Vidya Ram

How’s integration working in Europe?

VIDYA RAM | Updated on March 09, 2018

Despite the evidence, there’s hope, especially since organisations are working with local communities to tackle radicalisation

The issue of integration is a topic that has popped up frequently across Europe in the wake of recent terror attacks: some executed by coordinated groups with external backing and support, some the work of so-called lone wolves who have limited connections to organised terror networks. While integration has long been the subject of discussion across the continent, it has risen to prominence in the last couple of years in particular, in light of the spate of recent terror attacks — from Paris in November 2015 to London this March, and Stockholm last week, and warnings that these attacks were unlikely to be the last.

In a report published last November on the changing methods of Islamic State, Europe’s policing agency, Europol, warned that further attacks in the EU were set to continue, perpetrated by lone actors and groups. “The most probable scenario is the use of the same modus operandi, including the same types of weapons, used in earlier attacks. This is because of the ease of production, acquisition and use of such weapons/explosives, and their proven effectiveness,” the report concluded, adding that a weakening of ISIS in Syria and Iraq would likely lead to the return of foreign fighters and their families to the EU and beyond.

While attention has focused on the refugee crisis, the terrorist attacks have also forced introspection about Europe’s own citizens. A report by the European Commission last summer noted that some 4,000 European nationals had joined terrorist organisations in places such as Syria and Iraq and noted that the “majority of terrorist suspects implicated in the recent terrorist atrocities in the EU were European citizens, born and raised in our societies”.

Studied attention

The debate has often focused attention on specific areas or regions: three coordinated bombings at Brussels airport and Maalbeek station in the centre of the city, for example, concentrated international attention on the Molenbeek district of the city, an area of high unemployment and marginalisation, that has come to symbolise the polarisation of sections of European society. Similar attention has been focused on other parts of Europe, such as Angered in Gothenburg which, Swedish police estimate, was home to over a third of Swedish nationals who had chosen to travel abroad to join Islamic extremist forces, and is also a centre of deprivation and violence. (The Uzbek suspect arrested in connection with last week’s attack on Stockholm, so far appears to have no connection to it, though.) The London terror attack focused attention on Birmingham — which has over the years built up an infamously large number of links to terror attacks (there were 39 convicted terrorists from the city between 1998 and 2015).

But the terror attacks have also highlighted other flaws in the system: the Paris attacks of November 2015 and the attacks in Belgium led to analyses of weaknesses in the Belgian system, including a fragmented political system that made a systematic approach to integration and tackling radicalisation tricky, lack of resources for intelligence agencies, and a failure of the free movement of people across borders to be matched by an adequate sharing of intelligence. In France, too, attention has focused on the failure by the government to act on pledges to tackle the ghettoisation of neighbourhoods (in the wake of the 2005 riots), leaving those in marginalised communities open prey to those aiming to radicalise.


The importance of tackling preachers of hate has become increasingly acknowledged across Europe. In Britain two decades of attempting to restrain the efforts of radical preacher Anjem Choudary finally proved successful last year after he was jailed for five-and-a-half years for activities conducted in support of Islamic State.

There is also evidence that religion isn’t always a central motivating factor. “Radicalised persons are not necessarily profound believers,” noted the Europol report. “Jihadists committing terrorist acts in the EU can be described as a particular group of mainly young men who have a criminal past, are or feel discriminated, humiliated and marginalized in society, with some also having mental health issues, who are not strictly practising their Islam religion, but have radicalised in a very short period, either through the intervention of recruiters or on their own, inspired by the narratives published by the so-called Islamist state on the internet,” it noted.

While details of the London attacker, Khalid Masood (born Adrian Elms), are still emerging, indications are he shares some of these characteristics — born into a non-Muslim family and picking up a string of non-terror-related convictions before his subsequent radicalisation.

There is also a danger in broad-brush treatments of areas, cities or communities. The far right’s efforts to gain political momentum following the London terror attack with a demonstration in Birmingham failed to make headway, as images of Saffiyah Khan, a young Muslim woman defiantly smiling down upon her attackers were viewed across the world, highlighting the complexity of the questions surrounding integration.

The challenges

Part of Europe’s challenge to tackling the problem of radicalisation is likely to require ultra-local solutions and organisations working with specific pockets of communities in specific cities. Such efforts are under way in some parts of the continent, but at a time of fiscal restraint, major increases in funding seem unlikely.

At the same, while the recent spate of attacks across Europe may show the fault-lines in society, they also show its strength. Many have argued that it is precisely because integration has worked so well in Europe to date that terrorist organisations need further attacks in Europe to create divisions.

Published on April 14, 2017

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