Events in Brussels and Paris have not cost Europe its innocence. Indeed more people died from terrorism in Europe between 1970-1986 than from 2000-2016.
After the attacks in Brussels and Paris, many are understandably worried about terrorism in Europe. These shocking events have led many observers to bemoan a new normal for Europe, one characterized by unprecedented levels of terrorism. We often have short and selective memories – the media even more so – and as such, often forget to look beyond our narrow frame of reference. The post-9/11 era is not the high-water mark for terrorism in Europe. Put simply, from 1970 to 1986 substantially more people died due to terrorism in Europe, than have since 2000.
The not so good old days
The attacks in Paris and Brussels have rallied international support and sympathy, with many claiming a loss of innocence for the Continent. This is simply not true. In the last 16 years, 642 people have lost their lives to terrorism in Europe (excluding Russia). By way of comparison, the 16 years between 1970 and 1986 saw 1,088 people lose their lives.
This time period played host to: the Troubles, the 1974 IRA bombing of Parliament, the rise of ETA in Spain, the attacks by far-right and far-left groups in Italy, Germany, and Greece, as well as the 1972 Munich Olympic attacks and the 1985 Air India bombing. This was also the Golden Age of aircraft hijackings, saw the rise of PLO and the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO) attacks, and anti-colonial bombings in the Netherlands. Lastly, just a couple years later in 1988, Europe was rocked by the Lockerbie bombing.
While defining and delineating terrorism from other violence is often tricky, this article found that from 1970 to 1986 there were at least 109 successful terrorist attacks in Europe (to say nothing of the far larger number of failures, disrupted plots and pre-emptive arrests).
During this time, the UK, unsurprisingly tops the list, with 41 attacks, carried out by both loyalist forces and the various incarnations of the IRA. Spain and Italy, both saw 13, from secessionists, neo-nazis, radical leftists, and Islamists. France had 10, the Netherlands eight, Ireland seven, and Germany, six. Moreover, Norway, Portugal, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Malta, and Austria all experienced between one and four attacks.
Some may argue that the scale of attacks has increased since 9/11, citing the frequent, but often low casualty attacks of the IRA, ETA, et al. This assertion is also false. Firstly, the frequency of attacks is half the power of terrorism, the sense of the unknown, the hidden, omnipresent menace. Secondly, despite the events in Madrid, London, Paris, and Brussels in the last 16 years, 1970 – 1986 still witnessed more large scale terrorist attacks (defined here as attacks resulting in 20 or more deaths) – nine vs. six from 2000-2016.
Lastly, one may argue that in recent years there has been a large uptick in terrorism-related deaths in Europe. While certainly higher – the 2010-2015 period saw 313 deaths – from 1970-1975, 318 people died. Even after the Madrid and Paris attacks, the two deadliest European terrorist attacks still remain the Air India bombing off the Irish coast (329 dead) and the Lockerbie bombing (254 dead). Indeed six of the top ten deadliest attacks from 1967 onwards happened before 1989. The Brussels attack (34 dead) does not even break the top ten, sharing 11th place with the 1973 PLO bombing in Italy, and the 1974 bombing by Ulster loyalists in Ireland.
1970-1986: The zenith of homegrown terrorism
1970-1986 saw a highly diversified wave of terrorism; both in locations and perpetrators. The attacks during the Troubles are well known, but during the aforementioned period, many countries in Europe suffered from homegrown terrorism.
For instance Italy suffered from 13 terrorist attacks from 1970-1986. Alongside two plane bombs in 1973, Italy witnessed two attacks by the Ordine Nuovo – a far-right group, (the same group also killed another 16 in an attack in December 1969) killing 20 people; and an attack by the far-left Red Brigade killing two, in 1974 alone. In 1975 the far-right group National Guard also carried out an attack. In 1978 the Red Brigade killed former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro and five guards. The Red brigades went on to launch two more attacks in 1981, killing two.
The most drastic attack, one which still remains the fourth deadliest since 1967, was carried out by the far-right Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari, who killed 85 in the 1980 Bologna massacre. Lastly, Italy also suffered from two attacks by the ANO in 1982 and 1985.
During this period the Netherlands saw the Japanese Red Army hostage crisis, an attack from the Arab Revolutionary Council, and six attacks by the Free South Moluccan Youths seeking to reestablish independence from Indonesia. During the same time Spain suffered from eleven attacks by ETA, another attack by neo-fascists in 1977, an attack by the fascist Grupos Armados Españoles in 1980, and an attack by Islamic Jihad in 1985.
Germany saw the deaths from the 1972 Munich Olympics, attacks by the Red Army Faction, an attack by neo-nazi Military Sport Group Hoffman killing 13 in 1980, and another by Libyan agents in 1986, among others. That is just the tip of the iceberg: throw in the various ANO attacks in Austria, the UK, France, Malta, and Belgium, as well as Hezbollah attacks in France, Denmark, and Greece. Who now remembers the eight attacks by the Charles Martel Group in France, the Armenian Revolutionary Army in Portugal killing seven, or the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) attack in Greece, Belgium and three attacks in France?
Lastly, alongside Air India, 1970-1986 also saw: the 1970 PFLP bombing of Swissair Flight 330 in Zurich (47 dead), 1972 Yugoslavian Airlines Flight 364 bombing by neo-Nazi Ustasa (27 dead), two 1974 PLO plane bombs in Italy (38 dead) and the 1985 ANO hijacking in Malta (58 dead). Add to this the dozens of hijacking attempts, and the Dawson’s Field hijackings and the trend is clear.
From 1987 to 1999 only forty terrorist attacks occurred in Europe, largely due to far-left November 17th Organization in Greece, the Troubles, neo-Nazi attacks in Scandinavia and Austria, and GIA attacks in France during the Algerian civil war.
Post 9/11 Europe and the fixation on Islamism
Despite all that has happened, separatists (followed by the far-right and far left) still dominate the list of terrorist attacks
From 2000-2016 there were 132 terrorist attacks in Europe. This may initially appear to run counter to the thesis of this article, yet the vast majority of these attacks resulted in either no or less than three fatalities. Indeed, while 2000 holds the record the most terrorist attacks in a year – 38 – only 11 resulted in fatalities, largely due to ETA’s habit of sending warning calls. Indeed, ETA has committed 66 attacks in Spain and France since 2000, almost half of all the attacks for this period; yet Europe continued on as usual.
In the last 16 years, there have been more attacks by far-right and far-left groups – to say nothing of separatists – than Islamists.
Yet for some reason Islamist terrorism holds media and public attention. The scale of attacks is certainly one factor, but Brevik’s attacks in 2011 remains the third deadliest since 2000 – indeed 109 people were killed by terrorism in Europe in 2011, none by Islamists. Seven European countries experienced terrorist attacks before the 2004 Madrid bombings; all by non-Islamists: a further eleven states went on to experience non-Islamist terrorist attacks after 2005.
Other attacks by separatists and other non-Islamist dissidents did not even register in the international media. Fourteen people died in a bombing in Minsk, and three from neo-Nazis in Italy in 2011. The second deadliest attack in 2015, was not Charlie Hebdo in France, but Macedonia, where 22 people were killed by the National Liberation Army (UKC); an Albanian secessionist group.
Fewer people have died since 2000 from terrorism in Europe than during 1970-1986. Such cold calculus should not be construed as indifference, but rather a vital counterpoint to the collective, media driven, forgetfulness we suffer from: cold numbers are sometimes needed to temper our hot, emotive responses to the threat of terrorism. Historical literacy remains one of the most potent weapons in countering fear.