REVIEW: Angel Rabasa and Cheryl Benard’s ‘EuroJihad’

Militants raising the Islamic State flag at the entrance of an army base in Ninevah Province, Iraq
Militants raising the Islamic State flag at the entrance of an army base in Ninevah Province, Iraq / AP
December 7, 2014

Few political concerns are as troubling as that of European-based jihadism.

With thousands of European citizens now fighting for Salafi-Jihadist groups around the world, a storm of terror is gathering. Western security services fear that once these terrorists return home—and some already have—they may launch domestic attacks. With European Union passports offering easy travel globally, the threat is increasingly borderless.

In EuroJihad, Angel Rabasa, a political scientist at RAND, and Cheryl Benard, head of a Washington D.C.-based research agency, offer a thorough look inside European jihadism. Rich with case studies and supported by extensive statistical analysis, EuroJihad is a serious but accessible piece of research.

What’s immediately striking about EuroJihad is its avoidance of the casual political correctness of many discussions on the contemporary terrorist threat. For example, the authors note that while only a small minority of European Muslims support violent extremism, "even a support level of just 1 percent in a national Muslim community of 3.4 million (Germany) or 1 million (Spain) represents a substantial and potentially dangerous level." This assessment honestly describes the challenge that a small group of ideologically committed, technically proficient and mobilized individuals pose.

The authors spend much of EuroJihad assessing the backgrounds of different terrorists. They explain that in Britain, most terrorist suspects are young British-Pakistani men isolated from mainstream society. In France, the threat centers with young North African men. And in Germany, the threat spectrum is evolving to include elements of Germany’s large, but traditionally moderate, Turkish expatriate community.

The threat is diverse. The authors reference a German official’s statement that a significant number of European jihadists are middle class individuals who believe they deserve better from society. Other young men, however, are motivated by their desire to find gang-style "street cred" with their friends. Many European jihadists are active on public networking sites such as Facebook, seeking to broadcast what they regard as ‘purposeful courage’. The authors buttress this discussion with various statistical assessments—and their findings are interesting. In the United Kingdom, for example, they find "a substantial gap between education level (the majority had some college education) and employment (only a minority had skilled or professional jobs)." Correspondingly, they note, this education-fulfillment "gap may have created a sense of relative deprivation among members of this population".

As the authors explain, personal feelings of societal disenchantment can increase the susceptibility of someone to jihadist ideology, which focuses disappointment through the "prism of Islamist narratives of Western oppression of Muslims. These perceptions drive and justify the transition to violence." EuroJihad also considers the various physical locales—frequently, mosques and prisons—in which European jihadists find networks of direction. The authors explain that the United States, with its opportunity-responsibility centered culture, has largely (but not entirely) found insulation from extremist infection.

Rabasa and Benard also examine the Internet. They note that the Internet provides many "utilities" for jihadists, including recruiting, propaganda, and a nexus for the transmission of technical and physical terrorist training manuals (a major concern for western intelligence services). Perhaps most interestingly, the authors also outline how the Internet has "emancipated female activists by allowing them to communicate with male extremists without violating social and religious precepts."

The authors rightly pay special attention to the current conflict in Syria and Iraq. They note that for Salafi-Jihadists, there are distinct theological undertones to the geographic locale of the Syrian civil war. Believing themselves embarked on an apocalyptic battle, the Islamic State is strengthened in its aggression and lack of restraint. The authors also explain that where the expansion of al-Qaeda cells in Europe was (at least to some degree) prevented by U.S. special forces campaigns against al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State’s freedom of operations and its many European recruits pose an extreme near-term threat to the west.

EuroJihad challenges the reader with its dire appraisals of the European terrorist threat, and clarifies that in the short to medium term, European jihadism will continue to pose a major challenge. Nevertheless, pointing to increasing actions by some European governments to require stronger language and social skills from new immigrants, and the evolution of greater outreach and de-radicalization programs, the authors suggest that continental authorities are slowly waking up to the jihadist crisis.

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