Fighting extremism in Europe

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Thursday, the 26th of November, 2020.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: The West has paid less attention to Islamic extremism in recent years.

That’s partly because deaths around the world from all acts of terror have declined four consecutive years. 

And that’s true in large part because terrorists haven’t carried out any large-scale attacks. In Europe, those decreased significantly after the Trump administration defeated the Islamic State terror group.

REICHARD: But recent attacks in France and Austria have served as a reminder that Europe’s battle against jihadism is not over. WORLD correspondent Jill Nelson reports now on how European leaders are rethinking their approach.

JILL NELSON: REPORTER: In late September, a 25-year-old man stabbed two people outside the office of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. It had just republished caricatures of Muhammad, an act punishable by death, according to Muslim extremists.

That created a domino effect: In mid-October, an 18-year-old beheaded a French middle school teacher who showed the caricatures in class. Two weeks later, a man stabbed and killed three people outside a church in the southern city of Nice.

AUDIO: [Shooting]

And in early November, a heavily armed man killed four people and wounded 23 when he opened fire on people dining at cafes in Vienna, Austria. 

These attacks were smaller in scale than those between 2015 and 2017 when the Islamic State militant group was at peak strength. During that time, more than 300 people died in seven different attacks in France, Germany, Belgium, England, and Spain. Islamic State claimed responsibility for all but one.

Daniel Pipes is president of the Middle East Forum and has met with counterterrorism experts across Europe. Pipes says the latest attacks, while less deadly, are still cause for concern.

PIPES: What I call jihadi violence is episodic. Every single example of it is a shock, but when you stand back and look at the general pattern, you go, yeah, a certain number of them per year is to be expected. 

Blaise Misztal agrees.

MISZTAL: The most troubling trend in what we’ve seen right now, which is the three attacks over the course of the past month in Paris, Nice and Vienna, is the lack of a trend. There’s really not many similarities between them.

Misztal is vice president for policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America and an expert on countering extremism. He says few lone wolf attacks are carried out in complete isolation.

In the past year, France has experienced seven Islamist extremist attacks. All of them were carried out by individuals previously unknown to the intelligence services. They did not use any sophisticated weapons and had no known ties to terrorist organizations. But it’s likely that many of the attackers made some contact with an organized group or accessed online propaganda.

These connections can be difficult to trace and are part of a wider set of problems. But Europe may be waking up to some of its failures. Mitzstal lists three.

First, many countries have failed to assimilate their Muslim populations. Daniel Pipes says that can create fertile ground for radicalization, especially in a country like France:

PIPES: France has the largest population of Muslims in both absolute and percentage terms. The French have a colonial history that is complex.

France has been a popular destination for radical Isalmists from abroad to peddle their brand of jihadism. And many French leaders have failed to identify the religious component in radicalization. But Misztal says that could be changing.

MISZTAL: I think one of the interesting things that you’ve seen come out of the attacks in France is attention is finally being paid to the fact that France allows foreign preachers to preach and teach at many of its mosques.

Second, Europe is facing an intelligence and security crisis. The Vienna attacker was previously in jail for attempting to join ISIS. He gained release after five months in a deradicalization program. But Austrian authorities did not keep a close eye on him, even after neighboring Slovakia warned he’d crossed the border and attempted to buy ammunition.

Europe’s third problem, according to Misztal, is its borders:

MISZTAL: It was relatively easy for the Nice attacker to come from Tunisia to Italy and then he was told to leave Italy and no one checked to see if he did. Instead he went to France where he perpetrated these attacks. 

And Daniel Pipes warns increased tension with Turkey could create a new wave of immigration into Europe.

PIPES: Turkey is home to several million Syrian migrants who would like to leave Turkey and go on to Europe, so they are bottled up there and the Turks can choose to make trouble by letting them out. And the Europeans are paying a large amount of money in order to keep the Turks from doing that.


French President Emmanuel Macron hopes to cut down on radical elements by asking Muslim leaders in his country to sign a charter that defines Islam as a religion, not a political movement. He also announced plans to double the country’s border forces. And he is in favor of increasing security around Europe’s external borders by creating a single asylum office among European Union countries.

Macron plans to present his proposal during an EU summit in December. Blaise Miszal says how European nations respond could be a determining factor in Europe’s battle against Islamist terror attacks.

MISZAL: There’s a variety of dynamics bleeding into Europe from the Middle East right now that are worrisome and it’s important to keep our eye on them and see how they evolve and what they mean for the U.S. as well.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Jill Nelson.

(Eric Gaillard/Pool via AP) French President Emmanuel Macron looks on as he speaks to the media near Notre Dame church in Nice, southern France, Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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