Jihadist mobilisation in the West is not a new phenomenon. However, it has witnessed a substantial increase in recent years – especially after the sudden rise of the so-called Islamic State (IS) or Daesh, which proclaimed its “Caliphate” on 29 June 2014.
In recent years, the threat posed by IS in the West has been manifested in at least two main ways: on the one hand, the increase of jihadist attacks in the region and, on the other hand, the unprecedented flow of foreign fighters heading to the territory of the Caliphate.
The most visible and dramatic dimension of jihadist radicalization concerns terrorist violence. Western countries have witnessed a boost in the number of jihadist attacks perpetrated on their soil in recent years, especially after 2014.
According to ISPI’s original database, 79 terrorist attacks inspired by jihadist ideology were carried out in the West, in five years, between June 2014 and June 2019: 8 attacks in 2018, 27 attacks in 2017, 22 in 2016, 14 in 2015 and 6 in 2014. In the first half of 2019, at least 2 jihadist attacks were carried out. In total, the attackers were 102.
During the 2014-2019 wave, the most affected country was France (which saw 27 attacks on its territory) followed by the United States (20 attacks), the United Kingdom (9), Germany (8), Belgium (5), Canada (4), Austria, Denmark, Finland, Spain, and Sweden and the Netherlands (one attack each). These acts of violence resulted in a death toll of over 450 victims and about 2,000 injured.
The decline of the jihadist terrorist threat in the West after 2017 is even more evident in terms of lethality. In fact, the last incident that killed more than 5 people took place in October 2017 (with the Manhattan ramming attack).
If it is true that few attacks were carried out by full-fledged IS members who were acting under direct orders from the organization’s leadership, it is also true that, according to available information, the other attacks were perpetrated by individuals who had some form of connection to the Islamic State (or marginally to other jihadist groups) or, less often, were at least inspired by its extremist message.
Even if there is not always a close correspondence between claims and reality, it is worth mentioning that, according to the ISPI database, the Islamic State officially claimed responsibility for 28 attacks out of 79 (35%), while 50 attackers out of 102 (49%) expressly pledged allegiance to the organization.
In addition to these “completed” attacks, a significant number of plots have been thwarted by authorities. For example, according to recent research, over the 2014-2018 period, at least 41 “well-documented” jihadist terrorist plots (and an even greater number of vague plans) were foiled in Western Europe alone. Interestingly, “even though the number of attacks decreased in Europe in 2018, there was higher plot activity by jihadis in Europe last year than any given year before 2015, and several foiled plots were potentially very lethal”. Nearly all plots have been linked to IS.
Ultimately, terrorist attacks and, more generally, terrorist plots since 2014 confirm that the Islamic State has clearly been the protagonist of jihadist terrorism in the West.
As is well-known, another key phenomenon of the jihadist mobilisation in the West is the large wave of foreign fighters heading to IS-controlled territories. At a worldwide level, more than 40,000 individuals may have joined insurgent groups in the Caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Over 5,000 foreign fighters are estimated to hail from the West.
Departures of foreign fighters affected Western and, in particular, European countries in an uneven fashion. According to available estimates, France saw the largest number of “travellers” (around 1,900), followed by Germany (over 900), the United Kingdom (around 900), and Belgium (around 500).
In contrast, Southern European countries such as Italy and Spain have relatively modest national contingents, with 139 and 230/235 foreign fighters respectively (including a minority of non-IS affiliates), which means about 2 and 5 jihadist emigrants per one million people – compared to approximately 43 in Belgium).
A common fear relating to foreign fighters has to do with the so-called “blowback effect”: namely, the risk that a number of combatants may return to their home countries to conduct or at least support a terrorist attack; mujahidin may take advantage of the training, the experience, the knowledge, the connections and the social status acquired at the front to strike at home.
Among the 102 jihadists who carried out attacks in the West since 29 June 2014, 14 were former foreign fighters – 11 of them with the Islamic State. While representing a minority among perpetrators, many of them participated in particularly lethal attacks, such as the November 2015 massacre in Paris. Additionally, returnees may also be involved in support activities (indoctrination, logistical and/or financial assistance, etc.).
In general, the role of the Islamic State is less visible today in the West compared to a few years ago. However, the jihadist threat throughout the region is still serious.
In terms of organizational pull factors, the self-proclaimed Caliphate is no longer a powerful magnet in Syria and Iraq, but other armed conflicts in the Muslim world could have an impact, even more in places that may feature a Western military presence. Furthermore, the loss of IS’s territorial dimension (and its benefits) can reinforce its interest in the use of terrorism.
The jihadist message continues to be spread. The Islamic State has already proved that it can skillfully transform failures in the field into “successes” in propaganda. For example, the organization can develop the theme of “nostalgia” towards the lost utopia of the Caliphate. Probably great attention will still be devoted to evoking the many enemies of the organization, including precisely the Western “infidels”, in order to motivate and mobilize sympathizers and militants. Communication and propaganda on the web, including encrypted platforms, is once again essential. In fact the internet remains, along with prison, a crucial environment for jihadist radicalization in the West, even in a phase of apparent decline.
On the other hand, several pathways of radicalization, at least at an advanced stage, are based on offline social ties associated with offline clusters. The formation of these territorial hubs may take place around organized structures (militant Salafist groups, radical mosques, etc.), charismatic personalities or tight-knit groups of friends and/or relatives and can explain the uneven geographical distribution of radicalization levels both among countries among areas or cities within the same country.
In conclusion, some important pull factors appear to be less relevant nowadays, especially after the fall of the Caliphate in the “Syraq” area, but, in any case, many push factors are still at work and will hardly disappear soon. Furthermore, jihadism in the West has already shown a cyclical nature. For all these reasons, despite the strengthening of counter-terrorism measures, the jihadist threat in the West is probably destined to remain significant in the years to come.
 The ISPI database includes jihadist terrorist attacks carried out between 29 June 2014 (proclamation of the Caliphate) and 25 June 2019 in Europe (the 28 Member States of the European Union, plus Norway and Switzerland) and North America (Canada and the United States). See also Lorenzo Vidino, Francesco Marone and Eva Entenmann, Fear Thy Neighbor: Radicalization and Jihadist Attacks in the West, Report, ISPI / PoE-GWU / ICCT, June 2017.