This essay is part of a 3-part series. Click here for part 1. Click here for part 3.

Part II: Comparing European Terrorist Waves

Modern terrorism has been part of European history since the end of the 19th century. Following David Rapoport, there have been four transnational waves of terrorism: the Anarchist (1880s-1920s); the National-Liberationist (1910s-1970s); the Neo-Marxist (1970s-1980s); and finally what he labels the Religious (1970s-present, engulfing right-wing Christian and Jewish extremism, and Jihadi violence). While I am reluctant to use the term “religious,” the classification is useful in order to historically outline periods of non-state political violence. Waves should be analyzed as cycles of terrorist activities with several expansionist and deflationist phases in each period. Similar ideologies and motives, a set of tactics, and cooperation among different organizations at an international level are what define each wave. They also tend to overlap, with the subsequent cycle starting while the previous one starts to decline. Lastly, common traits among organizations within a wave do not preclude the simultaneous activities of different types of terrorist groups. Neo-fascist Ordine Nuovo in Italy and Secret Army Organization (OAS) in France were operational, and extremely lethal, during the predominantly Neo-Marxist wave. Anti-immigrant extreme-right groups, such as Nationalist Socialist Underground (NSU) in Germany, were active during the current so-called “religious” wave.

It seems, then, that Europe is currently in a new expansionist phase of this latest cycle of terror. Putting aside the isolated case of the El Descanso restaurant bombing in Madrid in 1985 by the Lebanese Islamic Jihad, Jihadi violence reached Europe in late 1994 when the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) hijacked an Air France flight departing from Algiers with the aim of crashing it over the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The group later carried a series of bombings in central Paris in 1995-1996, but was eventually dismantled. The second stage begun after 9/11, and was headlined by Al Qaeda from 2004 until 2010. The years 2011-2013 witnessed a strong decline in jihadi terrorist activity in Europe (this does not mean that there were no longer any plots, but rather that only a small number of operations reached the executing stage). There are exceptions, such as the Frankfurt shooting in 2011 targeting US soldiers, the suicide bombing in Burgas, Bulgaria, directed against Israeli tourists in 2012, and the 2012 Toulouse attacks against French soldiers and a Jewish community center. Only the latter attack was connected to Al Qaeda.

The Brussels’s Jewish Museum attack in May 2014 is the first incident of this new expansive phase. Since then, there have been a total of 50 acts by IS and Al Qaeda, which have reported a total of 394 casualties (this number includes the 42 perpetrators). If we also take previous GIA, Al Qaeda, or similar attacks, since 1994, then the number goes up to 67 incidents with a total of 673 deaths (including 54 perpetrators). Yet, if we take all terrorist attacks that have happened between 1994-2017, following the Global Terrorism Database of the University of Maryland, and we include far-right nativist ones, nationalists, and other types, then we have a total of 2,117 incidents and 846 deaths. The range of types of acts goes from vandalizing Jewish cemeteries by Neo-Nazis in Germany to the London transportation system attacks in 2005. The beginning of this latest wave overlapped with the final declining phase of Nationalist and Neo-Marxist waves.

Major Terrorist Incidents in EU and Associated Countries 1994-2017:*

  • December 24th 1994: Hijacking of Air France Flight 8969, GIA: 7 killed
  • February 25th 1995: Roma camp in Austria bombed by neo-Nazi group: 4 dead
  • July 25th 1995: Bombing at Notre Dame subway station in Paris, GIA: 8 killed
  • February 9th 1996: London Docklands bombing, IRA: 2 killed
  • June 15th 1996: Manchester bombing, IRA: 200 injured
  • December 3rd 1996: Port Royal metro station bombing in Paris, GIA: 4 deceased
  • August 15th 1998: Omagh bombing in Northern Ireland, IRA: 29 fatalities
  • March 11th 2004: Madrid Atocha bombings, Al Qaeda: 192 fatalities
  • July 7th 2005: London transport system attack, Al Qaeda: 57 fatalities
  • December 6th 2006: Madrid-Barajas Airport Terminal 4 bombing, ETA: 2 dead
  • June 30th 2007: Glasgow airport attack, Al Qaeda: 1 fatality
  • December 1st 2007: Shooting of Spanish Civil Guards in France, ETA: 2 dead
  • December 11th 2010: Stockholm suicide bomber, Al Qaeda sympathizer: 1 dead
  • March 2nd 2011: Frankfurt Airport shooting, Al Qaeda sympathizer: 2 dead
  • July 22nd 2011: Norway attacks, far-right nativist: 77 dead
  • March 20th 2012: Toulouse and Montauban shooting, Al Qaeda: 7 fatalities
  • July 18th 2012: Burgas Bus suicide bombing, Hezbollah: 7 fatalities
  • May 22nd 2013: Murder of Lee Rigby in London, Al Qaeda sympathizers:1 dead
  • May 24th 2014: Brussels Jewish Museum attack, IS: 4 fatalities
  • December 21st 2014: Dijon automotive attack, IS inspired
  • December 22nd 2014: Nantes automotive attack, IS inspired: 1 fatality
  • January 7th-9th 2015: Île de France attacks, IS and Al Qaeda: 20 dead
  • February 14-15 2015: Copenhagen shooting, IS: 3 dead
  • September 17th 2015: Berlin stabbing, IS inspired: 1 dead
  • November 13th 2015: Paris attacks, IS: 137 fatalities
  • March 22nd 2016: Brussels suicide bombings, IS: 35 fatalities
  • June 14th 2016: Magnanville stabbings, IS lone operative: 3 fatalities
  • July 14th 2016: Nice truck attack, IS inspired: 87 fatalities
  • July 18th 2016: Würzburg machete attack, IS lone operative: 1 dead
  • July 24th 2016: Ansbach bombing, IS lone operative: 1 dead
  • July 26th 2016: Normandy church attack, IS: 3 fatalities
  • December 19th 2016: Berlin Christmas market attack, IS: 12 dead
  • March 22nd 2017: Westminster Bridge car ramming, IS inspired: 7 dead
  • April 7th 2017: Stockholm truck ramming, IS inspired: 5 dead
  • April 20th 2017: Champs-Élysées shooting, IS: 2 dead
  • May 22nd 2017: Manchester Arena suicide bombing, IS: 22 fatalities
  • June 3rd 2017: London Bridge and Borough Market marauding, IS: 11 dead
  • June 19th 2017: London Finsbury Park attack, far-right nativist: 1 dead
  • June 19th 2017: Champs-Élysées car explosion, IS: 1 dead
  • June 20th 2017: Brussels Central Station suicide bombing, IS: 1 dead
  • June 30th 2017: Killing of elderly couple in Linz, Austria, IS inspired: 2 dead
  • July 28th 2017: Hamburg supermarket knife attack, IS inspired: 1 dead
  • August 17th-18th 2017: Barcelona and Cambrils ramming attacks, IS: 23 dead
  • August 18th 2017: Stabbing attack in Turku, Finland, IS inspired: 2 dead

*Sources: Data gathered from Global Terrorism Database; University of Maryland; and various Press Reports. Fatalities include killed perpetrators during the incidents

If we only rely on this partial landscape, it would seem that terrorist attacks within the EU are a novelty, brought by a foreign and anti-Western ideology that disrupted a mostly peaceful region. However, absence of violence is a historical anomaly and not the normal state of affairs. If we take the previous terrorist wave, which was mostly Neo-Marxist and Nationalist/Separatist starting in 1969 with expansionist and declining phases until 1994, then the image of a terrorist-free Europe starts to disappear. The total number of terrorist attacks from 1969 until 1994 was 15,702; this of course includes unperceived acts of violence, such as explosives in trashcans, to more complex operations, like the Bologna train station bombing in 1980.

In order to compare cycles of terrorism, we should be looking at the number of fatalities. Between 1969 and 1994, the total number of deaths was 6,049 people. If we only consider the period with most fatalities, between 1969 and 1988, then we have a total of 4,914 deaths. Deaths per year dropped below 175, between 1989 and 2003, and totaled 1,135 victims. Far-right or far-left wing groups, and national separatists perpetrated all attacks between 1969 and 1990. Between 1991 and 2003 there’s a sharp decrease of left extremism and the emergence of Jihadi anti-colonial terrorism, particularly the actions by GIA in France between 1993-1996. Finally, from 2004 until today there’s an almost total disappearance of nationalist separatist violence, superseded by both nativist European and Jihadi terrorism.

Major Terrorist Incidents in Western Europe 1969-1993:*

  • December 12th 1969: Pizza Fontana bombing in Milan, Ordine Nuovo: 17 deaths
  • July 22nd 1970: Bombing at train in Gioia Tauro, Ordine Nuovo: 6 fatalities
  • February 21st 1970: Swissair Flight 330 bombing, PFLP: 47 fatalities
  • December 4th 1971: McGurk’s bar bombing, Ulster Volunteer Forces, Belfast: 15 killed
  • October 21st 1971: Police officer killed in Hamburg, Red Army Faction: 1 dead
  • May 11th 1972: Bombing of US Army headquarters at Frankfurt, RAF: 1 fatality
  • May 24th 1972: Bombing of Officers’ Club Heidelberg, RAF, 3 fatalities
  • July 21st 1972: Bloody Friday 22 bombs are detonated in Belfast, IRA: 9 killed
  • September 5th 1972: Munich Olympics massacre, Black September: 17 dead
  • December 17th 1973: Rome airport attack, Black September: 34 fatalities
  • February 4th 1974: M62 coach bombing, IRA: 12 killed
  • May 17th 1974: Dublin and Monaghan bombings, UVF: 34 killed
  • May 28th 1974: Piazza della Loggia bombing in Brescia, Ordine Nuono: 8 dead
  • June 17th 1974: Houses of Parliament bombing in London, IRA
  • August 4th 1974: Italicus Express train bombing, Ordine Nero: 12 fatalities
  • September 8th 1974: Bombing of TWA 841, Abu Nidal Organization: 88 dead
  • September 13th 1974: Cafeteria Rolando bombing, ETA: 13 killed
  • November 21st 1974: Birmingham pubs bombings, IRA: 21 killed
  • April 24th 1975: West Germany Embassy siege in Stockholm, RAF: 4 dead
  • December 2nd-14th 1975: Dutch train hostage action, South Moluccan Republic: 3 dead
  • December 21st-23rd 1975: OPEC siege in Vienna, Carlos the Jackal: 3 dead
  • January 5th 1976, Kingsmill massacre, IRA: 10 killed
  • May 15th 1976: Belfast bombing, UVF: 5 killed
  • Multiple Dates during 1977: Assassinations of Buback, Ponto, and Schleyer, RAF
  • February 17th 1978: Le Mon restaurant bombing in Belfast, IRA: 12 killed
  • March 16th-May 9th1978: Kidnapping-assassination of Aldo Moro, Red Brigades: 6 dead
  • November 14th-19th 1978: Detonation of 50 bombs across Northern Ireland, IRA
  • July 12th 1979: Hotel Corona de Aragon bombing Zaragoza, ETA: 80 dead
  • July 28th 1979: Bombings at Barajas airport and Atocha train station, ETA: 7 dead
  • August 29th 1979: Warrenpoint ambush on British soldiers, IRA: 18 dead
  • April 30th-May 5th: Iranian Embassy Siege in London, DRFLA: 7 dead
  • August 2nd 1980: Bologna train station bombing, Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari: 85 dead
  • September 26th 1980: Oktoberfest bombing in Munich, right-wing radical: 13 dead
  • October 20th 1981: Antwerp synagogue bombing, PLO: 3 dead
  • July 20th 1982: Hyde Park’s and Regent Park’s bombings, IRA: 11 casualties
  • March 29th1982: Paris-Toulouse TGV bombing, Carlos the Jackal: 5 dead
  • August 9th 1982: Attack at restaurant in Paris, Abu Nidal Organization: 6 casualties
  • December 6th 1982: Droppin Well Club bombing, IRA: 17 killed
  • December 17th 1983: Harrods bombing, IRA: 6 killed
  • July 15th1983: Orly Airport attack, Armenian Nationalists: 8 casualties
  • July 27th 1983: Turkish Embassy attack in Lisbon, Armenian Nationalists: 7 dead
  • December 31st 1983: Marseilles-Paris TGV bombing, Carlos the Jackal: 5 casualties
  • October 12th 1984: Brighton hotel bombing, IRA: 5 dead
  • December 23rd 1984: San Benedetto train bombing, Ordine Nero: 17 casualties
  • April 12th 1985: El Descanso restaurant bombing in Madrid, Islamic Jihad: 18 dead
  • December 27th1985: Rome and Vienna airport attacks, Abu Nidal Organization: 23 dead
  • April 5th 1986: West Berlin discotheque bombing, Libyan agents: 3 dead
  • July 14th 1986: Plaza Republica Dominicana bombing in Madrid, ETA: 12 dead
  • June 19th 1987: Hipercor car bomb in Barcelona, ETA: 21 casualties
  • November 8th 1987: Remembrance Day bombing, IRA: 11 killed
  • December 11th 1987: Zaragoza barracks bombing, ETA: 11 fatalities
  • April 14th 1988: U.S.O. Club bombing in Naples, Japanese Red Army: 5 dead
  • July 11th 1988: City of Poros ship attack in Athens, Abu Nidal Organization: 11 killed
  • December 21st 1988: Lockerbie Pan Am Flight 103 bombing, Libyan agents: 270 dead
  • September 22nd 1989: Deal barracks bombing in Kent, IRA: 11 casualties
  • December 8th 1990: Car bomb in Barcelona, ETA: 6 fatalities
  • July 20th 1990: London Stock Exchange attack, IRA
  • May 29th 1991: Car bomb in Barcelona, ETA: 10 fatalities
  • February 6th 1992: Car bomb in Madrid, ETA: 5 dead
  • June 21st 1993: Car bomb in Madrid, ETA: 7 dead
  • February 4th 1993: London tube bombing, IRA
  • October 23rd 1993: Shankill road bombing, IRA: 10 killed

*Sources: Data gathered from the Global Terrorism Database; University of Maryland, and various press reports. Fatalities include killed perpetrators during the incident

If we take both waves, 1969-1993 and 1994-2017, we have a total of 6,888 fatalities. When we compare both cycles we can see that the Neo-Marxist and Nationalist/Separatist does not drop below 75 deaths per year between 1970 and 1994; with at least 12 years with more than 200 people killed per year. The current wave has a first expansionist phase from 1994 until 1999. This contracts until 2004 to later increase again until 2007. From 2007 until 2014 there’s a pronounced declining phase with several years having less than 25 fatalities per year. As stated before, 2011 is an unusual surge because of the Norway attacks. It is in 2014 that IS starts operations in Europe, and even if their actions (planned or inspired) did not amount to more than 25 deaths in total, it should be taken as the beginning of this new expansive phase, which will likely last until 2022-2027 (in light of the duration of previous terrorism cycles). The chart below showcases total deaths per year from terrorism in Europe since 1969 until June 2017. The worst years of the Jihadi wave (2004 and 2015) do not even come close to the worst years of the previous cycle in both the number of fatalities and of incidents.

Now, as mentioned beforehand, the contexts of both waves are very different. The 1969-1993 cycle took place during the second half of the Cold War and has in part been considered both a violent reaction to the “failure” of the 1968 movements and to the State’s brutal suppression of those movements in Western European countries. At least regarding the Neo-Marxist groups such as Red Army Faction (RAF), Action Directe, and Brigate Rosse. Simultaneously, neo-fascist organizations, such as Ordine Nuovo, also responded to 1968, which they viewed as the beginnings of a possible communist-led revolution. Additionally, some nationalist and separatists groups increased their activities during this wave. Organizations like ETA and IRA, almost exclusively operated in a single country; while others, such as the Abu Nidal Organization, the Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Armenian Nationalists, and the South Moluccan Republic, spread their operations across multiple European countries. Lastly, there were also freelance agents that had sympathies for certain ideologies or motives and that rented their “services” in order to execute terrorist actions. Carlos the Jackal is the best example, having acted on demand by Palestinians, Libyans, Soviets, OAS, Iranians, and more.

While some of the motives of all these groups differed, they shared, or at least pretended to share, similar ideological creeds. ETA and the FLP self-identified as left-Marxist groups, in addition to fight for independence of their respective nations. There was also a strong symbiosis between these groups. IRA, ETA, RAF and other groups were able to train and plan attacks undisturbed in Tunisia, Libya, Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon. In exchange, Abu Nidal and FLP could make use of the European Marxist and Nationalist organizations’ networks, contacts, and other resources for actions in Europe. Furthermore, the Eastern Bloc countries provided safe harbor, intelligence, and weapons to all these groups. Therefore, adding Marxism-Leninism to their political manifesto came at great rewards. Cooperation also extended to joint operations such as the attack against NATO bases by ETA, RAF, Abu Nidal, and Action Directe in both Belgium and West Germany[1].

Chart showcasing approximate number of terrorism fatalities in Europe by year.

Sources: Data gathered from the Global Terrorism Database; University of Maryland, and various press reports. Fatalities include perpetrators. Orange color indicates years with less than 25 fatalities. Only EU countries and associated (Norway, Iceland, and Switzerland).
Sources: Data gathered from the Global Terrorism Database; University of Maryland, and various press reports. Fatalities include perpetrators. Orange color indicates years with less than 25 fatalities. Only EU countries and associated (Norway, Iceland, and Switzerland).

The current wave reached Europe’s shores after the end of the Cold War. Jihadi terrorism had already struck Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt in the 80s and was emerging in Algeria after the French backed a military coup d’état in 1992 against FIS’s electoral win in the first multiparty legislative elections in the country’s history. GIA’s, and later Al Qaeda’s, jihad against France, the US and other Western countries were motivated by their interventions in Muslim nations. Their actions were fueled by extreme anti-imperialist ideology. This was exacerbated after the US led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Attacks in Madrid and London were in direct response to Spanish and British support and involvement in the “coalition of the willing”. Their objective was to demoralize those societies and stir support for a democratic change of foreign policy. It worked in Spain (also thanks to the ineptitude of the Partido Popular in handling the Atocha bombing only two days before the general election).

Anti-imperialism was also a recurrent trope during the previous wave. RAF, Action Directe, the Japanese Red Army, Abu Nidal, and the FLP carried operations with the intent of affecting certain countries foreign policy (particularly towards Israel and the Arab world) or to attack American interests in Western Europe in order to weaken NATO’s members’ unity. The US bombing of Vietnam, Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem, the UK’s support of apartheid South Africa or South Rodesia were claimed frequently as motives behind certain actions by those groups. This is probably the only ideological similarity between these two terrorist cycles, though within distinct historical contexts that frame anti-imperialism differently.

The Islamic State’s actions in Europe are a continuation of this trend. However, as said before, there has been a revolutionary innovation: the call made to individuals to commit attacks on their own and to be claimed in the name of IS. The main novelty here is that IS’s objective is to create panic and a strong feeling of insecurity within European societies. True, sophisticated planned attacks of the kind of the London transport system in 2005 or the Paris shooting spree and bombings in 2015 also create fear, but because of their complexity they tend to be rare and their execution is, for the most part, thwarted by security services in their planning stages or right before execution. However, “lone wolf” attacks inspired by IS rhetoric are much more difficult to prevent. Additionally, the notion that they can happen at any given time, and can be executed by the “next door neighbor”, require low tech, and tend to target crowds or people just walking on the streets, intensifies their actual effects. Additionally, media coverage of the incidents tends to suggest whole cities are left reeling in their aftermath (the exaggerated portrayal of London after the recent attacks is a clear example).

Before dealing with the effects of the recent expansive phase of violent incidents in Europe, and in order to review continuities and ruptures, we should compare three aspects of the previous and current terrorist waves: targets, tactics, and, number of casualties. Targeting civilians has been a constant strategy since 1969. Yet, there’s a difference in how indiscriminately certain organizations have acted. Radical-left groups, such as Brigate Rosse and RAF, almost exclusively targeted politicians, and police and military personnel. Only during their large operations, and mainly because of their incompetence, did fatalities include civilians. Separatist or nationalist guerrillas, on the other hand, targeted both civilians and state agents. ETA and IRA prioritized police, political figures, and military personnel but were not shy about bombing bars or supermarkets. The PLO, the Abu Nidal Organization, Armenian nationalists, and others were more prone to select civilian targets, or symbolic-political ones that resulted in high casualties, in order to change France’s, West Germany’s, or Italy’s foreign affairs and their relations with Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, or the United States. Neo-fascist and sectarian groups, such as Ordine Nuovo or the UVF, exclusively hit crowded public places with the aim of inflicting major civilian casualties. Until the 2004 bombing of Atocha, Continental Europe’s deadliest attack was 1980’s Bologna train station incident by neo-fascists, which took 85 lives.

Regarding tactics, organizations during this period relied on two main methods of carrying out attacks: bombings and hijackings. Gunfire was used only when kidnapping heavily guarded individuals or when hijacking planes was the main objective. Improvised explosive devices and car bombs were the exclusive ways of enacting violence in non-hijacking operations. Almost in every case, anonymous calls were made reporting a bomb was hidden at a location, giving time for evacuation, and also claiming and justifying the criminal act.

Lastly, the number of casualties prominently varies across all incidents. Here is where ideology or political motivations play a determinant role. It seems that attaining the largest possible number of fatalities was the main objective when states were sponsoring the terrorist acts (like Lockerbie, which remains the deadliest attack in Europe with 270 casualties), when they were carried by neo-fascist organizations (Bologna in 1980), or when their authors were groups whose armed struggle was driven by nationalist/separatist motives, such as several of the actions by Abu Nidal, Black September, and ETA.