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The European Union’s Response to Terrorism

Europe has been fighting domestic and international terrorism for decades. In fact, the European Union’s (EU) counter terrorism efforts predate the attacks of 9/11. Despite the EU’s successful fight against the traditional forms of political terrorism, its security services have underestimated the threat posed by militant Islam to the Western world. Only the tragic death of thousands on 9/11 opened people’s eyes to the changing threat, and further exposed the vulnerabilities of the modern, increasingly open and interdependent societies to highly organised terrorist groups. 

As an immediate reaction to the 9/11 attacks, the EU, implemented an “anti-terrorism action plan” (October 2001) followed by “The Framework Decision on Combating Terrorism” (June 2002). These increased the co-operation of Europe’s national governments within the EU, and with the rest of the world.

However, the attacks in Madrid (March 11, 2004) and London (July 7, 2005) which took more than 250 lives, have shown that European counter terrorism strategy is far from sufficient to meet the threat. In light of this, the EU introduced an updated strategy. Institutions such as Europol, previously dedicated to fighting international crime, now have the additional task of sharing intelligence and fighting terrorism. This article will shed light on the new developments, both on the part of the security services and of their adversaries. 

Historical overview

Historically, European security forces have had to deal with traditional terror groups. These groups can be divided into three major categories: the vestiges of political terrorism (November 17, New Red Brigades, etc.), separatist-irredentist terrorist groups (IRA, ETA, the National Liberation Front of Corsica, etc.) and foreign terrorist groups (Hamas, PKK, LTTE, etc.); the latter using Europe as their support base. All these groups are characterized by their hierarchical, pyramidal structure and centralised command system. Almost all groups have a regional or local operational agenda and use terrorism to target specific people or places, often giving previous warnings that result “only” in individual casualties.

For traditional terrorist groups, terrorism was primarily a means to attract the attention of the media, not to cause mass casualties. In the words of Brian Jenkins, an advisor to the RAND Corporation, they wanted “a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead”. Moreover, pragmatism and a degree of realism often brought the political wing of terrorist organisations to realize that terrorism was not the best means of achieving their aims-that they had a better chance of achieving their goals by political means. This, as well as the successful implementation of counter terrorist strategies, led to the decline of traditional terrorism over the past decade.

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) can be regarded as a prime example of a traditional terrorist group, satisfying all the above requirements. Between 1970 and 1996, the IRA was the best-armed and most experienced terrorist group in Western Europe.1 They were responsible for killing more civilians than any other terrorist group in Europe.2 The IRA focused primarily on its regional, ethno-separatist objectives in Northern Ireland, with the overall goal of forcing the British out of Northern Ireland and uniting the whole of Ireland under a single Republican government. To gather political support, raise money, and acquire weapons, the IRA undertook enormous efforts to establish a Diaspora network outside of Great Britain. After several decades of using terrorism as their main instrument to achieve their aims, the IRA and its political wing Sinn Fein signed the “Good Friday Agreement”, known also as “Belfast Agreement” on April 10, 1998. The IRA not only agreed to a cease fire, but also to find a peaceful solution to the conflict, which was reached in July 2005. 

The terrorist network

In recent years, most governments have faced an enemy that is best described as a loose cooperative of terrorist networks without the clearly defined, hierarchical structure and centralised control mechanism that characterizes traditional terrorist groups. The largest alliance of Islamic groups ever assembled is the World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders. A member of this alliance, the Al Qaeda (meaning “the base”) movement was founded in 1988 under the leadership of Osama Bin Laden to function both ideologically and operationally at local, national, regional and global levels. Through its widely disperse cells and affiliates, Al Qaeda maintains a global reach in over 60 countries.

Prior to 9/11, Al Qaeda saw its mission as the training of as many operatives as possible and thus successfully staying off the radar screen of most intelligence agencies. However, Al Qaeda had to adapt to the changes brought about by “Operation Enduring Freedom” (October 2001) when allied forces gathered to fight the “Axes of Evil”. This offensive successfully destroyed Al Qaeda’s training bases along with command and control headquarters in what Dr. Rohan Gunaratna once described as the “terrorist Disneyland” of Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda’s horizontal networked structure assured the continuation of what militant Islam views as a defensive Jihad. While some of operational capabilities where lost, Osama Bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri continued to provide the ideological and religious inspiration, while their followers and affiliate terrorist groups continued to carry out the actual attacks. The result is today there are “many Al Qaedas rather than the single Al Qaeda of the past”3. These ad-hoc groups consist of like-minded individuals, often Muslim converts, with no prior involvement in terrorism. Noteworthy is the new trend of extremists with (petty) criminal records being involved in terrorist attacks. Such for example, was the case in the train bombings in Madrid.4 These adversaries are arguably more difficult to detect and to counter.

Al Qaeda’s core ideology is the notion of global jihad against “apostate” Muslim rulers and the “Crusaders and Zionists” such as the US and its allies. This Jihad will only end with the formation of a pan-Islamic Caliphate. Al Qaeda sees this struggle not as one of weeks or months, or even years, but of decades. Therefore, its ideology is absolutist and non-negotiable. This reduces the possible means of finding a political solution to nearly zero. Al Qaeda’s fatwas (religious rulings) call for total war-including the use of chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear agents-against its enemies.5 Their tactics typically make use of coordinated, near-simultaneous suicide attacks, using traditional means, such as car bombs, to cause mass casualties. At the same time, it is an organization that often thinks outside the box, as seen in its transformation of hijacked airplanes into missiles in the 9/11 attacks.

All of this points towards a change in the traditional strategies; now terrorists want not only “a lot of people watching,” but also “a lot of people dead”.

A wake-up call

While our understanding of Al Qaeda in general has grown enormously over the past five years, our security services have found neither sufficient nor effective measures to protect their citizens. For many years, most Europeans, based on the absence of any attacks, thought they were immune from the rising threat. However, since the Millennium, Europe has witnessed three major terrorist incidents executed by militant Islamic groups and accompanied by mass casualties. This has made it obvious that Europe is no longer only a support-base for the terrorist groups to launch attacks outside the EU, but has itself become a target. Following are some of the more prominent incidents:

  • New Year’s Eve 2000 – Only the fortuitous actions of the police in France, Germany, and Italy prevented Al Qaeda from launching its first attack on European ground at the Christmas market in Strasbourg, France.
  • March 11, 2004 – the simultaneous bombings of four packed commuter trains in Madrid, Spain took the lives of 191 people and injured more than 1,900. The attack was executed by a group of North African immigrants who were inspired by Al Qaeda’s ideology.
  • November 2004 – Theo Van Gogh was murdered by a seemingly well-integrated dual Dutch and Moroccan citizen, Mohammed Bouyeri. An investigation by the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) has shown that Bouyeri was part of the Hofstad Group, a militant Islamic cell of less than 20 members.
  • July 7, 2005 – four coordinated suicide bombings struck London’s public transport system killing 56 people and injuring some 700.
  • July 21, 2005 – four attempted bomb attacks disrupted part of London’s public transport.

In addition, between September 2001 and December 2004, European security services arrested 700 suspected members of Al Qaeda. In the same time frame 3,000 members were arrested worldwide.6

As 9/11 opened the eyes of a sleeping American nation, Europe needed the devastating attacks of Madrid in 2004 to finally push the EU to launch intensive counter terrorist activities. Following the London attacks, further changes and reconfigurations were introduced.

The EU “Action Plan”

The latest EU Counter-Terrorism “Action Plan,” as approved by the Council of Justice minister in December 2005, strives to strike a balance between liberty and security.7 The EU vows “to combat terrorism globally while respecting human rights, and make Europe safer, allowing its citizens to live in an area of freedom, security and justice.”8 To this end, all EU member states have ratified the “UN Convention against Torture” and have pledged to uphold it at home and abroad.

To ensure democratic accountability, the European Council will review its counter terrorism strategy once every six months. Moreover, the council, EU Commission, and EU Parliament will monitor the “Action Plan” on a regular basis and meet at least once per presidency to consider progress and promote transparency. European counter terrorism is based primarily on four pillars: prevention, protection, pursuit and response. 


The EU is responsible for preventing people from turning to terrorism and striving to keep the next generation of terrorists from emerging. This is done by tackling the root causes which can lead to radicalisation and recruitment into terrorism. Generally, the root causes of terrorism is seen by the EU to be poverty, autocratic governance, rapid but unmanaged modernisation, and the lack of political and economic prospects and educational opportunities. While in general these factors are not present within the EU, they might be present in individual segments of the population, such as Muslim communities in Europe. Currently, over 23 million Muslims reside in 25 member states of the EU9. This close-knit immigrant population is far from integrated into European society. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the European countries to prevent radicalization that can lead to civil disorder. However, the Islamist threat to Europe is often still perceived as a “migrant problem” on the part of the political elite.

To prevent further radicalisation and to successfully counter terrorist propaganda, incitement, and recruitment (especially through the internet), the EU continued to develop co-operation with countries linked to terrorist training in addition to initiating communication with religious communities. As part of the overall counter terrorist strategy, the EU works to ensure that voices of mainstream opinions prevail, in addition to promoting good governance, engaging in conflict resolution, human rights and democracy, as well as education and economic prosperity.10

Protection and Pursuit

As a key element of its counter terrorism strategy, the EU has vowed to strengthen the protection of key targets and critical infrastructure in order to reduce their vulnerability to an attack. This is in addition to disrupting terrorist activities and the pursuit of terrorists across borders. However, since the EU is not a federal state, it cannot carry out these activities in place of its member states (which still have the primary responsibility for combating terrorism), but can only co-ordinate their actions.

The EU Commission plays an important role in arriving at and improving common European standards, such as a common border and transport security strategy. The Schengen Information System (SIS) already stores data on people wanted for arrest, those to be refused entry into the EU, missing persons, and people to be put under surveillance. This, together with the new improvements in security implemented in EU passports (with biometric data) and the requirement that all visitors need computer-readable identification cards, helps the EU better protect its borders. The new EU External Borders Agency (FRONTEX), founded in 2005, co-ordinates between member states providing training for border guards and carrying out risk assignments. Currently, there are two further proposals under consideration: the creation of a single unit of external border guards, and the extension of police powers of surveillance and the pursuit of suspects in border areas.

In an attempt to impede the activities of terrorist groups and disrupt their support networks, the EU member states recognized the need to boost the exchange of information between law enforcement agencies. Several institutions which formerly had the task of fighting international crime now have the additional task of sharing intelligence and fighting terrorism. In addition to Europol, which coordinates of intelligence and investigative support of law enforcement agencies and Eurojust, which brings together Europe’s public prosecutors and investigating judges, European counter terrorist experts and intelligence services have joined forces and created a Situation Center (SitCen). Its job is to provide intelligence analyses and to co-ordinate their strategies in order to fight the new wave of terrorism.

The introduction and implementation of the European arrest warrant in January 2004 has significantly improved the extradition process of (potential) terrorists. This is the second major reform since the EU Convention on Extradition (1996), which forced member states to depart from their tradition of refusing the extradition of terrorists on political grounds. The European evidence warrant creates a standard form warrant for obtaining objects, documents, and data in cross-border cases.

Knowing that terrorists need money to prepare and carry out attacks, the EU again bolstered its attempts to tackle terrorist financing and money laundering in September 2005. One of the measures was to require that every transaction above EUR 10,000 be reported by the bank involved.


The EU acknowledges that it cannot reduce the risk of terrorist attacks to zero. Therefore, the EU is taking steps to improve its preparedness to manage mass casualty attacks and minimise their consequences by improving capabilities and coordination of responding forces. 


While the EU has taken significant measures to improve its counter terrorism capabilities, it still faces some severe problems. Firstly, since the EU is not a federal state, and lacks the mandate to fight terrorism, it cannot take action in the place of its member states, but can only co-ordinate their actions. Thus, the EU still lacks a single robust, integrated and autonomous counter terrorism force. Secondly, joint European agencies such as Europol rely on member states for their intelligence. However, as Dr. Paul Wilkinson states, the respected national governments often share only “sanitized” intelligence.11 In his opinion, this is due to the fact that intelligence services and their political leaders are reluctant to provide access to their secret sources. Moreover, security agencies often fear that other countries might leak the information or might take action on the basis of the information given to them contrary to the interests of the providing country. These are merely two examples of the many problems the EU is currently facing.

In conclusion, more has to be done to sufficiently counter the threat posed by internationally operating terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda. It is important to note that a successful European counter terrorism strategy is one that thinks and plans ahead, addressing the threats likely to be posed by the next generation of terrorists.


  • Bruce Hoffman, The Changing Face of Al Qaeda and the Global War on Terrorism, Routledge, Volume 27, November-December 2004
  • Richard English, Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA, Macmillan 2003
  • US Congressional Research Service, “Report on Al Qaeda”, August 2005
  • Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner”, London 2001
  • Rohan Gunaratna, “Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror”, Hurst&Co, 2002
  • BBC News Service, “The New Al-Qaeda: the Madrid attack”, 2005 
  • Council of the European Union, “The European Union Counter-Terrorism Strategy”, November 30, 2005
  • Salamm, “Immigration to the West: The Muslim presence in Europe” 
  • EU Counter-Terrorism Co-ordinator Gijs de Vries, ICT Conference Sept. 2005
  • Paul Wilkinson, “International Terrorism: the changing threat and the EU’s response”, Chaillot Paper N. 84, Oct. 2005


1Richard English, Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA, Macmillan 2003

2 Paul Wilkinson, “International Terrorism: the changing threat and the EU’s response”, Chaillot Paper N. 84, Oct. 2005

3 Bruce Hoffman, The Changing Face of Al Qaeda and the Global War on Terrorism

4 BBC, The New Al-Qaeda: the Madrid attack

5 Zawahiri “Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner”

6 US Congressional Research Service, Report on Al Qaeda, August 2005

7 Council of the European Union, The European Union Counter-Terrorism Strategy, November 30, 2005

8 Ibid


10 Council of the European Union, The European Union Counter-Terrorism Strategy, November 30, 2005

11 Paul Wilkinson, “International Terrorism: the changing threat and the EU’s response”, Chaillot Paper N. 84, Oct. 2005