Jihadi terrorists in Europe, their characteristics and the circumstances in which they joined the jihad: an exploratory study, Edwin Bakker
Much has been published about Islamist or jihadi terrorism in recent years. In particular the Al-Qaeda network has been studied in detail. Less attention has been given to specific characteristics of jihadi terrorists and the circumstances in which they joined the violent jihad.
The latest Clingendael Security Paper, ‘Jihadi terrorists in Europe’, aims to contribute to a better understanding of the individuals and networks that have been behind jihadi terrorist activities in Europe (31 foiled and ‘successful’ plots and attacks between September 2001 and September 2006). To this end, it identifies about 250 terrorists and their networks, and investigates their characteristics and the circumstances under which they joined the violent jihad.
The study builds upon the work of Marc Sageman – ‘Understanding terror networks’, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. In his research, Sageman investigated the biographies of 172 individuals involved in the global Salafi network in the 1990s and the years until 2003, when the role of the central staff of Al-Qaeda was still very strong.
Partly as a result of the global fight against terrorism, the shape and nature of jihadi terrorism has changed. The investigations into the Madrid, Amsterdam and London attacks did not show a clear link with Al-Qaeda. The same holds for most of the recently discovered plots and failed attacks in Europe. Many jihadi terrorists in Europe appear to have turned into ‘self-organised’ and ‘self-recognised’ groups.
These new developments call for specific questions regarding present-day jihadi terrorists in Europe: are these groups and individuals very different from global Salafi terrorists; or are the circumstances in which they joined the jihad fundamentally different from those in which these Salafis joined this fight?
Based on Sageman’s methodology, the Clingendael study examines individuals and networks involved in jihadi terrorist activities in Europe since 2001. Next, the characteristics of these European jihadi terrorists are compared with those of the sample of Sageman’s 172 global Salafi terrorists.
The study concludes that most of the networks differ in size, target selection, geographical background, and other variables. However, within networks there is homogeneity. Members of the network often are about the same age and come from the same places. This may be explained by the way these networks are formed, which often is through social affiliation. Many consist of people that are related to each other through kinship or friendship.
The analysis of the characteristics of the 242 individual jihadi terrorists leads to the following general picture. They are mostly single males that are born and raised in Europe; they are not particularly young; they are often from the lower strata of society; and many of them have a criminal record. Given the fact that more than 40 percent of them were born in Europe and an additional 55 percent have been raised in European countries or are long-term residents, the label ‘home-grown’ is very appropriate to this group.
If we look at the circumstances in which these individuals became involved in jihadi terrorist activities, a picture emerges of networks including friends or relatives that do not seem to have formal ties with global Salafi networks; that radicalise with little outside interference; and that do so in the country in which they live, often together with family members or friends.
Comparing the sample of the European group with that of Sageman’s 172 members of global Salafi networks leads to the conclusion that European jihadi terrorists are rather different from Sageman’s global Salafi terrorists. This holds in particular for age, family status, and socioeconomic and geographic background. However, the circumstances in which these global Salafi terrorists joined the jihad are not fundamentally unlike those in which the jihadi terrorist in Europe joined the terrorist struggle to further Islamist ideology. In both cases social affiliation plays an important role in joining the jihad.