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Is Europe's war on Islamist terror running out of terrorists?

UK can still find plenty, but the rest seem to be losing interest

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The terror threat to Europe - Islamist or otherwise - may not be all it's cracked up to be, statistics published by Europol this week indicate. Europol, a criminal intelligence support service for European law enforcement agencies, maintains that the Islamist terror threat remains high despite a 22 per cent drop in arrest numbers, but as was the case with last year's report, very few actual incidents of, or attempts at, Islamist terror attacks were reported.

Overall in 2007 there were 48 per cent more terrorism arrests - a total of 1,044 - than in 2006. The 'Europe-wide' terror threat however seems - if it's measured by police activity - to be largely illusory, because there are really only three countries playing. France, Spain and the UK led in arrest numbers, with 409, 261 and 203 respectively. These three account for most of arrest total, and the numbers submitted by other states are at a level where it's difficult to draw any valid conclusions from them. For example, Portugal had the fourth largest arrest number at 32, but 31 of these were associated with a single right wing group and the sole example of a right wing terror attack in Europe in 2007. This is reported as being the vandalisation of a Jewish cemetery in September 2007.

Actual and attempted attacks were also largely confined to a small number of countries. Spain and France led with 264 and 253 separatist-related attacks respectively, while Germany came third with 15. Germany? Yes, but the separatists in question were Kurdish extremists mounting attacks on Turkish interests in Germany. The majority of the attacks in France and Spain were arson attacks, i.e. fairly low level and causing few casualties. There were four Islamist attacks in total, and two of these were in the UK. These however were the flaming muppet attacks in London and Glasgow, which you could reasonably class as the same incident.

We can draw several conclusions. First, as far as the numbers are concerned, Europe's war on terror is largely a French and Spanish matter, related to crackdowns on Basque and Corsican groups. Here, the number of arrests appears to reflect the number of incidents - evidence that there's a struggle, if not a full-scale war, going on. France, incidentally, was the major influence on the overall drop in Islamist terrorism arrests, with its numbers down 35 per cent from 2006.

The figures for the UK, the third of the major drivers of the Europol stats, don't match the French and Spanish pattern. The UK doesn't break down the figures it submits to Europol into categories (which is odd, given that such figures are submitted to Lord Carlile for his reviews of terrorism legislation), but the "vast majority" of its 203 arrests related to Islamist terrorism. There were two (or possibly just the one, see above) Islamist attempts, while numbers weren't submitted for any other categories. The UK's 203 (mainly) Islamist arrests were double those in France, four times those in Spain, and almost ten times those in Italy. No other country made it into double figures, and the other two Islamist terror attempts took place in Denmark and Germany (nine and three arrests respectively).

The UK is therefore arresting an awful lot of people while experiencing a very small number of incidents, and the large number of arrests (half of the European total for Islamist terror) causes massive distortion in the European statistics.

There's a chicken and egg discussion associated with these lopsided (compared with the French and Spanish figures) numbers. Is it the case, as UK law enforcement would have us believe, that the small number of incidents is accounted for by the success of the security services in nipping plots in the bud at an early stage (hence resulting in large numbers of arrests)? Is the UK more alert to the threat than anybody else? Is the UK massively more threatened than anybody else? Or is it the case that the large numbers of arrests are a consequence of wildly overestimating the size of the threat?

The fact that most of the plots uncovered so far have been incompetently planned and substantially incomplete at time of arrest suggests the latter. One or two glaring exceptions however provide some justification for the security services' readiness to mount pre-emptive strikes. The Europol data, meanwhile, isn't yet adequate to cover recent changes to UK law, and a likely higher arrest rate for possession of material likely to be of use to terrorists. If that's the case, it should show up in next year's Europol report. The data in Lord Carlile's reports, however, does tend to indicate that sympathy, propaganda and possession loom large in UK Islamist terror arrest numbers. (Full Europol report available here) ®

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