Renewed ISIS Violence in Europe

This briefing is provided by a friend of RZIM.


(This brief uses ‘ISIS’ - Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shams (Syria) - rather than ‘Islamic State’ - DAESH in Arabic - simply because ‘Islamic State’ can be a generic term for a Muslim majority country and so, to avoid confusion, the old name is being used here.)

Key Data

  • In Paris on 16th October a teacher was beheaded on the streets after he lead a class about freedom of expression in which he showed pictures of the famous Charlie Hebdo cartoon of Muhammad.
  • On 29th October, three people were murdered, one of whom was decapitated, in the church of Notre Dame in Nice (Southern France). (SN, 2020)
  • In Vienna, Austria four people have been killed in a gun and knife attack in the city. The assailant, Kujtim Fejzulai (from Macedonia) was shot in the course of the attack.
    • The attacker opened fire in a crowded city centre at a time when many of the restaurants and cafes were at their busiest.
    • The shooting happened near to a synagogue, but it has not been firmly established whether the attacker had Jews specifically as targets. The Synagogue was closed at the time of the attack. (Connelly and Oltermann, 2020)
  • ISIS have claimed responsibility for all of the attacks. Whether they organised them or simply ‘inspired’ them is part of what is being investigated at the moment.
  • Terrorist incidents as a whole (whether jihadi or other groups) fell by 70% in Europe in 2019. (Burke, 2020)
    • According to Interpol (European Police Agency) figures there were 21 jihadist plots in Europe in 2019 as compared to 24 in 2018 and 33 in 2017.
    • Of that 21, 14 were foiled and 4 were carried out.
  • ISIS have been re-establishing themselves in the Levant over the past twelve months to the point where they are now able to launch attacks in both Iraq and Syria.


  • “The enemy, the Islamist terror, wants to split our society, but we will give no space to this hatred. Our enemies are not the members of a religious community, these are terrorists. This is not a fight between Christians and Muslims, or Austrians and migrants, but a fight between civilisation and barbarity.” Sebastian Kurtz, Austrian Chancellor
  • “The fact that the number of [ISIS]-inspired attacks has declined in the EU does not mean that the threat has disappeared. It primarily means that we have got better at detecting and breaking up terrorist plots” Gilles de Kerchove, EU Counter-Terrorist Co-ordinator (Burke, 2020)

ISIS inspired attacks in France and Austria in recent days have reminded a European public focussed on Coronavirus and its financial fallout that the apparently beaten foe was very much alive and kicking. The United Kingdom has recently raised its threat level to ‘Severe’ which means that there is strong evidence of an attack taking place imminently. So, with further attacks expected in Britain and the European mainland in the coming days, the question of timing and significance in relation to these attacks needs to be analysed.

There are several possible reasons why jihadi violence has once again erupted and what the significance of it may be.

The first reason is likely to be pragmatic in the sense that, with borders having been generally closed over much of the past six months, the ability of ISIS to slip fighters into Europe has been far more limited. Consequently, ISIS have needed time to develop homegrown jihadists and equip them. Yet, that cannot take into account the relative lack of jihadi violence in Europe over the past couple of years. A knife attack in Paris in May 2018 had been the last time a significant terrorist incident had taken place in the country before the most recent events. So, whilst Coronavirus and closing of borders had undoubtably been an issue for the terrorists, it cannot have been the decisive factor. Furthermore, the Tunisian who was responsible for the Nice attack had only arrived in France one month before the attack. This is strongly suggestive that ISIS have not been heavily inconvenienced by the closing of borders.

The second possible reason is that ISIS has managed to re-invigorate itself following its loss of territory in the Levant in 2017. As discussed in the brief on Africa, several jihadist groups in West and Central Africa had sworn allegiance to ISIS and had renamed themselves accordingly: ‘Boko Haram’ becoming ‘Islamic State in West Africa’. This gave ISIS new operating centres and sources of strategic manouvering. Similarly, although there has not been a significant territorial push in the Levant, ISIS have been able to take advantage of the fragile situation in Iraq particularly, as well as in Syria, in order to begin to re-build their strength. (Zimmerman, 2020) The attacks ISIS have launched in Iraq’s capital over the past six months are testament to how far they have rebuilt after being territorially defeated in 2018.

This rebuilding in the Levant plays into the third reason for the growth in Jihadi violence: that ISIS are able to command respect once again and that their ‘brand’ carries weight in jihadi circles enabling them to be able to influence those being radicalised into their cause and ideological perspective. The fact that the Austrian attacker, Kujtim Fejzulai is known to have pledge his oath of loyalty (bayat) to ISIS before his attack is testament to ISIS’s ongoing capacity to inspire and mobilise.

The fourth reason relates to Covid-19. Having noted that Coronavirus had not impeded ISIS’s ability to infiltrate fighters into Europe, it seems that the Austrian attack particularly had been timed to occur before a new lockdown came into force at Midnight that night. It is likely therefore that in this instance, the action was governed by immediate circumstance, in this case probably bringing forward an attack that might otherwise have taken longer to plan and have been more deadly. This is strongly suggestive that ISIS has been adept at taking advantage of the opportunities that Coronavirus has brought both in terms of international (and national) attention being focussed elsewhere, but also in thinking through how changes in behaviour might also be used to their advantage. This in itself is further proof of the resilience and strategic capacity within the organisation.

Yet, it should be noted that, other than the Austrian attack which had likely been planned anyway in some form, the two French attacks seem to have been reactive, rather than pre-planned: responding to incidents and seeking to either avenge a perceived insult to Islam or cow people into silence. For, both incidents came in response to either incidents of defiance (the cartoon discussion in school followed by the teacher’s murder) or public displays of support for the beheaded teacher (the killing of the people in the church). There had been protest in a number of Muslim-majority states about the school class cartoon discussion and it might very well be that in mobilising an asset to carry out the responsible teacher’s murder, ISIS were position themselves as those who could take action on behalf of all Muslims.

The attacks recent attacks in Europe are therefore strongly suggestive of ISIS’s continued ability to adapt to circumstances and show resilience. It also shows that they are able to command influence and respect. Further than that, it also signals that the aspirations of ISIS remain attractive to enough Muslims to ensure continued recruitment and deployment.

Burke, Jason (2020) ‘Does Vienna attack signal a new wave of jihadist terrorism?’ The Guardian 3rd November.
Connelly, Kate and Philip Oltermann (2020) ‘Vienna Attack: Arrests made after four killed in “Islamist Terror” shooting’ The Guardian 3rd November.
RC, (2020) ‘The Islamic State: Terrorist Organisation’ Rand Corporation 6th November.
SN, (2020) ‘France: A Timeline of deadly attacks after the latest atrocity’ Sky News 30th October.
Zimmerman, Katherine (2020) ‘ISIS: Resilient on Sixth Anniversary’ 18th June.