On the 21st and 22nd April 2021, more than 200 experts joined the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) and the Office of the European Union (EU) Counter-Terrorism Coordinator to collect updated information on current terrorist threats in Europe to guide future interventions to fight terrorism. The virtual, expert-level meeting provided a forum to review the recent evolution, and potential emerging trends, of the threat posed by ISIL/Al-Qaida inspired terrorism in Europe against the backdrop of COVID-19.
Over recent years, the terrorist threat in Europe has steadily ranged from moderate to high. In 2019 alone, almost 120 terrorist plots were uncovered across Europe, resulting in more than 1,000 arrests in 19 Member States. And, a number of heinous attacks, including in France, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Germany, Austria and Switzerland were perpetrated throughout 2020. The majority of such acts appear to have been conducted by lone actors rarely involved in bigger, well-established networks. In most cases, the assailants were violent, young men – with limited preparation and easily available weaponry – inspired by ISIL propaganda.
Over the course of two days, expert speakers, from UN entities, INTERPOL, EU institutions, as well as selected national counter-terrorism experts, participated in panel discussions, question and answers sessions, and presentations. The first day of meetings gave an overview of the current terrorist threat, covering topics such as the terrorist profile, the main targets and vulnerabilities, the impact of regular and irregular movements of people, and the implications of COVID-19.
In his opening remarks, Mr. Gilles de Kerchove d'Ousselghem, European Union Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, touched on a broad range of points, which highlighted the current and future challenges of preventing and countering terrorism. Looking to the future, he noted, for example, that, “we should be ready to counter the use of rapidly developing new technologies by terrorists. It is a matter of time, for example, before terrorists will attempt to deploy drones to attack symbolic places or crowded spaces. Terrorists have already used 3D printing to construct firearms.” In response to this threat, he emphasized the need to “equip our intelligence and police officers and border guards with new technologies, such as facial recognition technology and other applications of artificial intelligence, to do their work more effectively where possible.”
The second day of meetings looked at the counter-terror response, providing an opportunity to analyse the newly adopted EU Security Union Strategy 2020-2025 and, notably, the 4-pillar counter-terrorism agenda with measures aimed at “anticipating, preventing, protecting and responding”.
Ms. Antonia De Meo, Director at UNICRI, also reflected on the role that UNICRI plays in the counter-terror response in her first-day opening remarks: “Following the horrific terrorist attacks throughout 2020 in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, UNICRI has redoubled its efforts to prevent and counter all forms of terrorism and violent extremism.” She also elaborated that “UNICRI is closely analysing the threat posed by ISIL and Al-Qaida inspired terrorism in Europe, as well as the worrisome growth of racially and ethnically motivated extremism, and we are responding with myriad specialized initiatives.”
The outcomes of the meeting, coupled with in-depth research, assessment and analysis will result in the publication of a report. A second expert-level meeting, to be held on 23 June 2021, will serve as a platform to present the main results of the report and some recommendations with a view to highlight efficient solutions aimed at tackling identified risks and related challenges.