demonstrations.”

Trends in 2022

Means and methods. Most of the terror attacks in the EU in 2022 were attributed to left-wing and anarchist terrorism (13), but only jihadist attacks (two) and a right-wing terror attack resulted in deaths.

A majority of the left-wing attacks involved improvised incendiary devices (IIDs), fire accelerators, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). In contrast, the three attacks that resulted in deaths used a bladed weapon, strangulation, and firearms.

“The primary choice of weaponry for jihadist attacks planned or perpetrated in 2022 was bladed weapons,” according to the report. “This is because attacks carried out with easily accessible rudimentary objects require shorter planning and the risks of detection by law enforcement are perceived as lower.”

Europol noted that some member states and non-EU partner countries also logged an increased interest from terrorist groups in 3D-printed firearms.

“In Slovakia and The Netherlands, individuals linked to right-wing extremist circles, one of whom was a minor, were arrested for disseminating online instructions for the homemade manufacture of automatic firearms with 3D-printable parts, as well as for the possession of 3D-printed firearms and firearm parts,” the report explained.

Violent extremists also continue to share instructions and tutorials to manufacture homemade explosives and IEDs, as well as information on creating a “radiological dispersal device, also known as a ‘dirty bomb.’”

Technology. Social media, instant messaging, online forums, and even video games are being used by threat actors to radicalize and recruit individuals. Violent extremists and terrorist actors are increasingly using gaming-adjacent platforms to do this.

Islamic State (IS) “supporters in particular created groups on gaming communication apps, dedicated to the discussion of different topics, including media operations, translation of propaganda content, and religious migration,” according to Europol. “Right-wing extremist actors exploited the gaming landscape by creating right-wing extremist utopias within popular video games, for example featuring neo-Nazi recreations, anti-Semitic and anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer+ (LTBTQ+) themes. This was done mostly to appeal to a larger audience and to increase the base of young sympathizers, but also to foster a sense of community by engaging in a shared hobby.”

One ideological trend highlighted in the Europol report is an opposition to technology advances. This has been associated in the past with left-wing and anarchist terrorism agendas, but it is now attracting interest from right-wing movements.

“Left-wing and anarchist anti-technology narratives are part of a long-lasting mind-set preceding the 5G network, where technological advances are seen as the embodiment of capitalism and the fight against them equals the fight against the overarching state’s control over citizens,” the report explained. “Recently, right-wing extremists called for attacks against 5G infrastructure, acting upon theories describing 5G technology as detrimental to people’s health and designed to control citizens.”

Financing. Continuing a trend from 2021, terrorists and violent extremists are using legal business structures to raise money to fund their efforts.

“Left-wing, anarchist, right-wing, ethno-nationalist, and separatist extremists and terrorists also use legal business structures to collect and launder funds used for terrorist financing, including bars, coffee shops, gas stations, kiosks, restaurants, and pubs,” the report explained. “The sale of merchandise, videos, publications, and tickets for events (for example concerts), including on e-commerce platforms, is another way to raise funds. In particular, social media platforms provide terrorists and violent extremists with low-cost advertising and sales channels for a broader target group inside and outside the scene.”

Terrorist organizations also use cryptocurrencies, but the most common method of moving money continues to be through the traditional banking system, money transfers, and informal value transfer systems—like hawala (an informal system where money is often paid to an agent, who then has an associate elsewhere pay a final recipient).

“More layers are used to cover the transactions, which are taking place globally,” Europol added. “For instance, cryptocurrencies are paid to an account in one country where they are withdrawn, the amount is divided and sent via hawala to other countries and further transferred via money transfer services. When sent to conflict zones, cash is usually withdrawn from money transfer offices by money mules who deliver it to the final beneficiary.”

Future Threats

While the jihadist terror threat remains, Europol predicts that right-wing and left-wing terrorist activity will take a more central role in the EU in the future.

“The current global landscape, influenced by multiple consecutive crises and ridden by uncertainty, combined with an all-round hyper connectivity, presents a fertile ground for radicalization into terrorism and violent extremism,” according to the report. “Accelerationism is already appealing to large audiences, and is likely to further expand with an increasing number of vulnerable individuals exposed to online propaganda.”

Europol also anticipates that lasting conflicts, including Russia’s war against Ukraine, will be used by terrorist groups and actors to drive polarization and recruit new followers.

“Coordinated disinformation campaigns such as the ones carried out by pro-Russian actors are expected not only to provide a large pool of divisive ideas that can be easily exploited in terrorist propaganda, but may also deliver a model for terrorist organizations aiming to improve their media strategies,” the report said. “As seen in past conflicts, weapons and explosives diverted from battlefields may be traded to terrorist and violent extremist actors by firearms traffickers.”

Finally, officials will also be watching to see how terrorist groups continue to leverage technology to spread their message and recruit new members. For instance, using augmented reality to create a virtual training camp.

Terrorists may also incorporate new technology into their means and methods for carrying out attacks, including using drones and unmanned devices for attacks.

“Drones and other types of unmanned devices and vehicles would allow terrorists to perpetrate attacks remotely, magnifying the impact,” according to the report. “Unmanned vehicles can also be customized and used in combination with various weapons, potentially including radioactive or biological material. Inspired by narratives surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and with upcoming breakthroughs in the realm of synthetic biology and biotechnology, a shift to bio-terrorism may become more pronounced in the future.”