10th Dec 2023


Europe is still a pretty safe place to be

  • EU figures show that the majority of terrorist attacks is due to separatist and nationalist movements (Photo: digitaledinges)

Every day on my way to work, I get the feeling of being under siege. I walk past armed soldiers standing guard in front of embassies and government buildings; and I see police cars rushing by with blaring sirens.

It's for my own security, I keep telling myself. Because Europe is facing a new threat called "radical Islam". And so I get carried away by the wave of security paranoia currently sweeping through Europe. And the only thing which helps is a strong dose of realism.

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Even in times of global jihadism, the chances of getting killed in a terrorist attack are about as small as drowning in your own bathtub, being killed by lightning or be hit by a falling coconut. Moreover, the threat posed by "radical Islam" itself is grossly exaggerated.

Figures from the European Union's Police Office show that the overwhelming majority of terrorist attacks is due to separatist and nationalist movements, followed by left-wing groups. Only a small number is "religiously motivated".

Between 2006 and 2013, less than one percent of all terrorist attacks in Europe were committed by radical Islamists. And before the assault on Charlie Hebdo in January, only the Madrid train attack in 2004 and the London tube and bus bombings in 2005 caused more than 10 deaths. On top of that, the vast majority of terror attacks worldwide occur outside Europe.

According to the Global Terrorism Index 2014 produced by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) in Maryland, "over 80 percent of the lives lost to terrorist activity in 2013 occurred in only five countries - Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria".

In December 2014 and January 2015, at around the time the attacks on Charlie Hebdo occurred in Paris, almost 400 people were killed in terrorist attacks by the Taliban and Boko Haram in Pakistan and Nigeria alone. And none of the victims was worth a single headline.

Europe has seen by far worse times too. In the 1970s and the 1980s, terrorist organisations such as the Red Brigades in Italy, the Red Army Faction in Germany, the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland or the Basque separatist organisation ETA in Spain wreaked havoc across the continent.

In short, today's Europe is still a pretty safe place to be.

Big Brother

What holds true for "radical Islam" in general also applies to the much discussed phenomenon of "foreign fighters". According to recent estimates, about 3000 citizens from Western countries are currently engaged in armed combat in Syria and Iraq.

Among European countries, France, Britain, Belgium and Germany have the largest number of citizens in the fight. But this, of course, doesn't mean that all of them will return as hardened terrorists – if they return at all.

Many of them will die in armed combat or suicide attacks. Others will never return home, either because they will go on fighting or follow the call of their jihad masters to another conflict zone.

And of those who do return, many will come back disillusioned or traumatised by the daily horrors of the battlefield. They will be in dire need of a psychologist, rather than explosives or a bombing belt. Eventually, only a very slim minority of violent radicals will return to Europe, determined to carry out terrorist attacks. And security services should be able to cope with most of them, either arresting them or disrupting their activities. That's what we can expect. But let's also be frank: we can't stop every lunatic from walking around and shooting at people.

Defending the security of European citizens is of course a legitimate concern. But inventing ever new legislation which is not proportional to the threat posed is not. Or do we, each time someone drowns in his own bathtub, invent new EU bath safety rules?

Similarly, many measures currently under discussion in Europe will do little to make us safer. But they will do much to trample on our civil liberties.

Civil liberties

The proposal for a European "Passenger Name Record", for instance, breaks with the presumption of innocence, a key principle in each and every society based on the rule of law.

Granting police and law enforcement access to the personal data of all passengers flying in and out of Europe, including travel itinerary, bank card details and even meal preferences, places millions of citizens under general suspicion.

Your name is Mohammed, you order your meal halal and your final destination is Istanbul, from where many foreign fighters cross into Syria? Well, then you are pretty sure to arouse suspicion. “Big brother” will be watching you.

Rather than giving citizens a false sense of security with ever more legislation, European politicians should make use of already existing tools and instruments. It goes without saying that security services need to have an eye on the handful of radicals returning from the battlefields in Syria. But it will be even more important to offer psychological counseling to the many disillusioned fighters returning home and help them find their way back into society.

Programmes recently launched in Denmark are a good example of what can be done. But above all, European politicians should be honest.

Radical Islam is not one of the biggest security challenges Europe has ever faced. It is an inflated threat. We've had two world wars. A cold war which turned almost hot. Communism. Right and left-wing terror for decades. And now Russian tanks rolling in Ukraine, right on our doorstep.

Let's think about it for a moment. And take a deep breath.

Steffek Burczymucha is working for the European Institutions and writing for EUobserver under a pen-name. The author's identity is known to the editors.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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