European Counter terrorism and the revival of “old” extremisms

the Finnish Institute of International Affairs · 26.04.2012 09:30 - 11:30

European Counter terrorism and the revival of “old” extremisms

For long Islamic radicalism has dominated the debates on extremism. However, the massacre in Norway in July 2011 that was motivated by a new type of right-wing extremist ideology and risen anarchist/extreme left activism in many countries have justified the following questions: Are the “old” left and right extremism reviving or are we experiencing something new and different? Can these forms of extremism lead to terrorist action? Are European counter terrorism measures up to date with the current threats? Have the measures been effective and rightly focused? The aim of the seminar is to discuss these questions from the Northern European point of view.

In the first part of the seminar, Astrid Bötticher from the University of Hamburg is discussing the revival of the left-wing extremism and doctor Helene Lööw from the Uppsala University talking about the Nordic right-wing radicalism.

The second part of the seminar is focused on the current European counter terrorism praxis and its effectiveness. First the EU Commission Head of Crisis Management and the Fight against Terrorism Olivier Luyckx describes the current praxis of counter terrorism and second, professor Marieke de Goede from the University of Amsterdam is assessing the effectiveness of the taken measures.

Chair: Dr. Teemu Sinkkonen, researcher, The Finnish Institute of International Affairs


Program of the seminar:

9.30 Opening of the Seminar: FIIA director Teija Tiilikainen

9.35 Is ideological extremism in Europe reviving?

– Astrid Bötticher (University of Hamburg): Revival of Anarchist/extreme left radicalism?

– Helene Lööw (Uppsala University): Nordic right-wing extremism

10.05 Q&A’s

10.20 European Counter terrorism cooperation and its effectiveness

– Olivier Luyckx (EU Commission Head of Crisis Management and the Fight against Terrorism): European Counter terrorism praxis, is enough being done?

– Marieke de Goede (University of Amsterdam): Effectiveness of the European Counter terrorism policies

11.00 Comment: Leena Malkki (University of Helsinki)

11.10 Q&A’s

11.30 End of the open seminar


The first speaker of the seminar was Ms Astrid Bötticher. She discussed the question whether ideological left-wing extremism is currently reviving in Europe. Firstly, the concept of left-wing extremism is very inaccurate. It forms an umbrella, under which one can place a variety of ideologies. For instance communism and anarchism are considered left-wing ideologies, even if they have a very different understanding on numerous issues, such as the amount of state involvement needed.

In Germany, a current programme fighting extremism has combined the fight of left-wing extremism and the fight against violent Islamism. This programme worked on the basis of very little knowledge on the phenomenon it was opposing, and turned out to be very costly and very inefficient. The German example shows how important it is to do research on extremism in order to fight in efficiently. Thus before talking about the means of battle, it should be discussed and analysed what it is that needs to be battled.

The most efficient means of fighting left-wing extremism is the stimulation of social interaction. Should violence take place, the events should not be hidden under a cape of secrecy, on the contrary, they should be brought into bright daylight. Especially the victims need to be seen, heard and most importantly, presented as a part of society, as connected to other people. Anarchists are especially dependent on public opinion, and their cause can be hurt by gossip.

The second speaker was Dr Helene Lööw who gave an insight to the current right-wing extremism. She underlined that the right-wing groups also vary in nature, in their aims and ideologies and in their means of action. Often the parliamentary groups are not tolerated by the most militant fractions, they might even become their target as part of the political “elite”. The specific groups are also within themselves constantly undergoing a debate over their strategies varying from open violence or terrorism to parliamentary action. Dr Lööw also pointed out that these movements and ideologies, both on the left and on the right, had not disappeared, they have just been dormant. They follow a certain pattern including a period of build up, a second stage where rhetoric related to the ideology gets more common in the public sphere, and finally a point of culmination when some groups will also act upon the ideology. After the period of overt action, the ideology witnesses a decline and finally becomes dormant again.

Today all around Europe small white supremacist groups that are under constant ideological change are forming. Their organisation is based on camaraderie, and thus they represent leaderless resistance. These groups are moving out into smaller communities where they establish themselves. In big cities it is more difficult to operate, and as the groups are territorial by nature, in small rural areas they can acquire more control over the area. They benefit from the current economic crisis, and create an alternative social security system in problematic areas where civil society networks are no longer present. This way they can be seen as providers of help and assistance in the “forgotten” communities. The groups are also involved in confrontations for instance with anarchists.

A new form of movement, which can be classified under the right-wing groups, is the counter jihadist movement which has also been forming in the recent years. This movement consists of a variety of people with different backgrounds. It brings together for instance fundamentalist Christians, white supremacists that have left their entourage, as well as apolitical people. It is hard to predict the future of this movement.

Another visible phenomenon on the right-wing extremist scene is the consequences of tragedy in Norway. Similar incidents have been taking place on a smaller scale around Europe, and a successful terrorist attempt such as the one of July 22nd has already caused some copycat attempts. From a historical perspective it can be predicted that it most likely will still trigger similar cases.

The third speaker Mr Olivier Luyckx presented the European counter terrorism practice. The counter terrorism policy in the Union is a relatively new thing, triggered by the terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001. It is also a field of policy where the responsibility lays within the member states as the European Union itself does not have its own police forces, prosecution or courts. Thus the competence in counter terrorism matters is shared, the EU works together with and in support of the member states. The EU does not have an operational or tactical role, it stays on the strategic level and acts upon the requests of the member states proposing policies and offering instruments for their work. Since the adoption of the Lisbon treaty, institutional context within which the EU works, has changed radically and brought justice and home affairs to the core of EU competencies.

The EU’s counter terrorism strategy that was adopted in 2005, borrowed both from the member states with experience on terrorism, as well as from the UN. The core of the strategy is prevention, protection, prosecution and response. The EU’s role in counter terrorism is proposing new legislation and bringing member states’ best practices together. In 2002, a common definition of terrorism was adopted by the Union. Prior to this many members did not have any terrorism specific legislation.

Legislation is however not the main instrument. The Union also proposes new policies and tries to strategically form a common approach for all the member states. These ideas have been formulated into the Internal Security Strategy, which is the first EU doctrine on internal security presenting the main threats and challenges, and suggesting a common response to these. The Union also acts in support of more hands on work, detection and research projects concerning counter terrorism.

The first element of the EU’s strategy is prevention. This includes issues such as tracking down the financing of terrorism and freezing assets of suspected terrorists. However, the freezing of assets is still currently an element that is not functioning properly.

The EU is also working against radicalisation with its Radicalisation Awareness Network. However, the bulk of responsibility as well as a bulk of means lay within the member states. The RAN is aimed at enabling the work of first liners who have the best means to stop radicalisation. These first liners include local police, trade unions, probation officers, religious organisations… The aim is to provide them with the opportunity to meet each other and share experiences and best practices. The Network is not a substitute to the national or even EU action, but it is a key complement. It is also important to try to mobilise the victims and help them conceptualise what they have gone through to the possible future radicals and violent extremists.

The next element of the strategy, protection, consists of more hard security related issues such as the protection of critical infrastructure, and the preparedness against chemical, biological, radioactive and nuclear threats.

The next step is to instill a risk management practice on the EU level and spread a common understanding of threats. It is vital to exchange information on the level of the Union, and to bring together the policies of individual member states. This is crucial especially after the adoption of the article 222, the solidarity clause which binds the states to a level of mutual assistance at the event of a terrorist attack.

The last speaker, Dr Marieke de Goede followed up on Mr Luyckx’s presentation by evaluating the EU’s counter terrorist practice. She underlined the unpredictable nature of terrorism, and the fact that not enough historical and statistical material exists to make predictions on terrorism. The EU however, has been concentrating on early intervention. The precautionary measures act on dangers that are quite unknown and unpredictable. In addition, the evaluation of precaution is difficult. The traditional cost-benefit analysis is not applicable, firstly because in case the measures do have an impact, terrorist acts do not take place. Second, should there be a terrorist incident, the cost of losing a human life or the injury is not possible to calculate. Third, due to the secrecy in issues relating to countering terrorism, even if a means to measure effectiveness did exist, its results would not be public. A fourth problem is the fact that most counter terrorist measures have to be weighed against the civil liberties they restrict which adds to the difficulty of measuring.

The EU counter terrorism policies have been too focused on the new forms of terrorism. The preparedness for jihadist attacks has conflicted with the scale and means of recent attacks, and has left the Union in a situation where an adaption of its policies will be necessary. The logic of early intervention and the societal engagement of front line workers have their benefits, but also some disadvantages. These policies implicitly carve out suspect communities, and there is a danger that with this suspicion some communities feel more targeted. Also it is often difficult to draw the thin line between radicalism and healthy political protest. Further, as policies in member states vary noticeably, it is unclear what happens to reports of suspicious behaviour as well as all the other data collected and how they can be further used.

The terrorism financing tracking taken into use by the EU is a programme that has an ambition to act before the violence. It is an American programme, which was initiated by the CIA and the United States treasury. The programme was only made public in 2006, and has increasingly become a part of European security praxis. This programme has also been suggested to be used against organised crime in Europe. The open questions regarding the tracking of suspected terrorist financing, mostly consider its ad hoc basis and the role of private companies in European security as a whole. Its effectiveness is also difficult to assess and evaluate due to the lack of transparency. Additionally, the issue of proportionality is of concern, as large amounts of data are provided to the United States. An additional filtering done on the EU soil could lessen the concerns regarding this. The key question in all the EU measures that relate to security is how to address new threats while staying true to the Union’s core values?

The comments were made by Dr Leena Malkki. She further analysed the core issues related to countering terrorism in Finland. Finland is currently drafting the new programme for internal security, which is also tackling the issue of violent extremisms. Finland in its history has been successful in absorbing extremist tendencies and political protest. Thus Finland can learn from its own history in preparing for the current threats. The Finnish tradition of policing protest has been a moderate tendency and a kind of cold headedness. There has been reluctance in the use of the term terrorism, even if some incidents also on Finnish soil could have been labelled as such. It is important to acknowledge the strength of the word and decide upon its use in official communication. With the adoption of EU legislation certain deeds have legally defined as terrorism, so today there is less moving space in this regard nationally.

The Dutch example from the 1970’s of a liberal climate where almost all deeds easily classified as terrorism are called politically motivated activism instead, has apparently had a major de-radicalising effect. Thus the key question in Finland is how to implement the new policies. It has to be considered if there is such a thing as too early prevention? Furthermore, a lot of attention has been put on what we are fighting against, but not what we are trying to protect. The trust towards the police and other authorities is something that is easier to keep than to regain.