Trends of 2020: What increased internet has meant for terrorism in Europe

The European Union, United Kingdom and Switzerland have had an unconventional year for identifying trends in terrorist activity. The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, travel restrictions, and digitization of everyday life have posed difficulties for some terrorist groups and opportunities for others.

A Europol report on terrorism in Europe declared that in 2020, six EU member states experienced a total of 57 completed, foiled, or failed terrorist attacks. Taking the UK into account, the number increases to 119. Upon analysis of their data, Europol revealed that all completed jihadist attacks were committed by individuals supposedly acting alone. Three of the foiled attacks involved multiple actors or small groups. All the attackers in the UK and EU were male and typically aged between 18 and 33, and in only one case in Switzerland was the perpetrator a woman. The same report identifies right-wing extremist trends over the last three years. Findings depict similarities between Islamist terrorists and right-wing terrorists in terms of age and gender. Right-wing terror suspects are increasingly young in age, many of which are still minors at the time of their arrest. Right-wing suspects appear intricately connected to violent transnational organizations on the internet.

COVID-19 lockdown restrictions have vastly increased European citizens’ reliance on the internet for everyday tasks, both professional and recreational. Statista recently released data showing that 91% of EU households had internet access in 2020, reaching an all-time high. But with the increased access and usage of the internet comes the risk of it being used for malicious purposes, specifically for terrorist organizing. The quantity of propaganda produced by official ISIL media outlets reportedly decreased in 2020. Despite this, ISIL continues to use the internet to stay connected to potential attackers who align themselves with the same ideology. These connections have allowed ISIL to call for lone actors to commit terrorist attacks. The data from Europol’s 2020 report confirms that it was lone-actor attacks that comprised most of the “successful” terror attacks in 2020, while attacks planned in a group were typically prevented.

Their right-wing extremist counterparts have developed sophisticated methods of recruitment in the internet age, particularly over the last year. Right-wing terror suspects have developed communication strategies via gaming apps and chat servers typically used by gamers. Presumably to attract a younger demographic, right-wing extremists with links to terror suspects have diversified their internet use to include gaming platforms, messenger services, and social media. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and vaccination programs, the Centre for Countering Digital Hate notes that Discord has been a vital tool for spreading disinformation and conspiracy theories involving racial hatred. In this case, strategies used in online games to reward progression have been translated to serve right-wing propaganda. Thus, points are awarded to the most active members of certain discord servers who can fabricate and promote conspiracy theories, often including antisemitic tropes involving Bill Gates. Virtual currency plays a key role in promoting the narrative of success and reward, and its ability to capture the interest of minors who are active in the virtual space.

Combating terrorist threats in Europe has always been a challenge on account of the sporadic nature of terrorists themselves. While the people behind the attacks may vary in socio-economic upbringing, religious affiliation and nationality, some similarities remain. Based on the commonalities, solutions to tackling internet-based strategies could be introduced. If the EU were to develop a common framework for disrupting and taking down radical groups online, it could find greater success in combating digital extremism. ISIL online networks on Telegram were taken down in November 2019, and they have since struggled to recreate networks to a similar degree.

Gender and age also give some insight for where to begin in diminishing future recruitment to ideology-based terrorism. While internet usage cannot be regulated, education can. Europe may benefit from the cooperation of educational institutions at all level in raising awareness of the dangers of online radicalization. Workshops, information posters, and seminars introducing the intricacies of radicalization would inform vulnerable students on the potential downfalls of internet consumption. This would create a clear understanding of modern conspiracy theories, where they come from and why they exist.

Additionally, understanding the meaning behind extremist imagery, symbols, numbers, phrases, and music (as well as how to report them on the internet) would increase awareness among otherwise distracted students consumed by online trends and activity.

Paired with the awareness commitment, the EU should set a budget meeting the needs of mental health services in schools to introduce spaces in which students may express their concerns. This in turn could curb their vulnerability to online extremist groups looking to recruit.

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