Attacks in Western Europe

Research note originally commissioned November 2015

Attacks in Western Europe have drawn renewed attention to those using Islamist ideology to justify acts of mass violence against civilian populations. Attempts have been made, by studying the backgrounds of the attackers, to find common factors linking them in an effort to develop means of prevention and detection. However, there seem to be few common factors. Moreover, there seems to be little community context for these attacks. The growing image is that these are young, angry men looking for an excuse to commit violent acts and the ideology of ISIS and similar groups provides such a means, as well as a sense of belonging. Their Muslim identity makes this transition easier but they are rarely devout.

In the wake of these attacks, one main concern for governments and security services will be to increase intelligence gathering structures to prevent future attacks. However, these must be approached with caution, as unrefined targeting of particular communities, which can be perceived as harassment, can play into the narrative of ‘us and them’ peddled by groups such as ISIS. Prisons are a notable site of radicalization and schemes to debunk ISIS ideology within prisons could be helpful, however these must also be seen to be organic and not compromised by association with the state.


In light of recent attacks, most notably in Paris, but also in Denmark and the United Kingdom among others, renewed attention has been brought to the presence of radicalized individuals in Western Europe. Attempts have been made to understand the processes behind their radicalization and to look at factors connecting them.

There seem to be few factors, socio-economic or other, linking the perpetrators of recent attacks. In France, rural areas provide just as many recruits as urban areas proportionally, debunking the image of the troubled inner city youth. Indeed, Department 93, the notorious Seine Saint Denis, with its high migrant population, provides proportionally fewer than the national average. Moreover, these individuals appear to not have radicalized through, nor received support in radicalizing from, their communities. These make it harder to ascertain a pattern and thus predict, although at the same time, the lack of community support is reassuring. The picture that emerges is of self-radicalizing individuals, who are disaffected and feel removed from society. They often have backgrounds of violence unconnected to any religious motivation, such as with gangs. They are also rarely devout, often ‘re-discovering’ their religion as part of their radicalization and not exploring it in much depth.

Converts also make up a significant proportion of those carrying out such attacks. This suggests that the attackers are not uniquely the victims of the racism and disenfranchisement faced by Muslim communities in Western European countries.


The pattern that emerges is of young men who feel “a discrepancy between their expectations and their social outcome [and] a need for recognition, in a word a narcissist crisis”, according to a report by the German Federal Investigation Office, which concludes that debunking the narrative of ISIS is key to preventing such attacks. Moreover, the ISIS and general radical ideology provides a sense of purpose and belonging that may otherwise be lacking. The perpetrators can feel part of a global brotherhood.


Another area identified as a common factor is perpetrators of attacks having spent time in jail. Prisons in Western Europe are seen as potential breeding grounds for radicalization. Efforts have been made to insert Imams into prisons to act as counter-radicalizing influences. However, there are concerns that these Imams are seen as too closely aligned to the state, thus making them appear ‘compromised’ according to the radical narrative. The proposed solution to this is simply to have Imams tend to religious needs, without giving them a particular agenda, and, ideally, their normalcy will set a quiet example.

Fears have been raised, especially since the Paris attacks, that increasingly invasive monitoring of Muslim communities will feed into the narrative of targeted oppression that informs the ISIS ideology. The Canadian government has recently introduced the Anti-Terrorism Act 2015, known as Bill C51, much to the dismay of those working with communities to tackle radicalization, claiming that the measures provided for under the new legislation will only play into the ‘us and them’ narrative.


The main concern for governments and security services after such attacks is naturally to seek to improve their intelligence gathering abilities. Doing so without making entire communities feel uncomfortable is crucial. At the same time, combining increased intelligence with other initiatives to debunk ISIS’ ideology with an as organic as possible means will be key to preventing these attacks at the source. By looking at the backgrounds of the young men who carried out these attacks, we find little discernible pattern between them. Importantly, their wider communities did not have a key role in their radicalization and indeed almost uniformly express shock and sadness at their actions.


  • There seems to be little discernible pattern linking the backgrounds of the perpetrators of these attacks that could help in early identification and prevention


  • Wider community seems not to play a significant role, at least in the case of the recent French attackers and in Canada, a factor which is reassuring but must also be taken into account when developing security policy


  • Converts to Islam also make up a significant portion of attackers, detracting from the narrative that anger at  discrimination is a key motivator


  • Prisons are a key site for radicalization and anti-radicalization efforts could be conducted there, however, care must be taken to not compromise these by association with the state


  • Increasing the effectiveness of intellgence gathering will be a key concern for governments however, care must be taken not to appear to be harassing particular communities as this can play into the narrative of ‘us and them’




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