A Counter-Terrorism Strategy for the EU

The current threat of international Islamic terrorism endangers the European Project at its very core. Not only has it instigated fear, along with a constant feeling of uncertainty and insecurity, among the citizens of the EU; it has also dramatically impacted the political decision-making processes of the EU and its member states. In their attempt to address the security challenge posed by the threat of Islamic terrorism, counter-terrorism policies were too often conceived in a state of emergency, leading to emotionally based and quite often, panic-led measures, policies and practices, in an observable lack of cooperation and coordination between European intelligence services and agencies, and a lack of inclusion of non-state actors in the decision-making process. This situation has resulted in deeper fragmentation and ruptures within EU societies: the absence of a common EU response has weakened its power of attraction by nourishing a growing anti-EU sentiment and deepening mistrust amongst Member States and societies, thus feeding anti-EU discourse. The failure to address the refugee influx issue, the increasing number of terrorist attacks occurring on European soil participates in building a common state of fear, which counter-terrorism policies did not only failed to address, but contributed to increase by marginalising targeted communities, which created a breeding ground for youth radicalisation. A response to of terrorist groups that limits itself largely to the security realm will not suffice. The social and political impact of Islamic terrorism on both European societies, communities, and political decision-making have to be mitigated. Otherwise terrorism will continue affecting and threatening deeply an already fragile European Project.

A comprehensive, holistic European strategy is therefore direly needed. “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. “ Sun Tzu enlightened observation remains undoubtedly topical nowadays. Applied to counter-terrorism strategy, it appears clear that not only must we clearly understand the goals, strategy and tactics of Islamic terrorism today; but we must also try and reach a comprehensive knowledge of our identity, values, capabilities and expectations. It can be agreed that the inadequacy of current counter-terrorism strategies stems partly from a deep misunderstanding of Islamic terrorism’s actual goals, strategy, and ensuing tactics. This research project will therefore concentrate on the thorough analysis of contemporary Islamic terrorism’s explicit and implicit goals, in order to determine what adequate, effective and relevant counter-terrorism strategy should be promoted and implemented by the EU and its Member States.


Research outline

1. Global Strategy

What is ISIS strategy towards the “extinction of the gray zone”?

If we consider terrorism as a strategic instrument employed by terrorist groups to achieve strategic aims, then it becomes possible to translate Islamic “absolutist” goals in actual political aims. Drawing from this assumption, we will employ existing knowledge of ISIS goals and strategy, combined with a thorough analysis of ISIS statements and official declarations, in order to apply this strategic thinking to their quest towards the extinction of the gray zone, and deduce all instruments deployed in order to achieve the aforementioned strategy.

What is the actual impact of Islamic terrorism on European societies and political decision-making?

In the light of what Islamic terrorism want to achieve, what is the actual impact on European societies and political decision-making processes ? We will analyse how ISIS discourse and narrative, but also governmental answers to their threat impacts a wide range of essential actors : Muslim and non muslim communities and European as well as national political systems.

What should be a global EU strategy in counter-terrorism ?

Understanding the enemy’s aims and strategies is highly critical to design an appropriate counter-strategy. Drawing from conclusions and findings of the here-above research questions, we will suggest several possible holistic EU counter-terrorism strategy.

2. Instruments of the global Strategy

Building a new narrative to undermine Islamic terrorism’ discourse and impact

The impact of international terrorism is mainly conveyed through the media – whether traditional or pertaining to social media platforms. It therefore appears that one key issue of Islamic terrorism can be easiliy related to the fundamental problem of perception : how is ISIS narrative disseminated, how is it perceived, why and how does it persuade, how it manages to recruit amongst members of the Muslim communities, or discredit Western societies and political authority.  It is therefore absolutely essential to methodically analyse ISIS narrative, the way it is received and perceved by their target audience, and the material conditions that reinforce this very narrative. Research will rely on existing literature, interviews conducted with prominent thinkers and practictioners, as well as interviews with three types of actors involved in ISIS recruitment process : jihadi candidates, jihadist who came back from Syrian and Iraqi front, and families of those who left and did not return.

To improve the existing counter-narrative the theory of disengagement promises to be very useful. Modern Salafism is one of the fastest growing Islamic movements worldwide. But while media discourses and analysis focus mainly on Jihadi-Salafism, there are other non-violent strands of Salafism as well, some of which are opposed to the use of violence. Since the effects of current counter- radicalisation initiatives are at least debatable, it appears to be worth a try to incorporate Salafi anti-Jihadi narratives in those efforts.

How to improve intelligence collection, analysis and dissemination in order to support the development and implementation of a global counter terrorism strategy?

One main aspect involved in the prevention of a terrorist attack is intelligence collection and analysis. As Muslim communities in the EU are usually the target groups of ISIS narrative, herby serving as a recruit ground and hiding place for terrorist actors, they usually are the main targets of intelligence services. However, socially and politically isolating Muslim communities will backfire outside of the realms of policy-making, elections and political surveys and national security will be at risk due to such political campaigns. Radical Islamists have moved online in order to recruit, radicalise and organise themselves quicker than troops, people and ideas in the real world could ever be moved and shared. In the end, security services will have to rely on human intelligence, the support of Muslim communities and on their sources inside moderate and radical Islamic movements, societies or groups in Europe in order to thwart terrorist plots. In fact, they will need this support offline as much as they could currently use it online and due to the sheer amount of data that has been collected but never analysed. The question remains, if the current political isolation of a Muslim population (i.e. banning the Niqab or the Burka, campaigning against refugees) will yield more cooperative results or if policy-makers are currently working against the interest of their security services and in the end also against the interest of the people they represent and national security itself. It is therefore fundamental that a coherent system of intelligence collection is put in place, on community-based principles, thus avoiding specific targeting of communities – which leads to further radicalisation – and making the most of community cooperation.

How to improve information sharing between counter terrorism actors and implementation of counter terrorism strategies

Intelligence dissemination is the next step in the cycle of preventing a terrorist attack. If information is not interpreted and disseminated to the relevant actors it will not have the desired impact.  In light of the recent terrorist attacks as well as the geopolitical challenges Europe is currently facing, the need for a more efficient system of intelligence within the European Union has become evident. However, the question is not about creating a new operative intelligence agency on a European, i.e. supranational level, as such an institution would be rejected by a great majority of stakeholders. The key issue would be in contrast to optimize the existing structures in the EU and its member states and enhance the level of cooperation and particularly coordination, including news ways to implement intelligence recommendations more effectively on a European scale. As a consequence, the study will be based on interviews and discussions with experts including practitioners and scholars as well as on lessons learned from other global players, i.e. the US, Russian and Chinese intelligence communities in order to derive recommendations on how to reform the EU intelligence community. Special attention will be given to non-state actors and civil society and their role in intelligence and how their interaction with the state intelligence services can be improved. Furthermore in this chapter we will analyse how the efforts of different EU level member state level and non-state actors in the CT field can be better integrated to form a coherent strategy.


Research team

Sarra Ben Hamida is the project coordinator and has a dual bachelor degree in Political Science and Literature with Sciences Po and Université Panthéon Sorbonne. Sarra worked as a journalist for the magazine Mouvement specialized in contemporary and performative arts, as a project coordinator for the Tunisian NGO TAMSS (Tunisian association for management and social stability) and as a project manager support intern with the Catholic Relief Services in Lebanon. She graduated from the master of International Security at Sciences Po in 2016.
Contact: sarra.benhamida@webuildeurope.eu

Robert Lackner is a postdoctoral researcher at the Austrian Center for Intelligence Propaganda and Security Studies (ACIPSS) of the University of Graz. Before joining ACIPSS, he worked for UNODC, the European Commission and an international consulting firm in Vienna and studied History, German and English as well as American Studies at the University of Graz and at Sciences Po Paris. Robert has carried out several projects in the field of terrorism, resistance and exile studies as well as cultural history and has conducted research in Great Britain, Israel and the United States.

Ingo Mayr-Knoch is one of the founders of webuildeurope.eu. After doing his Bachelor in Business Management and Economics at Zeppelin University in Germany he founded the Startup DeinBus.de, which was the first company in Germany to offer long distance intercity coach transportation, breaking the monopoly of the Deutsche Bahn. The media hype that ensued after the Deutsche Bahn sued Deinbus.de unsuccessfully gave Ingo the possibly to gather considerable experience in the conduct of an information strategy for a private company. After selling his shares of the company, he studied International Security at Sciences Po PSIA specializing in Russia and the Post Soviet Space.

Ferdinand J. Haberl,

M.M.A. et LL.M., former war- and conflict documentarist operating in the Middle East, North- and East Africa and Southeast Asia. After having gained some field experience as a freelancer in Syria, Palestine, Somalia or the Southern Philippines, interviewing members of various rebel- and jihadi organisations, he decided to pursue further academic studies on the methodologies and workflows of paramilitary groups. He consequently obtained an M.A. degree in Security Studies (Brunel), an M.A. degree in Islamic Science (Vienna) and an LL.M. degree in Law (Edinburgh, with distinction), focusing on the legal aspects of terrorism and social media as a counterterrorism tool. Currently he is a doctoral candidate at the University of Vienna, where he researches jihadism and its ideology, cyberterrorism and jihadi (counter-) intelligence activities.

Alexander Weissenburger holds a Master in Middle East, Caucasus and Central Asian Security Studies from the University of St Andrews and did an internship at the Austrian Institute for International Relations. Currently he is finishing his Master’s thesis in Islamic Studies at the University of Vienna. Alexander has travelled widely in the Middle East, lived a year in Cairo and speaks Arabic. In his research he focuses on terrorism and radicalisation, Salafi ideology and religious minorities of the Middle East. In November 2016 Alexander will start to work as researcher and PhD candidate on a project on radicalisation in northern Yemen at the Austrian Academy of Science.