„This threat will stay with us for at least a decade“

What kinds of terror attacks do we have to expect in Europe, and how dangerous are returning Foreign Fighters? Norwegian terror expert Thomas Hegghammer* shares his insights in this interview with DIE ZEIT**.

DIE ZEIT: In the Paris attack, there was a link to Yemen. In Belgium, where the police foiled a terror attack last week, we saw Syria returnees among the suspects. In Germany, the police arrested several Jihadists, some of whom had been to Syria, some of whom hadn't. What do these instances tell us about the current threat?

Hegghammer: Firstly, that it is varied indeed. The security services have to look at different kinds of threats all the time. I would also add to the list the sympathizers of the „Islamic State“ (IS). We have seen plots hatched by IS sympathizers in North America, Australia and Europe. In fact, there have been more plots by IS sympathizers than by actual Syria returnees.

DIE ZEIT: What do all these people have in common?

Hegghammer: Apart from the fact that they are radical Islamists who want to perpetrate violence? Not much, really. They don't organize formally. They take good precautionary measures. That's about it. If you look at their profiles, they are a very mixed bunch.

DIE ZEIT: But it is clear, that the pool of potential terrorists is bigger today than it was a few years ago. Does that mean this threat is going to stay for quite a while?

Hegghammer: O yes, at least for another decade! Syria and the IS phenomonen have given Jihadism in Europe a new lease on life. We will be facing threat levels like this for many years.

DIE ZEIT: Should we expect more attacks, but on a smaller magnitude than we were fearing before?

Hegghammer: It's impossible to make good predication of frequency and scale. The quantity need not go up, but it could. And attacks need not become smaller, there can still be big ones like Madrid or London every now and then. But I believe there are two new trends. We are currently observing more attacks with hand-held weapons than with explosives. And the attackers tend to seek out targets that leave little doubt about the message - like Charlie Hebdo, Jewish schools, Policemen or soldiers -, rather than, say, general transportation systems.

DIE ZEIT: A lot of these plots seems to be results of calls to „individual Jihad“ via „Inspire“ and other Jihadist propaganda. Has this phenomenon now taken centre stage?

Hegghammer: I am not sure. Look at Paris: the Kouachi brothers were part of an old network, exactly like what we used to have in the 2000s. In Belgium, we saw a rather large network of 10 to 15 people. That's not exactly „invidiual Jihad“. The attacks in Ottawa and Sydney, on the other hand, were. We have to understand that new tactics are being added, but old ones are being kept.

DIE ZEIT: You have worked extensively on „Foreign Fighters“. What's more important as a driving factor: adventure and life stlye or religion and ideology?

Hegghammer: People leave for different reasons, but if I were to hightlight one, it’s the desire to be part of a historical project. It's partly escapism. These people want to get away from the West, from corruption and discrimination, and they want to move into this assumedly pure zone where they think they can find true Islam.

DIE ZEIT: We like to think of the Western world as free and able to accomodate all kinds of religious lifestyles. Why does this concept not work for these people?

Hegghammer: Disillusionment is not limited to radical Islamists. Many young people across Europe are frustrated, see no future, are in opposition to the current order. But they have no alternative. The secular, drug-using delinquent in a Paris suburb – where is he going to go? Islamists, in contrast, are being offered an escape route. So availability is a factor here: Syria is easy to get to. It's an utopia that is at hand.

DIE ZEIT: Some Israeli soldiers escape to Goa after military service; some leftists start communes when they are sick of consumerism; but they usually don't turn into terrorists. Where does this element come from?

Hegghammer: Jihadism is a destructive project, concealed in a constructive one. They don't join in order to become terrorists. But they can become terrorists in the process. And our problem is that radicalizing and preparing to go abroad to fight is a kind of activity that is just below the threshold of police intervention. In a way, the reason we have a radicalization problem in Europe is that the Islamists are not that radical. Because a lot of these networks stay clear of terrorist plotting, there is little the state can do against them. If these people were all organized terrorists, we wouldn't have any problem defeating them. But as long as they are operating below that threshold, our hand are tied. All these gateway groups, like Sharia4Belgium, Sharia4Denmark, etc., they have become masters at toeing the line.

DIE ZEIT: So the window to act is too tiny?

Hegghammer: Exactly. And we can't just lower the threshold, or we will end up punishing people for opinions.

DIE ZEIT: Is there any indication of how long it takes foreign fighters to cool down once they return? Or do they stay radical?

Hegghammer: We know very little about Syria returnees so far. But what we do know is the proportion of people who returned from previous battlefields and then plotted attacks. Before Syria, that rate was 1 out of 15 to 20. If you look at open source data about returnees from Syria who were involved in terror plots across Europe, we have so far seen about 10 plots with roughly 20 returnees involved. That is 20 out of 3000 who left to fight abroad, or 20 out of just over 1000 who have already returned, repectively. So far, it is only a small minority who have become terrorists. The question before us is: How do you stop that minority without over-reacting towards the relatively harmless majority?

DIE ZEIT: But many returnees have only returned recently. Some of them still may become active as terrorists...

Hegghammer: Yes, that number will increase. But I think we can already say that the rate is not going to be extremely high. Given the sheer numbers, however, the absolute number of terror plots may well be higher than previously.

DIE ZEIT: How should our societies deal with this long-term threat?

Hegghammer: Some intelligence services in Europe will have to substantially grow, they need more analysts. Not necessarily new methods or new survaillance powers. Adding data usually just means having to process more data. Smarter analytical software can help, but we need more brains, too. Our publics also need to be prepared for more news like what we have heard in the past two weeks, and they need to be persuaded not to panic. Mind you, we are still no-where near the level of terrorist activitiy we had in the 70s and 80s from the far left and far right. We should be able to psychologically tolerate even an increase in terrorist activity.

DIE ZEIT: What other measures are sensible?

Hegghammer: We need a sophisticated system to deal with returnees. We need soft measures to re-integrate those who can be re-integrated, and tough measures to incarcerate those who need to be incarcerated. And there is the internet. I am very aware of free speech concerns, but we have reached a point where something needs to be done about the access of Jhadis to broadcasting tools. JM Berger makes a really good point about this when he argues that the question at stake is not in fact free speech, given that Twitter and Facebook are really like TV stations. Should these people have the right to voice their opinion? Of course! Should they also have the right to broadcast them? Well, I don't think so.

DIE ZEIT: Prisons are also a problem in regard to radicalization.

Hegghammer: And that is a true dillemma. You have three options, none of which is great: Put Jihadists in a prison together, and they will wind each other up. Spread them out, and you will have the risk of the radicals radicalizing other people. Third option: Solitary confinement. But that's inhumane. This dillemma is accentuated by the European tradition of short sentences. In the US, Jhadists get very long sentences. They die in prison or grow old there. In Europe, they will be back on the streets after a few years. For me, all this is a good argument for putting as few people in prison as possible.

DIE ZEIT: How do you prepare for day X? Can resiliance be learnt?

Hegghammer: That's almost impossible, because whether an attack has a unifying or polarizing effect, has to do with the target. And you have no control over that. Take Paris, for example: There is a lot of tension now, the country hasn't simply united after the attack. And that has to with the nature of the target. It was very controversial. When the Twitter-Hashtag „JeSuisCharlie“ came up, that kind of forced people to identify with that controversial target. And lo and behold, within hours you had alternative Hashtags like „JeSuisAhmed“ or „IamnotCharlie“. It was very different in Norway, when Breivik killed 77 people, because it is hard to disagree that killing children is bad. That made it much easier to stand together. 

Thomas Hegghammer is the director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment and an internationally renowned expert on Jihadist ideology, Foreign Fighters and Saudi Arabia. (Foto Credit: Christian Vinculado Tandberg / FFI)

** This interview was conducted by Yassin Musharbash for DIE ZEIT. A slightly edited and shortened German version of this interview was published in the current issue of DIE ZEIT which can be purchased online here. We have a cover story this week called "Living with Terror", apart from the interview you will find an in-depth-story on German reactions to the Paris attack and the Belgian arrests as well as a report from Belgium (and other good stuff). 

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