European Security is in crisis. Like every crisis, this one not only has a prior history, it has also been in the offing for quite some time. 2008 marked a first peak, after the Bush administration offered the NATO Membership Action Plan to Georgia and Ukraine: Russia demonstrated in the war with Georgia who sets the tone in the former Soviet Union. A similar pattern emerged in 2014 in the Ukrainian crisis, this time with the EU in charge and Russia reacting even more forcefully. Since then, the crisis has escalated with almost unrestrained momentum. Its most recent expression is the termination of the INF Treaty, which carries with it the acute danger of a new (medium-range) missile crisis on the continent.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its intervention in Eastern Ukraine demonstrated not only its unpredictability but also its willingness to violate agreements and use force to alter borders and destabilize countries in its neighborhood. These events not only shocked the West; they also shook Russia’s allies to the core, not least Belarus. Long branded as “Europe’s last dictatorship,” this Eastern European state is considered Russia’s staunchest ally. And indeed, no country is culturally closer or politically, militarily, and economically more integrated with Russia than Belarus.
Since the Ukraine conflict has started in 2014, tensions between Russia and the West have massively increased. The US and the EU have jointly supported Ukrainian territorial integrity by introducing massive sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Crimea and its military aggression against Ukraine in the Donbas; plus, Russia has been expelled from the G8. Russian aggression has also led to NATO’s re-orientation towards territorial defence. Today German officials, who have long pursued the strategy of modernising Russia and integrating it into Western structures, talk about ‘managing an antagonistic relationship’ as the new normal.
Besides the Ukraine conflict, tensions between the West and Russia have also arisen because the latter began to interfere in the domestic political spheres of leading Western democracies. There are three major cases so far: in Germany, the Lisa case in Berlin in January 2016, a Russian disinformation campaign (and before that the hacking of computer systems of the German parliament, in 2015); in the US, the hacking and publishing of documents from the Democratic National Committee during the presidential campaign in July 2016; and in France, financial and other support for Marine Le Pen as well as hacking during the presidential campaign in May 2017.
At approximately 2:40 in the afternoon of March 22nd, British-born Khalid Masood — a violent criminal who had previously been investigated by MI5 for links to extremists — deliberately drove into pedestrians making their way across Westminster Bridge. He killed a mother on her way to collect her children from school, a pensioner, and two tourists. After crashing the rented vehicle into the gates of Parliament, Masood ran into New Palace Yard and stabbed an unarmed policeman to death before being shot and killed by plainclothes officers. In contrast to other recent attacks in Western nations, which have frequently (sometimes incorrectly) been labeled acts of “lone-actor” terrorism, Masood’s assault was followed by a volley of articles with titles such as “Remote-Control Terror,” “Don’t Bet on London Attacker Being a Lone Wolf,” and “The Myth of the ‘Lone Wolf’ Terrorist.” Analysts were keen to point out that “lone-actors” are very rarely truly alone and that instead they tend to emerge from within broader, extremist milieus. Moreover, what sometimes seems like lone-actor terrorism at first glance turns out to be connected to, if not directed by, foreign terrorist organizations. Yet the official word on Masood is that, regardless of his associations, he acted “wholly alone.” To accurately understand the nature of terrorism today, patient, measured analysis and consistent use of terminology are necessary. It is therefore important to re-examine the concept of lone-actor terrorism and to try and appreciate where it fits within the overall spectrum of jihadist terrorist activity in the West.
Many, if not most “lone-actor” jihadists (including Masood), are indeed connected to other extremists and terrorists in some shape or form. Such connections have been greatly facilitated by the growth of social media and encrypted communication applications, which have also enabled the rise of virtual “planners” or “entrepreneurs” and so-called “remote-controlled” or “enabled” attacks, such as those in Würzburg and Ansbach, Germany, in July last year. Moreover, the number of jihadists with bona fide connections to foreign terrorist organizations, including training and combat experience abroad, has risen sharply since the outbreak of conflict in Syria and Iraq. Western security services are currently bracing for a potential surge in the number of returning foreign fighters. » More