Why do terrorist attacks succeed?

Why do terrorist attacks succeed?

The latest terrorist assault in London is part of the current wave of attacks in Europe that regularly raises the questions on how these incidents might be prevented. Understanding why terrorist attacks succeed is essential in setting up long-term policies aimed at eradicating the Sunni extremist threat.

Since January 2015, Europe has been experiencing a wave of terrorist attacks conducted by radical Islamist militants. Within the last 18 months, 19 major attacks hit Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Russia, Sweden and the United Kingdom. These have so far left more than 335 dead and approximately 1550 injured. Terrorists with direct or indirect ties to the Islamic State have hit media workers, Jewish and Christian personnel, transportation hubs, festivals, touristic spots, police officers and commercial districts. The tactics used in these attacks differ and range from the stabbings and crude car-rammings to shootings and bombings that imply a certain degree of complex planning.

European countries have been responding to the growing and evolving threat posed by the Islamic State by implementing new anti-terror measures and stepping up cooperation in the security field. Within the last 18 months, dozens of attacks have been stopped and several functional Sunni extremist cells have been dismantled. However, Sunni extremist militants along with their supporters continue to generate an elevated threat. The Islamic State has repeatedly used its internet-based propaganda channels to call for attacks in Europe and the threat linked to the group’s ideology is likely to endure in the foreseeable future.

Following every attack, questions such as: “Could it have been prevented?” and “was it an intelligence failure?” are regularly asked. While much has to be done in terms of reforming the way European public officials approach the terrorist threat two key issues may serve as a base to explain why radical Islamists have been able to repeatedly stage successful attacks.

An expanding ideology

The major concern is that the Syrian conflict has served as an impetus for radical Islamists in Europe. Since 2012, Sunni extremist ideologies have increasingly gained ground among specific segments of Muslim populations located in several European urban districts. Islamic State and Al-Qaeda messages have found a growing audience among youth in several Western European countries such as France and Belgium. This radicalisation coupled with a heightened collusion between criminal gangs and Sunni extremist groups results in a vast network of people potentially supporting extremists operating in the region.

It is via this specific social environment that thousands of European citizens have managed to travel to the Middle East to support Sunni extremist groups. Their return to their respective country will generate a major social and security challenge for the years to come. A portion of these returnees is highly likely to use their skills and their charisma to influence youth within their communities and/or plot attacks.

A key evolution of terrorists’ recruitment is also the major role played by the cyber space. Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, militants groups such as the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra have created a virtual propaganda that has unparalleled effects and reaches all sectors of European societies.

A challenging monitoring process

This vast pool of potential supporters of radical Islamist groups creates a major issue for European security and intelligence agencies. The monitoring of suspects and potential threat groups would require checking thousands of highly mobile and technology-savvy persons integrated within their respective communities. Security services facing budgetary and personnel restrictions find it difficult to dedicate the necessary manpower to conduct long-term and necessary controls. Human and signal intelligence permit to disrupt plots that require a degree of coordination and communication. However, more crude plans or more prudent cells may avoid detection thus leading to successful terrorist attacks.

A large amount of targets

A key differentiator separating the current wave of terrorist attacks from the previous ones that Europe experienced is found in the targeting tactics of militants. Terrorists have increasingly been hitting civilian soft targets with the almost exclusive objective of causing mass casualties. This creates a situation in which extremist groups and radicalised individuals have access to a virtually bottomless list of potential targets. This, coupled with the previously mentioned threat monitoring issues, makes it extremely difficult for security forces to fully protect the national territory. The Manchester and Nice attacks have demonstrated that militants may gradually shift their attention to cities beyond state capitals with the objective of creating a generalised feeling of insecurity and further stretching security forces capabilities.

Heavy focus on on-site measures

Recent attacks have proven that it is necessary to step up on-site security measures. The deployment of security guards, police officers and military personnel along with hardened obstacles can substantially diminish the risk of attacks against mass events and key institutional and touristic sites. However, the over-reliance on on-site measures is not sufficient to increase the security forces’ monitoring and detection capabilities. As such, the usage of technology-driven tools such as smart cameras, the expansion of intelligence gathering anti-terrorist raids, the infiltration of radical Islamist networks and a widened control of the cyber-space are key long-term strategic readjustments that should be implemented to disrupt plot prior to their last operational phases.

Public authorities face the pressing task of engaging in a political debate aimed at maximising the optimal usage of available security resources and implementing strategies with the clear objective of battling radical Islamist ideologies, disrupting weapon supply lines and denying the militants’ freedom of movement.

Categories: Europe, Security

About Author

Riccardo Dugulin

Riccardo Dugulin is an analyst at Drum Cussac, a global business risk consultancy. He specializes in supporting international organizations and large corporations operating in emerging markets by providing them with critical risk management intelligence. His regions of expertise are the Near East, the Gulf, North Africa and Continental Europe. He previously worked as project manager for a French medical assistance company. He gained field experience in the Middle East having worked for leading think tanks in Dubai and Beirut. Riccardo holds a Master in International Affairs from the Sciences Po – Paris and a Bachelor in Middle Eastern Studies from the same university. Follow him on Twitter @RiccardoDugulin.


  • Kevin Lyman

    The us is behind all attacks. Tool of war to get others to join the land grab